By C.A. Haines
When I vacation, I stay close to the coasts; if I go inland, I limit travel to major cities, ones with a nice mix of colors, like my hometown, Philadelphia. No Dakotas, no farm country, nothing too white. But when I work, quite the opposite – put me where the white people are – because that’s the kind of crazy town I need to make a living.
At the tabloid where I freelance, my editor accuses me of being a self-hating, reverse racist. He’s wrong. I like white people. My best friend is white. I don’t judge. Even he admits to being shocked by some of the stories we find – loved ones locked in basements, Juggalos, school shootings; it’s all white people.
On Friday afternoon, after I post my story about the white “kids for cash” judge living the lux life, I hit the Ritz Carlton for a drink. I wear my consignment shop finds: a summer-weight, cream and black tweed Chanel suit-dress, Gucci bag, Prada flats. I don a brown page boy wig;
I’m there to blend-in and observe. A crowded happy hour is a Petri dish for my line of work; people have to talk louder than they intend, alcohol encourages them to say more than they should, and at the Ritz, those people are white, rich and powerful. With forty-foot walls of marble, Doric columns, scores of circular sofas in butter-soft suede, the Ritz morphs architecture and art into the spectacular. I sit at the centerpiece underlit bar – the place takes my breath away every time.
The bartender knows me and pours me a Jameson on the rocks. I sip, scan the crowd then spy a middle-age Deputy Commissioner tete-a-tete with his admin. They’re making googly eyes at each other over martinis, and I snap a photo with my lapel camera. It’s not a story – it’s a save for later, when the deputy part of the title drops or the sexual harassment suit does.
At a nearby round top, a Big Pharma CEO holds court with his toadies, who, like a pack of puppies, bounce on their tiptoes for a pat on the head. His PR pieces brag about his love of mentoring, but it’s all about the adulation and place-putting. “Seriously Marty, you’ve never been to Bali?” He reveals no market secrets, and my reconnaissance continues.
The concierge escorts four men and two women to a reserved table on a platform isolated from the crowd. The chairs, four across the back and one on each end, allow them to view the entire bar from on high. My bootleg facial recognition software identifies them: Ralph Mellon and his sister Pippa, Jon Koch, Stefan Mars, Harry Weston and Courtney Johnson of the SC Johnsons. Promising. What brings these billionaires to our fair city? I reach into my bag and angle my tiny unidirectional microphone toward them. My earpiece is wonky – no problem, the mic records everything to my phone; I can listen more closely to their conversations later. Courtney seems new to the group, because Harry introduces her to the others.
A selfie over my shoulder gets me a group shot. They are all wearing a pin, goldish – a double left parentheses. Hmm. They chat, drink, nibble on appetizers, and leave, and I follow. Five limos wait outside in a no parking zone; one is an Uber Black, shared by Harry and Courtney. I “trip” near the Uber limo and sneak a GPS tracker on the bumper, then hurry in the June heat to my Toyota parked blocks away.
I track the limo procession out of the city to a winding wooded road that dead ends at a massive Gladwyne estate. I pull up the address on-line; it’s a French Norman spread complete with manor house, courtyards, and housing for the help. Pretty snazzy secret club house. I consider using a drone I carry in my trunk to get eyes-on, but it’s dark and as I ponder what to do, two security guards in a golf carts approach. I put on a pair of cat’s-eye glasses, lie that I’m lost and trying to get to Bryn Mawr, and they send me on my way. It’s cool. I have work to do.
At home, I pull the deets on the six. None of them work for their money; they collect rich man’s welfare – they inherit. They travel, attend parties, but little else. Okay, they all “direct” donor-managed funds, charities where they park their money to earn interest and avoid taxes, but that doesn’t count. I imagine, for a minute, a world where no one inherits wealth. If everyone had to make it on their own, would society be more cooperative or more competitive? I can make a case either way.
I re-focus and listen to the conversations my mic picked up at the Ritz. They greet each other using the phrase, “I hear good things.” Weird. They discuss St. Tropez and Monaco, but it’s polite fluff until it gets real. “Courtney, dear, it’s meant to be. Look down, these people here, the elite of the city – they would have to work collectively more than one hundred years to earn what any one of us have; have you ever asked yourself why? It’s simple, really. God wants us to be wealthy. If He didn’t, we wouldn’t be; it’s why we owe it to Him to protect that wealth. The mission we have is, in a sense, ordained not unlike a divine right.” Jackpot.
“Protecting our wealth is something we all do anyway, well, our people do. But with these crazy times – protests, pandemics, regulations, unions, the Gangrench strategy we put in place goes the extra mile.”
“I don’t know what that means.”
“The 26 smallest states have only 22% of the population, but 52% of the Senators. We bought up the media outlets in those states so we can control the message. “They’re out to get you” rallies public opinion quite well. That message gets us the key election result we want – control of the Senate, which means we can limit the actions of the House and the Executive branch and shape the judiciary. It’s why Uncle Sam cuts healthcare and education and gives us tax cuts.”
“Okay, I get how keeping common folk weak and dumb protects us, but this mission, it sounds like work.”
“No, that’s why we have staff. Look at PC – the ultimate inheritor. People actually get mad when he does do anything.”
“We’re merely reorganizing a role that we already perform. We’ll talk more, but bottom line, we have one opening left, and we think you are perfect. If you take the oath tonight, you’ll get your pin. The clock is ticking. It may only be a matter of weeks.”
“What about the design of the pin – PC’s not insulted?”
“He’s an inheritor; we’re inheritors. We can joke – we have a special…unspoken connection with him.”
“Can I add some diamonds? It’s rather plain.”
“Absolutely not! The pin honors PC; any alteration would be an insult. The design is intentional – the shape is obvious. The platinum reflects our rarity and strength. Only six were made, and the mold destroyed. These, my dear, will be handed down through the ages.”
Woo-boy. As I write up my notes, I keep my eye on the GPS tracker. Before midnight, the Uber Black is on its way back to the city. I wait at the Ritz. When the limos arrive, I use my binoculars and see Courtney wearing the pin; she’s in the club. As the hotel’s staff coddle the limos’ occupants into the building, I follow the Uber to the Walnut Street garage. I climb through the levels to a reserved parking area, where the driver dons gloves and assembles a tray of cleaning supplies. As he opens a passenger door, I introduce myself and explain that I’m researching a story and ask if he overheard anything on the drive. “I don’t listen and wouldn’t repeat anything if I did.”
“Did they tip you?”
“No, but they booked me through the first week of July, and I need this gig.” I hand him my card in case he changes his mind.
He hesitates. “On the sidewalk, after they exited the car, they discussed posting on twitter. You may find what you are looking for there.”
Back home, I am on a mission to find any of the six on twitter, but they have common names so thousands of possibilities result. I check the public calendars to discern what could be happening in the coming weeks, but there’s nothing out of the ordinary. I need to sleep on it. At three o’clock in the morning, I wake, dash to the computer, and type into twitter various combinations of #Iheargoodthings, and IHGT does the trick. I spy a three-month old tweet from M55_PippaM: “IHGT. Fellow Inheritors, this is happening.” Only five people follow M55_PippaM, and all use the M55 in their handles and have names matching the attendees from last night.
In the morning I assemble the chronology of their tweets:
“IHGT. Fellow inheritors, reminder to keep coms here – no cell phones. See latest speech. PC talking right to us.”
“IHGT. Check his website. PC says we’re deeply invested in each other’s futures.”
“IHGT. 2020 kickstarting a decade of action! FYI, PC’s “green recovery” is code for wealth.”
“IHGT. Per PC, what good is wealth, if you can do nothing with it. Love it!”
“IHGT. Changing Paris pact reestablishes 6 territories. Need a 6th – everything must be in place. PC insists we shape the world we want.”
“IHGT. I have a name.”
“IHGT. Meet Harry’s nominee the 17th at Ritz/Phila. Seal the deal in Gladwyne, dry-run the main event there following Tues. Time is short!”
“IHGT. Welcome Courtney.”
“IHGT. Am honored. Thank you.”
So many questions. Who is PC? What does PC want? Why the double parenthesis pin? Why M55? What is the big event? At least, I know the when and where. If I can evade security at the estate, I can use my drone to drop some mics and snap photographs, but I have no idea what to expect.
Three days is too long for me to sit idle. Courtney is the newest member, which means she likely knows the least about any secrecy protocols. She proves me correct with her day’s itinerary on Facebook. She is lunching at the Lavender Inn, and I plan to cross paths with her there. I fashion a double parenthesis pin by cutting a gold-plated heart pendant in two. In the spirit of cloak and dagger, I sport a blond French braid, a severe skirt suit, Ray-Bans, and my pin then drive to the restaurant. Using my binoculars from the parking lot, I see her seated alone in the Garden room. I enter the building, stride to her table, stand before her at attention, and say, “I hear good things. PC sends his regards. PC is pleased.”
She stares. “That’s not a real pin. It barely looks like an ear – it’s way too small.” An ear?
“I am only a messenger. If you have anything you need to relay to PC…”
“Shouldn’t you curtsy?”
“Of course.” What the …?
“Promises have been made that this is only formalizing our titles and implementing protocols to give us our due. Nothing more.”
I curtsy. “You are correct.” She dismisses me.
On Tuesday afternoon, the drone relays video of the preparations at the estate for the dry-run. Five-foot gnomes with giant ears are placed strategically around the main patio. A main table is set with silver, china, and crystal. On the lower level patio, seven cloth-covered tables sit adjacent to a buffet table. I drop mics near the gnomes, park the drone on a rooftop and wait.
I hear the help. “The guest of honor – make sure you don’t look him in the eye. It’s a thing.”
“I heard. I’m glad we’re only serving him dinner. Do you know he only eats hard-boiled eggs in the afternoon?”
“How would you even plate that? Stab it with a fork and serve it like a lollipop?” Laughter.
“We’re doing the rack of lamb over mushroom risotto, right? It’s his favorite.”
I google rack over risotto. Jesus, I know who PC is, but nothing makes sense.
The limos arrive. I can’t hear the conversation until they are on the patio, then it all runs together. “Love the gnomes.” “Everything looks lovely.” “I’m rarely ever here, but however many hours it takes the staff to polish the silver, is so worth it.” “The Gutenberg will be open to Matthew 5:5, but do we want it in the lobby so he sees it when he walks in or the patio’s ante room closer to where we’ll dine?” “I’m not meek.” “Courtney, meek has different meanings – righteous, patient under suffering.” “The lower level tables will be for the mercenaries – our little show of strength.” “How will the mercs dress – camos, tuxes, suits of armor?” Titters. “I’m thinking tight, straining, white shirts like an Abercrombie ad?” “Nice.” “You think the mercs will see action?” “No, the masses innately want to prostrate themselves. They bought off on trickle down, didn’t they?” “I’ll be bringing the 1783 Treaty of Paris that our people pulled from the National Archives. I’ve already annotated the changes. We’ll all sign the addendum, and he’ll sign after dinner.” “I have a surprise. I had the artist who made our pins design headpieces for each of us.” “Let’s try them on!” “Can anyone anticipate any hiccups?” “No. We’ll take our cue from him. If PC doesn’t say certain things, it will be his way of telling us to postpone.” “July 4th would be so apropos.” “Agree.” “What happens next?” “Once he rescinds Article 1, our PR folks will run with it – publicize which state is aligned to which of our fiefdoms, how people will be expected to address us, etc.”
What is with these people? Something passed down in the slave-owning, colonial genes, some desperate need to stand out in a sea of whiteness, a supreme confidence having been large and in charge for so long that they believe they can do no wrong? I joystick the drone to swoop in and photograph the six in their crowns and tiaras.
Hours later, I forward my copy to my editor. “Six American billionaires steal national treasure and plot to return the United States to Great Britain and rule as Lords and Ladies based on coded messages from Prince Charles. His Royal Highness not available for comment.”
My boss loves it – laughs so hard I think he might actually roll on the floor. Later, he tells me the paper’s owner, a billionaire nicknamed Big E, wants to meet – a first for me. I’m nervous.
At the penthouse, his secretary escorts me into his office, places his glass of hot tea on his massive desk, and reminds him that his chopper leaves at six for his embassy dinner. Big E, a white jowly man, ignores mes and bangs on his laptop. My eyes wander. An original Kadinsky hangs on the wall behind him. A photo on his bookshelf shows him wearing a ushanka shaking hands with Vladimir Putin in Moscow’s Red Square. A glass-topped pedestal features a Faberge egg. But it’s the view from the floor to ceiling windows, showing the city stretched out below that captivates and intimidates me – we’re literally on top of the world. No wonder the super-rich get God complexes. When he finally notices me, I introduce myself.
“A pleasure. You’ve got a helluva story. No wonder the country is going to hell in a handbasket. Talk about betting on the wrong horse. Prince Charley? What imbeciles! You have to give me exclusive rights. What’ll it cost?” Concerned about catch and kill, I play hardball, name an outrageous dollar sum and insist on immediate publication. “Not a problem,” he says, and I mentally exhale.
At home, I splurge on takeout, and after dinner, I pull up the on-line edition of our rag. My story is the lead, but I notice a paragraph missing and call my editor.
“The lawyers say we met your terms. Big E felt the Gangrench strategy stuff was too in-the-weeds for our readers.”
It wouldn’t hurt our readers to get in the weeds when their democracy is at stake, but a flush bank account and a signed NDA keep me quiet. My story gets air on the nightly news, cheers to me, but buried in the business update is this tidbit: Big E bought up all of the media outlets previously owned by the PC Six. He can control the message in those markets now. All hail Big E.