CHAPTER ONE - FAMILY BUSINESS
Nick Fairfax had a choice: do what his father wanted and join the business of making wealth over the corpses of other companies or pursue his own artistic dream of being a photographer.
If he chose option one, his father and two older brothers, already in the family business of corporate raiding, would lavish him with praise and money. But if he chose option two, he would be cut off entirely and not only from financial support, but even from their paltry emotional support, too. The money that had taken him through three years of college would have to be paid back – with interest like Dad always threatened – and Nick would have nowhere to call home as he wouldn’t be welcome back at the family house.
But I’m going to do it anyway. Poor, homeless and an orphan here I come!
Nick slipped into the rotating doors of Fairfax International’s lobby. His reflection in the glass gazed back at him. Blond hair, high cheekbones, wide blue eyes and a slightly fey look as if he wasn’t quite seeing what was before him looked back at him. He blinked and tried to make his expression firm and certain, but it seems useless.
His father’s business only took up two floors of the entire black, steel skyscraper, but their name was on the building because of the amount of money that Fairfax made and the prestige that went with it.
Money we’ve made from buying and then picking apart other people’s businesses.
But Nick felt a frission of guilt from the judgment. As his father had pointed out many times, he had enjoyed the fruits of his father and older brothers’ raiding.
But that stops now.
Nick was going to make it on his own. He had already scrapped together enough loans, grants and a work-study to get through his last year of school. He even had a paying gig taking photos for his friend Jade Lessiter’s E-Bay business. She would scour every estate sale, pawnshop and garage sale for antique clothes, jewelry or whatever else had value. He would photograph her purchases in the most attractive way possible. She claimed that his photos caused her to sell twice as much if not more. She gave him a percentage of her sales.
Shooting for her was fun and profitable, but his true twin passions were ruins and nature. He lovingly photographed any ruins he found, the more overgrown and remote the better. He would make up stories in his head about the people who must have lived there. His ultimate desire was to travel all over the world and record the past with his camera. But he wasn’t naïve enough to think anyone would necessarily pay his way for that. He would have to get the money himself and convince people of the beauty and value of his work by showing it to them after he had created it.
Or I’ll have those photographs for myself if no one else appreciates them. Either way it’s in my soul. I have to do this.
Nick’s footsteps echoed loudly as he walked through the cold chrome and marble lobby to the elevator bank. His father and brothers’ offices were on the forty-sixth floor. He nodded in passing to the security guard named Erin who nodded back in recognition.
Nick adjusted his grip on the duffle bag that was slung over his right shoulder. Inside were a week's worth of clothes and his prized Nikon D7100. He was already planning on staying at Jade’s apartment that night and getting the rest of his stuff from the family home after he had found a place of his own. But he couldn’t leave the duffle with his motorcycle so he had to carry the bag with him. The duffle alone would key his dad into his decision before Nick said a word.
Dad’s going to be so pissed. He really thinks that withholding money and love is going to make me heel to his every command. He’s going to find out that I’m the one thing he can’t buy.
The elevator’s doors whooshed open with a cool hiss of air. As he was visiting his father at nine at night to tell him of his decision to continue with his photography, Nick was alone in the car as he pressed the sleek silver button for the forty-sixth floor. The elevator doors whispered shut behind him and rocketed him upwards.
As each successive floor was lit up on the elevator panel, Nick drew his worn leather jacket tighter around his slender frame. His hands were slick with sweat and there was the bitter metallic taste of fear on the back of his tongue. He knew he was making the right decision for himself.
And for Dad, Jake and Steven! I’d never be any good to them in the business. I couldn’t bear to do what they do!
As corporate raiders, they took over various companies when they were at their weakest. Then they loaded the companies up with debt then bailed out. Leaving pensions unfulfilled and workers suddenly without jobs.
Vulture capitalists. That’s what we are.
The elevator slowed as floors forty-four and then forty-five were highlighted. Finally, it stopped altogether on forty-six. There was only the slightest shudder before the doors opened and the sterile black-tile reception area of Fairfax International was revealed.
Now or never.
Nick stepped out of the elevator. The lights were dimmed to save energy during the evening hours. The office felt like it was sleeping. Sarah Westwood wasn’t manning the reception desk with her perfectly coifed hair, red-lacquered nails and frosty smile. She had automatically known what his father and brothers hadn’t: he was going to be an artist and, unless he struck it big somehow, he would never be making anywhere near the type of money that the corporate raiders, financiers, and attorneys who floated through this office made. He was, therefore, uninteresting even if he were the youngest son of the owner.
Nick passed by the glass and chrome receptionist desk and padded into the hallway beyond. This hallway led to his father and brothers’ offices. His father had the largest office on the right. It was the ultimate corner office with floor to ceiling windows facing towards the glittering downtown of Winter Haven. Jake, aged twenty-eight, was a near clone of their father with his shark-like smiles and ultra tailored suits in dark blues and blacks like bruises. He had the office next to their father’s. Steven, aged twenty-five, had an office the farthest away from the hubbub of his father’s space, but Nick sensed he liked it that way. Steven’s passion was numbers and statistics. He was more at home reading a balance sheet than most people were reading a restaurant’s menu.
Nick wasn’t surprised that all three offices had their lights on despite the fact that it was a Friday night in June when the air was warm and sweet and the bars and restaurants were filled with the rich and beautiful people of Winter Haven, eating and laughing. His family lived purely for business and from their whispered, almost incomprehensible conversations since he had returned home from college last weekend, Nick had picked up that they were in the middle of some big deal.
Something to do with a company – or maybe a person – called Bane.
Nick could tell from the sounds of their voices that all three of his family members were in his father’s office. His stomach clenched a little as he realized his father would force him to make his decision known in front of his brothers. He could already hear Jake’s sneer that Nick wouldn’t last a week without their money. Steven would push his wire-rimmed glasses up to the top of his nose and tell him the costs of living on his own in Winter Haven, the likelihood of him making any money from his photography and so on and so forth. Part of Nick was tempted to sneak away then, to put off telling his father altogether. But he had to get it over with.
As he neared his father’s office, he realized that there was something off in the way everyone sounded. He frowned. He had never noticed that shrill tone in Steven’s voice before. Jake sounded like he was near pleading. His father’s voice, too, which normally was so authoritative that if he said the sky was red, people would have to think twice to remember it was blue, had a note of disbelief in it. Nick couldn’t yet make out any of the words yet.
Maybe I shouldn’t go in there. Something is clearly wrong. It’s got to be business related. There’s nothing else that would make all three of them this on edge.
But just as Nick had that thought he stepped into the warm pool of light that spilled out of his father’s office and into the hallway. Nick actually froze in place as he took in the scene.
His father was standing up, leaning against the front of his desk as if for support. Jake was to their father’s right. His blood red tie, the one he always wore when they were going to close a deal – or make a killing – was half undone as if he had tugged at it out of anxiety. Steven was to their father’s left. He was staring down at a tablet in his hands as if he couldn’t believe whatever he was seeing on the screen.
Then there was the fourth man. Nick guessed it was a man from the size of him, because he was actually wearing a cape with a hood. Even for Winter Haven, which had its share of eccentrics, this was unusual. He was a big man though. His shoulders were huge and he stood over six feet tall. He was standing by the windows, back to Nick, looking out at the glittering city of Winter Haven. There was something in his stance that had the air of command. Nick shivered.
Who is he? And is he the cause of my family’s unease?
Just as Nick was about to back-peddle out of the room, certain now that he was interrupting a business, meeting, his father’s head lifted and he looked directly at Nick. His father was a robust man of fifty-eight. He still had a thick head of blond hair so light it was almost platinum. He had a handsome face even if his jaw was a little too square giving him the appearance of crunching rocks between his molars. He swaggered rather than walked. His expression was normally one of conquest as if all would fall before the force of his personality or the dollars in his wallet. But now, he seemed shrunken and gray. His suit was rumpled. Lines creased his face that Nick would have sworn hadn’t been there this morning.
A prickle of unease went through the young man. What’s going on here?
“Nick,” his father said, his usually booming voice was just a whisper now. Cracked, dry, and pale as paper.
Jake looked over at Nick then and threw his arms into the air. “Fuck, Nick, what are you doing here?”
Steven had let the tablet fall to his side. His pale blue eyes scanned Nick then lingered on his bag. “I believe he’s here to bid us adieu. As it so happens, he has the right idea though not the right cause.”
The cloaked man’s reaction to Nick’s being there was to stiffen slightly. But he did not turn around. Instead, Nick realized that he was watching Nick’s reflection in the glass. The hood of the cloak mostly obscured the man’s face so other than a powerful jaw and sensual mouth, Nick couldn’t see much more that that.
Nick stepped into the office. “What’s going on here?”
“What’s going on here? What’s going on here? We’re fucking ruined is what’s going on here!” Jake’s voice rose up into almost a shriek.
“Normally Jake's hyperbole would cause me to correct him,” Steven said, his voice more robotic than usual. “But Jake is correct. We are ruined.”
“What?” Nick breathed. His gaze darted from one man to the next until he focused on the cloaked man. He knew that whatever had happened here, he was clearly the one behind it.
His father pushed off of his desk. His legs seemed to totter underneath him for a moment. Nick dropped his bag and hurried over to him, steadying his father with an arm around him waist. He led his father over to the sitting area in the corner. His father practically collapsed on the black leather sofa, nearly dragging Nick down with him.
“Thank you, Nick. I – I feel a little unwell,” his father breathed. His skin was still so gray and there was a sheen of sweat on his upper lip.
“Dad, what is going on? Who is that guy?” Nick asked the last very softly as he tipped his head towards the cloaked figure.
His father went grayer. He rubbed the back of one hand over his mouth as his gaze flickered over to the cloaked figure. He opened his mouth and shut it several times, but nothing came out. Nick’s unease grew greater and greater.
“Fuck, fuck, fuck, this can’t be happening!” Jake paced. His hands worked convulsively at his sides. The whites of his eyes were showing.
Steven took off his glasses and polished them with a linen handkerchief from his pocket. “It is happening.”
“What is happening?” Nick straightened up. He knew that his father and brothers wouldn’t come to the point so he approached the cloaked man. He stalked over to him, hands on hips, anger flashing in his eyes. “Who are you?”
“My name is Bane,” the figure said. His voice was low and smoky. Under other circumstances it would have skated over Nick’s spine and left a pleasurable tingle. But not this time. His family was in pain and Bane was the cause.
Bane? That’s who they’ve been talking about this whole week. A deal gone wrong?
“What have you done?” Nick asked, his voice going soft and deadly.
The cloaked man’s shoulders began to shake. At first, Nick thought he was having a fit, but then the gales of laughter broke out. Rich and velvet laughter that caused his father to hold his head in his hands and his brothers to shrink down. Anger suddenly burned in Nick’s belly.
“What the hell is so funny? I don’t see anything funny!” Nick snapped. He was tempted to grab the man and spin him around. Though Nick was probably three-fourths Bane's size, he wasn’t afraid of a fight.
The laughter subsided to chuckles. The cloaked man shrugged the cloak more firmly around his large form. “Forgive me. I can see that you truly do not understand the irony of your question.”
“Your family attempted to take over my business. They failed,” Bane answered simply.
“It was a trap,” Jake added. “A damned dirty trap.”
“Yes, it was,” Bane agreed. “But you did not have to take it. You could have acted honorably. Instead, you let greed lead you. And now … you have nothing.”
Jake dropped down onto his haunches and wrapped his hands behind his head. “You were waiting for us.”
“He’s taken our company over, Nick,” Steven explained dryly, but his hands were trembling as he continued to clean his glasses.
“It’s all gone,” their father whispered. “We put all we had into acquiring Bane's company and … we were acquired instead.”
Nick blinked. “I don’t understand.”
“I own Fairfax International,” Bane said simply. “More than that … your family has overextended itself. They are broke.”
“We’re not broke!” Nick scoffed. “We have other investments--”
“No, we do not. I should say that our investments have gone terribly south. We invested in real estate,” Steven said. “We were running in the red for some time.”
Nick couldn’t quite believe this. He hadn’t noticed things being leaner at home. In fact, they had seemed more luxurious than ever before. A new car for Jake. A fabulously expensive new sound system in the house for Steven. His father had indulged in his wine collection extensively that past year.
“What about the house?” Nick asked. Their house in Winter Haven was worth at least a few million. That might not seem a lot to his family or to Winter Haven residents, which was ridiculous in his mind, but it would make them incredibly wealthy to the rest of the world.
“Mortgaged to the hilt,” Jake said with a mirthless laugh. “The bank owns it.”
“What about your accounts?” Nick struggled to find something that his family had left.
“A few hundred dollars at most,” Steven answered.
“We’re done, Nick,” their father said.
The words seemed to sink like stones into a still pond. Silence fell for long moments. Nick didn’t pretend to understand how it had happened, but he realized with a sick lurch that it wasn’t just him who was poor. His father and brothers were, too.
“It’s much worse than that,” Bane suddenly said, breaking the silence with his smooth as molasses voice. “I intend to make sure that your family will never prosper again.”
“What? Why?” Nick knew his expression was taut with shock and dislike. He could see his reflection in the glass just as Bane could since he continued to face away from all of them as if they were not worthy of his notice.
“I’ve watched your family's business. For years. Vultures circling around and around. No mercy. No compassion. Just pick, pick, pick. Until all there is left is bones bleached under the sun. The more workers displaced the better,” Bane said. “Haven’t you, yourself, seen them celebrating their accomplishments? Over rare beef and wine? Like lions over a kill. Except that they are bottom feeders.”
Nick swallowed shallowly. He had see that. It had disgusted him. But to have a stranger state it so bluntly had his back up. “Save your judgment! I don’t want to hear it!”
“Of course, you don’t! You are a spoilt, beautiful boy! You don’t want to know what has funded your fun and free lifestyle! Who cares at what cost it has come?” Bane nearly spat.
Nick reared back as if he had been physically slapped. “You don’t know me! You don’t know anything!”
“Don’t I? It seems to me that who and what you are is written in that pretty face and body,” Bane taunted.
Nick spun away from Bane. His heart was thundering in his chest. His anger spurted adrenaline in his veins. He wasn’t sure what he would do to Bane if the other man continued to speak to him in this way. He kneeled down in front of his father. That arrogant yet boisterous man seemed so small and insignificant now.
“Dad, it’ll be okay. It can’t be as bad as it seems!” Nick clutched his father’s broad hands in his own. He could feel the rough hair on the back of his father’s hands. His father was trembling.
“It won’t be,” Bane said and his voice seemed to suck all the oxygen out of the room.
Nick scowled. “Talking about wanting to lord it over people, why the hell don’t you leave? You don’t have to stay here! You can go!”
His father clutched Nick’s hands. “No, Nick, no. Just – just be respectful.”
“Dad, don’t you see what he’s doing? Hear what he’s saying?” Nick cried.
His father’s shoulders curled inwards. “It doesn’t matter.”
“It matters!” Nick yelled. His voice seemed to echo. No one apparently agreed with him.
“Still hoping for mercy, Charles? Still hoping that things can be turned around?” Bane asked, using Nick’s father’s first name.
“Is there any way?” his father’s voice was hoarse.
“Dad!” Nick gasped. To him, asking for something from Bane was like asking the Devil for a favor. He’d just as soon laugh in their faces as assist. And there would always be a price.
Bane slowly turned around. His cloak swirled around his long legs, revealing a well-cut dark suit underneath the thick, black material. Nick found himself looking immediately up to Bane’s face. This time instead of just the slice of jaw and mouth, Nick saw far more. The hood fell back for just a moment. Bane had dark hair that fell in waves to his shoulders, striking Siberian blue eyes, a noble nose, as well as expressive full lips and a strong jaw. But that perfect beauty was horribly marred. The right half of his face had the imprint of what almost looked like a hand print burned into his flesh. Puckered skin, reddened and coarse marked that terrible injury.
What happened to him? It looks horrible and painful!
Bane noticed Nick’s gaze and he stiffened. For one moment, shame coursed through those liquid blue eyes. It felt like just the two of them caught in that moment like insects in amber. Bane shuddered, but then anger took over and subsumed any other feeling he had. A mocking anger.
“What would you do, Charles, to save yourself?” Bane murmured as if talking to only himself.
“He won’t do anything!” Nick cried.
“Let your father answer,” Bane hissed. He pointed a gloved finger at his father’s chest.
“Dad has nothing to say!”
But then his father lifted one hand and Nick found his heart tumbling into his feet even before his father spoke. Bane’s lush mouth curled into a smile as if anticipating success.
“What – what are you offering? There’s always an offer, isn’t there? We’re businessmen after all,” his father said with a strained smile.
Nick’s hands dropped down onto his knees. He felt numb as soon as his father said those words. His father had just failed a test that he didn’t know he was taking until now.
“An offer?” Bane tapped his chin.
Jake rose up on shaky legs. “Yeah, what are you offering? You want something to give us a chance again?”
Bane’s blue eyes narrowed. They were locked on Nick. The young man felt a trill of deep unease run through him as if he were in the sights of a gun.
“It is logical that you would want something. Mere censure could not possibly be your goal,” Steven said, always logical.
Nick felt like they had once more stepped into another trap. But his family kept forging ahead as if they didn’t see it or didn’t care.
Which is worse?
“Yes, I suppose you would think of that. An offer. A bargain. Something – anything – to keep going. For you know I intend to destroy you. You’ll never get work anywhere. You’ll be out on the street,” Bane purred.
“You can’t do that! You don’t control everyone and everything!” Nick scoffed.
“Oh, but I do. You see your family has made a lot of enemies. A lot of people looking forward to their fall. One word from me and they will close any doors that might have just cracked open," Bane chuckled.
Nick burned with anger and hate even as he had to acknowledge what Bane said. His lithe body shook. His family had earned the enmity of many people as Bane had said. Bane was using his family's weakness against itself. He saw how the cloaked man was playing them, but none of the rest of them did.
They’re desperate. They’re in shock. They’re fooling themselves.
But a part of himself knew that maybe this wasn’t the whole explanation for why his brothers and father were willing to believe Bane.
“He’s not going to help us!” Nick yelled as a last ditch effort.
But they were not listening. They didn’t even look at him.
“What are you asking for?” His father rose up from the leather sofa.
Bane’s expressive mouth widened into a toothy smile. “I will make you a deal.”
“What is it?” Jake asked.
“Yes, what do you want?” Steven chimed in.
“We’ll do whatever you ask,” his father gasped.
Bane’s gaze swung to Nick again. A cruel smile crossed his beautiful yet marred face. “I want your son. I want Nick.”