Copyright© 2011 by Lazlo Zalezac
After leaving for home from work early that evening, Tom Farmer pulled onto the exit ramp. The radio was playing a CD of his favorite opera. His little commuter car wasn't much to look at, but it had a very good stereo system installed in it. Tom had a singing voice that sounded a lot like a cat in heat, but he sang along anyway.
Unlike a lot of commuters, Tom truly enjoyed the ride to and from his business. As the owner of a business, he didn't have a moment of peace during the day. There was always some crisis demanding his attention. At home, there were always little errands to perform. His wife was a firm believer in the "Honey Do" list. All she had to do was purr, and he'd be doing!
The thirty-minute drive to and from work was his time. There were no interruptions, no demands on his time, and no problems to solve. He could have carpooled, but he didn't want to give up that little slice of freedom.
He turned right onto the main road at the end of the exit ramp knowing that he was now six minutes from home unless he got caught in bad sequence of traffic lights. Traffic that evening was light compared to the usual. That meant he'd get home a little quicker than on most days. It was kind of strange to think that he regretted good traffic.
Tom launched into another portion of the opera. With mouth wide open, he waved his right hand in an artistic manner. He wasn't concerned with how other people might view him. Other drivers, who noticed him, looked at him like he was a crazy man despite the fact that their heads might be bouncing in time with the music playing in their own car.
At the third light, he turned onto the road that would take him into the middle class neighborhood where his home was located. He was two minutes from home, and there were four minutes left to the opera. He considered taking an extra spin around the block in order to hear the rest of it, but chose not to do that. His wife was waiting for him at home, and he hated to disappoint her. They were having a guest that evening, and he was pretty sure that his wife would have something that had to be done before the guest arrived.
The house was located at the end of a little cul de sac. It wasn't a very big house, just a three-bedroom ranch. It was on a lot that was just a little bigger than the rest of the lots in the housing development. It happened to be on the end of a circle, and was given a slightly larger proportion of the circle. That had been planned by the original architect of the development, a man by the name of George Wood.
He pulled into the driveway, taking note of the strange car parked in front of the house. He frowned. His guest had arrived early. He knew his wife could deal with the guest in a very gracious manner, but he had wanted to be there to greet the young man. He parked the car in the garage and then headed into the house.
Silvia greeted him at the door with a kiss. He couldn't believe his good fortune in having her for a wife. Every time he looked at her, he was overwhelmed by her beauty. In his opinion, she was one of the top ten beauties in the world. He wasn't the only one to think so. Even magazines dealing with the rich and famous had declared her one of the most beautiful women in the world. That was twenty years ago, a few years before they had married.
"Carl Wagner is waiting for you in the dining room," Silvia said.
"I saw his car," Tom said.
"Should I lock up, now?"
"Please. Let Mr. Strong know that we are not to be disturbed."
"It'll take me a couple of minutes," Silvia said.
Tom went into the dining room. Carl shot out of his chair and faced Tom. He was there to arrange funding for his business idea, and wanted to make a very good impression. Perhaps it was a sign of an overly developed ego, but at twenty-four he was trying to start his own company. Seeking funding at that age was like trying to push a boulder with a feather. He couldn't get into most places. His father had sent him to a banker and the banker had sent him to Mr. Thomas Farmer.
Extending a hand, Tom said, "Hello, Carl."
"Hello, Mr. Farmer," Carl said while shaking hands.
"Call me, Tom."
Tom knew that it was a hopeless cause to get the young man to address him informally. He could see that Carl was nervous about the reason that had brought him there.
"Have a seat, Carl."
Carl sat down while Tom took a seat across the table from him. There was a long uneasy silence while Tom studied the young man. He was handsome, and probably had women throwing themselves at him. He carried himself with a degree of confidence that was rare among men his age. All in all, Tom was impressed.
Tom said, "I read your resume. I see that you graduated from the Cura Private School."
"Are you familiar with it?" Carl asked surprised to be asked about his early education.
Most people had never heard of the Cura Private School. It was a boarding school that provided a very advanced education for a small set of students. Students had to learn five languages, mathematics through calculus, business classes, philosophy, and sciences including physics, chemistry, and biology. It was a demanding curriculum. Carl hadn't realized that it was different than what most people experienced until he had gone to a public college. He had been dismayed by the lack of education of his fellow students.
"I graduated from there," Tom said with a smile.
"I didn't know that," Carl said.
"You went on to Texas A&M," Tom said.
"You graduated Magna Cum Laude."
"I wouldn't have expected less from a graduate of the Cura Private School. Your initial education was very demanding. I'm sure that college was breeze after that."
"I don't want to boast, but I was surprised by how easy college was. I had expected it to be a lot more difficult."
"Having been through the Cura Private School myself, I know that you're not boasting."
Tom said, "I read your prospectus."
"What did you think of it?" Carl asked nervously.
"You want to start a gourmet pickle company," Tom said.
Tom asked, "What do you know of your family history?"
"Not much," Carl answered wondering why he was asked the question.
Years spent in boarding school with summers spent working internships did not give a young person that much insight into family life. That's not to say that he had been ignored by his parents. Four times a year he was given a week off from school to spend with his family. Local internships allowed him to live at home during the summer. That was in addition to holidays and frequent visits at the school. His parents would drop everything to spend his time off with him. They were quite expressive with hugs and kisses.
Silvia stuck her head in the dining room.
"The house is in lockdown."
"Thank you, Dear."
Rising from his seat, Tom went over to the wall.
Turning to Carl, he said, "You are a descendant of a family with a long and rich history. The Wagners have always been in the transportation industry."
"I know. My father owns a trucking company. My grandfather owns a taxi company in Chicago," Carl said.
"I know your father. We went to school together," Tom said.
"I was not aware of that," Carl said.
Tom said, "Wagners do not go into the food industry."
"Why not?" Carl said.
"That's business of the Bauers."
"I don't understand," Carl said.
Tom said, "It's simple. In order to get the money from me to start your pickle company, you're going to have to change your name."
"Are you crazy?" Carl said rising out of his chair.
He had never heard of anything so bizarre. He couldn't imagine that qualifying for a loan would require him to change his name.
Tom said, "Have you discussed your plans at all with your father?"
"Not really. I told him that I intended to start my own business, but I didn't tell him what kind of business," Carl said.
"I mean, call him now. Tell him about your plans and that I insist you have to change your name if I'm to help you start your company," Tom said.
"My Dad would blow his gasket if I were to change my name. He's very proud of being a Wagner," Carl said.
Tom chuckled. "Please do as I ask. Call him. Tell him that you want to begin a gourmet pickle company."
Carl called his father. After a few minutes of discussion, Carl closed his cell phone. Stunned, he stared at it.
"What does your Dad say?"
"My Dad says that I should change my name to Carl Plante."
"That's a good name. I was going to suggest that you go with Carl Palmer, but we haven't had a Plante join the family in a long time," Tom said.
"I don't understand," Carl said bewildered by his father's acceptance of changing his name.
"Before I can explain further, I must have your word that you'll never reveal what we are about to discuss."
"Please state it explicitly."
"I give you my word that I will never reveal what we are about to discuss."
"Excellent," Tom said with a grin.
Tom pressed on the wall. There was a click and the wall opened. Carl stared at the doorway wondering what was going on here. He had expected a little business meeting, not demands to change his name and secret doors.
Gesturing to the door, Tom said, "It is time for you to learn a little history."
Carl followed Tom down the stairs. When they reached the bottom, he looked around the room. He was very disappointed. Considering the hidden stairway, it was like any other basement he had been in. There was a washer and dryer stuck in corner. A water heater was set against the wall. The only odd thing about the basement was that there was a secret door with two hidden staircases behind it.
Carl followed Tom to one end of the room. Tom reached up and pressed another button. A door opened that led to a long passageway. There were rooms off to the sides.
"One of the requirements to be a member of the 'Pfand X', is that your house has to have a safe room, and an emergency exit."
"The 'Pfand X'? What's that?" Carl asked thinking it was odd to be using a German word meaning 'pledge' as the name for a group.
"Pfand is the German word for 'pledge'. The 'Pfand X' is a group of ten families who, in 1643, pledged to cooperate for their mutual survival. You and I are descendants of that original group," Tom said.
"No. I have studied your genealogy. There is a direct family line from Adolf Wagner as well as the daughter of Siegfried Bauer. Actually, all ten family lines are in your genealogy."
"Ten family lines?"
"Yes. The families of the 'Pfand X'."
"You're talking about a pledge that was made in 1643?"
"What's that got to do with getting a loan from you and having to change my name?"
"We have kept that pledge, to this very day," Tom said.
"That's over three hundred and fifty years," Carl said incredulous.
"If you want to start a gourmet pickle company, you'll have to become a member of the Bauer family line. We are spread across four continents. We control over two hundred companies with close to five hundred billion in annual sales."
"I can't believe this. I've never heard of this syndicate," Carl said.
Tom said, "The reason you've never heard of it, is because it is a secret that has been kept since 1643."
"No one can keep something like this secret for that many years."
There was a well-known saying: 'two people can keep a secret, only if one of them is dead.' Keeping something secret for that long was impossible. A secret syndicate? Carl didn't believe it.
"We have! And we'll keep it secret for another four hundred years, or for as long as necessary."
"What does this have to do with me? Why does my starting a pickle company require me to change my name?"
"You aren't just changing your name. You are joining the Bauer family. The Bauer family line is in charge of agriculture. Any business that is affiliated with the 'Pfand X', which has anything to do with the production, processing, or sale of food, is run by a member of the Bauer family. That's in the 'Pfand X' charter.
"The Wagner family line is in charge of transportation. The Schmied family line is in charge of industrial equipment and manufacturing of metal parts. The Goldstein family line is in charge of banking. The other families have their separate business emphases.
"The 'Pfand X' is a pledge for the families to support each other. As a member of the Bauer family line, you will have the support of all ten families. You will also be required to support the other families.
"Just to give you an idea of what this kind of support means, your company will only require half of the start up capital you identified in your prospectus. If you need trucking, equipment, or a loan; you'll be able to call upon a member of that family line, and get it at a great discount. You'll have a competitive advantage over every other pickle company."
"I can't imagine that."
"There is one thing to keep in mind. You won't be able to compete against any of the other members of the Bauer family line. This means that you can't expand your product line into olives since there is already a family member who runs an olive company."
"This is incredible," Carl said backing away.
He had never heard of anything like this. He really wanted to talk to his father and get his take on this subject. There was just one problem, it sounded as though his father was part of it.
"We are into nearly every aspect of the agricultural business. From the basics of meats, vegetables, diary, grains, and oils, all of the way to instant and microwavable food. You name it, we've got a finger in it. Your pickle company proposal made me realize that there are still product lines for us to expand into."
Tom smiled. "Just think of it. For eighteen generations, parents have helped their children start businesses. Members of the family have helped groom heirs to their business empires. If another older member of the family had been in the pickle business, we would have offered you a position with that company, with the understanding that you would take it over. The elder would have helped you introduce the new pickle product or even spin off a subsidiary. It would have been a cooperative effort rather than a competition."
Stunned by the implications, Carl echoed, "eighteen generations."
"I must warn you that not all of our children are invited to continue on with the 'Pfand X'. We only invite those who we believe are capable of upholding the 'Pfand'. We lose about a quarter of each generation. There are some who fall into drugs, gambling, or just aren't smart enough. We take care of them, but we don't include them in the 'Pfand X'."
"My parents are members?"
"Your father was born a member of the Wagner family line. Your mother is a member of the Damenstern family line. She ran her own business until she retired. It was only after she retired that she took your father's last name," Tom said.
"The Damen ... who?"
"The Damenstern family line. It started with Helga Damenstern who ran a brothel. It has since expanded into the entertainment and music industry. About a third of the members of that family have remained in the sex industry," Tom said.
Carl frowned on hearing the bit about family members being in the sex industry.
"You're saying that my mother was in the Damenstern family."
"Yes. She ran a rather successful escort service in the capitol," Tom said.
Carl glared at Tom. "Are you saying that my mother was an escort?"
"I don't believe it."
"Call her," Tom said.
Carl pulled out his cell phone and made the call to his mother. After a few minutes of conversation, he hung up the phone.
"I can't believe it," Carl said dismayed by what his mother had told him. "My mother was a whore."
"Don't talk about your mother that way," Tom rebuked sharply.
"She was our eyes and ears into Washington politics. We knew everything that was going on in that town, because of your mother. She probably helped the families make a billion dollars. Your mother is a very respected woman within the 'Pfand X'," Tom said.
Tom said, "Actually, your mother and my wife are cousins. They went through the Cura Private School together. My wife was a very well paid entertainer of men in Paris. She gave us inside information about several meetings of OPEC. I personally made almost fifty million dollars on the basis of information that she provided."
"Your wife doesn't look at all like my mother."
Tom said, "Well, my wife has a more racially diverse background than your mother. That's common among the members of the Damenstern family line. You know ... an occupational hazard. My wife has Asian, Hispanic, Black, Middle Eastern, Indian, and Caucasian ancestry. Your mother has Asian, Middle Eastern, and Caucasian in hers. They are both very exotic looking women, but in quite different ways."
"It doesn't bother you what your wife used to do?" Carl asked.
"Not at all. Why should it?"
"She was an escort..."
"Your high school girlfriend was Jennifer Damen," Tom said.
"How did you know?"
"I understand you still carry a lot of feelings for her."
Carl said, "She's retiring as an escort. She's starting her own escort service."
"I don't believe you."
"She's been working in New York. Her customer base has been Wall Street. We get more insider tips from her than anyone else. You'd be well advised to renew your friendship with her. She's a gorgeous young woman," Tom said.
"Isn't that illegal?" Carl asked.
"Prostitution ... insider trading..."
"Our pledge to assist each other is above King and country."
"I'm a proud American."
"So am I, but one thing that we've learned over eighteen generations is that Kings come and go and that countries change. The only thing that has lasted is the 'Pfand X'.
"The Damenstern family has been in the sex trade for nineteen generations. There have been times when it was legal and times when it was illegal, but prostitution has always existed regardless of its legal status. Damenstern women have slept with Kings and got paid for doing it.
"Jennifer Damen is a Damenstern woman and is proudly carrying on a tradition that was started with Helga Damenstern."
Carl stared at Tom. To learn that his high school sweetheart was an escort dismayed him. He didn't know what to think of it.
"Your roommate was Ed Mann? He's got an adult toy business."
"Ed? Geeky Ed is in the sex industry?"
"Yes. He's a member of the Damenstern family. Mann is one of the modern Damenstern names," Tom said.
"I guess I should have guessed he would end up in the sex industry," Carl said. "Although I always figured he'd be in the high tech world."
"His toys are quite high tech," Tom said. "You should visit him sometime. I'm sure he'd be more than happy to give you some samples of his products."
Tom realized they had been standing around talking. There were things Carl had to see.
He said, "Come with me."