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14. Alive That Time
Cullen Computing, now a public company whose stock was traded on the New York exchange, had become a place full of market watchers. By eight each morning, a blackboard over the main bulletin board carried the previous day’s closing price, but that didn’t prevent the new stock jockeys from checking the listings in the Times or the Wall Street Journal anyway. “I was curious about what the low was,” said Janelle, when I found her long red nails clutching the closely printed pages as she searched for CuCpS. After the initial offering of $14 a share, we were now, two months later, trading at eighteen and an eighth. Howell was pretty jolly, and Jean was cheerfully obsessed. As we expected, Jean would stand in for her mother on the board, and vote the family’s controlling interest.
Jean came home from her first board meeting greatly excited. “The money’s just rolling in! Howell came in with a lot of good ideas about what to do with it, too.”
“Lots of new R and D?” I asked.
“Some, but other things too. One option Howell said he was interested in was acquiring a game company.”
“Yeah, computer games. There are several little companies in California that produce computer games, and make a healthy profit. Howell thinks with our marketing, we could make even more.”
“I’m skeptical. Our market is very different. I can’t think of any of my customers who would have any interest in games, or selling games retail.”
“Well, maybe we need some new customers.”
“Maybe so.” In my opinion, we needed to catch up with the competition in our own specialties. Perry and John and a lot of the programmers knew about games, since they played them for fun. But the marketing side would be very weak.
Jean was interested, nevertheless, and was determined to find out more. One positive consequence was that she was more interested in the details of my work than she had ever been before. We had long talks about the business. Jean’s questions forced me to sort out my own information and assumptions, and occasionally gave me ideas. Our discussions kept open lines of communication that had recently had gaps and static. Jean expressed pleasure that I was as current about the business as I was, so I felt I regained some of the ground I lost over the delay at the SEC. For some time after the offering and before the stock rose and the money started to come in, Jean had taken Howell’s line that I should have paid more attention to the documents and caught the omissions, and that I didn’t care enough. The truth is, I didn’t care at any deep level. But I played the part.
After Jean had asked lots of questions, she began to make suggestions. Although some of these showed her ignorance, and led to explanations and more questions, some were very good. Her fresh perspective occasionally would lead her to make a point that made perfect sense, but had been ignored by the company culture and the assumptions it embodied. I took her ideas and questions very seriously.
“Tell me about Wizardware,” she said one evening over after-dinner coffee.
“Is that the name of the game company?”
“Yes. Hadn’t you heard?”
“My department is sales, not acquisitions. Maybe you should tell me.”
“Howell says he’s bringing the owner to town next week for negotiations. We’ll all meet him.”
“If I’m going to be involved in selling his stuff, I guess I’d better. Maybe Howell hasn’t wanted to distract me until the deal is more definite. I’ve been real busy on this new hospital package.”
Jean looked smug. “I understand that their game called ‘Dragonbreath’ is very popular.”
“So that’s Wizardware. I’ve heard Perry Fein talk about how his kid is hooked on it. I think Perry sneaks a game or two himself.”
“Bonnie wants to have us for dinner when he comes. Next Thursday–put it down.” She sipped her coffee. “I wonder what the owner is like–probably very Hollywood. I think I’ll wear that new silk job I got at Nieman’s.”
“You’ll look great.”
We stood in front of Howell’s door, Jean in her classy blue silk dress, heels, matching bag, and me in a suit instead of the blazer I started out in. Bonnie, in an elegant hostess gown and full warpaint, let us in, giving a hint of rolled eyeballs. Howell, in one of his newer Italian suits, introduced us to Tom Backscheider, owner and CEO of Wizardware. He was not yet thirty, wore Birkenstocks on bare feet, well-broken-in jeans, a Spiderman t-shirt, a fuzzy blond beard and a shoulder-length ponytail. He gave me a hip handshake and a broad, eye-squinting smile that I have to describe as sweet. I liked him immediately.
Bonnie served margaritas to us and club soda to Tom, at his request. “I don’t do any of that anymore,” he said, “not even grass.” Without anyone on the Cullen side being so gauche as to bring up business so early in the evening, Tom went on to volunteer that he had been looking for the right deal for some time. “I’m real tired of management, and I’m no good at it. I want to get back to hacking. I can’t keep track of paper, but I’m sure the last accountant we had ripped us off. I’m looking for a deal where I can get somebody else to manage and market while I keep some creative control. Money’s not the main worry–I’ve got my house, my hot tub, my Porsche, my Steinway–”
“Piano?” I couldn’t help interrupting.
“Yeah. I like to warm up on Bach before I hack. You play?”
Bonnie said, “I thought you’d be more of a rock fan.”
“I am. I dig the Dead and the Stones and a few others, but Bach is my man. Rock is good for anything below the neck, but I sometimes like to use the rest of my wetware.”
“How do sell your games?” asked Howell. “Is it mainly mail order?”
“Yeah. There are a few stores for hobby hackers around the Valley, and we’re in those, and in a couple of computer stores in L.A. But we’re not in, like, Radio Shack.”
“Will your games run on their computers?” I asked.
“Sure. We write them on Apple, but we make versions for Atari, Tandy, and Commodore.”
“I don’t know much about games,” I continued. “What makes your games special?”
“Pictures. We’ve got great graphics. We’ve got color, and we do them in assembly language, so we can get over a hundred pictures in a single floppy.” He smiled. “You want one?”
“You brought samples?”
“Yep.” He loped back into the hall. Jean and Bonnie exchanged glances I interpreted as urging tolerance and patience. Howell was inscrutable. Tom returned with a backpack from which he pulled a zip-lock plastic bag containing a floppy disc and some cheaply printed folded pages. The outer page had “Dragonbreath” printed in Gothic letters.
Howell said dryly, “I think we could help with packaging.”
“Cool,” said Tom. “We’ve been so busy selling these we haven’t had time to think about that.” If he was responding to Howell’s sarcasm, he hid it well. “I guess if software and games ever start selling off racks like record albums it would be good to have a package that would snag a look.”
“That time may come very soon,” Howell said.
“How do you play this?” I asked.
“Just boot it up and follow directions. Hey, what’s this?” Bonnie was passing a tray of hors d’oeuvres.
“Paté,” said Bonnie.
“Cool. I don’t think I’ll have any, but I like the idea of being around paté, you know?”
On the way home, Jean was critical of Tom and his enterprise, and voiced some of the same reservations I had about where the company priorities ought to be. I, on the other hand, found myself thinking there might be possibilities in games. Wizardware’s sales figures, given the size of their operation and their limited marketing, were impressive. After meeting Tom, I wanted to at least sample the product for myself. As Jean undressed, I heard her grumble, “I might as well have dug out some of my old tie-dyed stuff.”
The next day I took the game to work and plugged it into Perry’s Apple. It was a kind of story. A dragon was guarding a pile of treasure, and the player had seven dwarves trying to steal it. You could try to put the dragon to sleep, distract it, appease it by sacrificing a dwarf, or kill it. If you made a dwarf choose the wrong option, or let him make a misstep, the dragon would shoot out a flame and incinerate the dwarf. If all seven of your dwarves got fried, you lost; if one got the treasure, you won.
It sounds simpler than it was, for if you wanted to put the dragon to sleep, you could choose to use music or a potion. But the musician could drop his instrument and wake the dragon, and the potion could make him belch and fry the dwarf. If you got him to sleep safely, your dwarf could pick up the wrong piece of treasure, and the clatter could wake the dragon. And what worked one time wouldn’t necessarily work another time, so the game was different each time you played it. The only constant that I could find was that if your successful dwarf tried to take all the treasure, the dragon would wake and torch him. Even if your dwarf killed the dragon, the most difficult of the options, it could give a final post-mortem blast if the dwarf tried to take the last piece of treasure. This game was only one of about thirty they sold. I could see how one could get hooked.
The board voted to negotiate the acquisition of Wizardware, Jean going along with Howell after I explained why I changed my mind. At worst, we could make a little money on games if we did a bit of accounting and marketing. At best, we could get a foot in the home computer or computer hobby market, in case it ever went anywhere. The Apple and Radio Shack experience suggested it might, at least for a while. If IBM was making a “personal computer,” as they had just announced they would, that was another big straw in the wind. Maybe Perry and John, who were very fond of the Apple, could come up with home versions of some of the business packages we had developed.
Time passed. I continued to hustle sales, travelling some, trying to research markets and marketing, passing on customers’ wishes for new products. The negotiations with Wizardware continued. I heard secondhand that the deal was taking some time to jell, because Tom was very protective of his employees, and insisted on a number of provisions guaranteeing their jobs for several years. He also insisted on high royalties for his game writers.
After some back and forth on the phone and in the mail with Johns Hopkins, we reached agreement on a deal for the records package. At their request–at Marina’s, no doubt–I was asked to bring the final contract and get things started. Howell and Jean were pleased that I got the contract, and I was pleased at the prospect of playing that wonderful Goffriller cello again. The possibility of meeting Clio and seeing more of her paintings also interested me.
On the plane to Baltimore, I had a number of visions in rapid succession. It was a sort of montage of Toby’s participation in Prince Maurice’s campaigns after the capture of Deventer in June 1591. There were few clever ruses in these episodes, but lots of marshland slogging, booming cannon, and digging. The history books tell me I saw bits of the taking of the town of Delfzyl, north of Groningen, and the forts of Opslag, Yementil, and Lettebaest.
One night around the campfire, Prothero was complaining. “I grant that the prince pays promptly. But there’s no booty. The Dutch is so afraid of disturbing the papist burghers in their towns, that an honest bit of prize-taking may earn a man a noose, like that poor whoreson in Deventer. Regular pay is good for a journeyman mercer, but a man of spirit should have better chance for reward should he put his life in adventure.”
“Be glad we are paid by the prince and not by one of our honest English generals,” growled Hall.
“Aye but,” said Prothero, “they know the game, and a man can prosper if he plays it well.” Prothero looked thoughtful. “Good captain, I think I have served you well and faithfully.”
“Well enough, lieutenant.”
“I think it be time to take my leave of you. I am thinking of trying my luck among the Swedes or Polonians. I hear there is wars there.”
Hall frowned. “Think you of deserting?”
Prothero smiled his usual ironic smile. “Nay, master, think of me as having served my apprenticeship, and taking the freedom of my trade.”
“Desertion is desertion, lieutenant. I’ll hear no more.”
When I next saw them, they were on the march, threading their way between pools of water in a great swamp. It was hot, and flies swarmed around men and horses. Toby looked up and down the ranks anxiously from time to time, but Hall looked grimly ahead. I couldn’t see Prothero.
Toby appeared with a number of troops lying in woods surrounding a long meadow. This time Toby held a musket, as did the troops around him. He checked his length of match, and gave the spark a gentle puff. It was a sunny morning, quiet but for some birds and insects, and distant cannon fire, rumbling like an approaching thunderstorm. Captain Hall stuck his head around a tree to get a better look at the far end of the meadow, then lay back down. After a while, another rumbling noise could be heard and felt through the ground, and shouts and pops from small arms grew closer.
A troop of Dutch cavalry broke into the meadow, follwed by a larger force of nearly a thousand Spanish and Italians. The Dutch thundered past Toby and his company, and I thought I saw Sir Francis Vere and some of his English among them. Then they turned and prepared to fight. More Dutch horsemen emerged from the trees behind the pursuing Spanish, and Hall shouted, “Fire!” Toby and his fellows fired their muskets and several of the men and horses in the Spanish party fell. Horses began rearing and screaming. The decoy cavalry now attacked, swords flailing.
Toby snatched the match out of the lock of his musket and looped it in the fingers of his left hand; then he blew any lingering sparks from the pan, at the same time popping open the flask of powder that hung around his neck; then he poured in a fresh priming charge and snapped the pan cover closed. After blowing any excess powder away from the covered pan, he took one of the wooden flasks from his bandolier and poured a pre-measured charge into the muzzle of his musket, followed by a bullet he had been holding in his mouth. He then pulled the ramrod or scouring-stick from the stock, rammed home the charge, and replaced the stick. After carefully fitting the match into the lock again and blowing on the spark, he was at last ready to fire.
In the meantime, the fighting in the meadow raged on. As Toby was fitting his match into the lock, a Spanish horseman crashed through the line of trees and rode past. Toby raised his musket just as the horseman caught a tree branch and fell to the ground. The horse continued to blunder through the underbrush. Another soldier approached the stunned horseman and held his sword at his throat, waiting for him to awake and yield. Toby turned back toward the meadow and put his bullet through a large Spanish cavalryman who seemed to be getting the better of his Dutch opponent. He could see several other Spaniards who had been wounded or unhorsed surrendering to the troops on the edge of the meadow, and he could see a number of those still mounted retreating through a gap in the pincers of the Dutch at the far end. He began reloading his musket.
Toby watched as cannonballs and scatter shot fell a few yards in front of his company, tossing up clods of moist earth. In the distance, he could see the Spanish guns across a river, over which boats full of Spanish troops were passing. But the troops were moving away from the target of their assault, the fort at Knodsenburg, half a mile away on the side of the river where Toby stood. Captain Hall sauntered up, looked toward the boats and cannon, and shook his head. “Parma knows how to retreat properly. It must gall him that our young pedant of a prince is making him do so.”
“Do you think we will attack Nijmegen now?” Toby asked.
“If Parma gives us room, I cannot think why we would not.”
The air was getting colder as Toby and his fellows dug in and threw up protective gabions around the guns trained on Nijmegen. Toby could see the low wall and round tower at the river’s edge, and the central fort on the rise above with its old butressed walls and square central tower, called the Falcon Tower. Hall mentioned that there were sixty-eight cannon on the Nijmegen side of the river, most of them aimed at the weaker defences between the Falcon Tower and the Hoender Gate. The guns in the fort of Knodsenburg across the river could also throw incindiary shot into the town. Guns from the town boomed and their missiles threw up earth, but to little effect.
Trumpets announced parleys between the besiegers and the town. Hall returned from a meeting of the captains as the prince’s cannon began firing. “Some wag in the garrison made a witty reply to the prince’s demand for surrender. The officers told us that he said the prince was too young a suitor to win such a spinster as Nijmegen, and that a longer courtship would be necessary. The prince has already begun to send his gifts.”
Toby, hands on ears, watched from his post in the defensive perimeter as the batteries fired steadily through the night. The flashes and explosions made for an unlikely storm of thunder and heat lightning in the chilly night. Hot shot from mortars in the fort made red arcs across the sky, and steadier glows from behind the town walls indicated that some of these missiles had started fires.
Early in the morning trumpets sounded from the town and the batteries fell silent. “It appears the lady has yielded to the prince’s suit,” said Hall to a yawning Toby.
Toby and his company settled into Nijmegen as part of the garrison under Count Louis William. Inside, the town was in better shape than some of the previous conquests, despite the bombardment and fires. The occupants had not pulled down houses for wood and iron, and there were still people with goods to sell. Once the seige was lifted, produce from the harvest in the surrounding countryside drifted in, and the prospect of spending the winter there did not give rise to much complaint. Toby told Hall of his musical acquaintences in the town where they spent the previous winter, and speculated with regret that such a group might be hard to find in Nijmegen.
Before the army broke up to move to winter quarters, Toby spoke to several men in the English companies, asking if any could bear letters back to Lincolnshire for him. Finally, one young officer said he was bound for Grimslay and would do what he could. Toby gave him two thick packets wrapped and sealed in waxed cloth and thanked him profusely.
Toby and Hall were quartered with a Protestant family who treated them with reasonable cordiality, especially when they found they would be paid. Toby did not have his viol, and found no other musicians except a tavern fiddler and members of a church choir. Since the church was Catholic, and services were suspended until a time determined by the States-General, the choir did not perform, though individual members sometimes sang at the tavern with the fiddler, usually after some lubrication.
Toby spent his leisure time during the first part of the winter reading and trying to compose without his instrument. Sometimes he would finger the air, then scribble on his wax tablet, and after many corrections and second thoughts, write down the tablature on paper.
As the winter wore on, Toby would more frequently join Hall at the tavern where the fiddler scraped out dance tunes and popular airs. “Wilhelmus van Nassau” was a favorite with the garrison. Toby tried to keep up with Hall’s consumption of beer, but after a few instances of throwing up into gutters followed by painful mornings, he moderated his intake. A tobacco seller came by the tavern at regular intervals, selling white clay pipes already charged with tobacco. Toby seemed to like the smell of the smoke–perhaps it masked some of the other smells–so he began smoking a pipe as he nursed a single pint of beer.
At first, the tobacconist was a hit with the tavern regulars, for he tried to give a good show. The problem was that his show lacked variety, and began to pall after several repetitions. In a hearty bilingual pitch, he preached the gospel of the healing properties of his product. It dried up excess humors, heated the phlegmatic and calmed the choleric. It was soverign against melancholy. It cured obesity, flatulence, and impotence. Sometimes he made up stories about how the Indians took it to increase their endurance or to produce visions, but good Christians would be protected from the latter.
Several times Toby could be seen seeking out men who had been reported as having come recently from England. He would ask them if any had heard of any letters or messages for Tobias Hume. As far as I could tell, the answers were always negative.
One night I saw Toby alone in his room trying to compose music, but having little success, for he kept scraping his tablet smooth and starting over. Finally he stopped, stared at the small fire in the grate, and wept for a good while. Apparently tobacco did not keep melancholy away completely.
Someone touched my shoulder. It was the flight attendant. “Sir, we have landed, and this is the last stop for this flight.” The plane was almost empty.
“Thanks. I must have been daydreaming.”