Time’s Bending Sickle

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21. Time’s Furrows

I never could find out what disturbed Jean at Clio’s. I assume she told her therapist. After we returned to Dallas, Jean returned for what now passed as normal: keeping her journal, keeping up with the business, and keeping me at a polite distance.
She went shopping with her mother one Thursday a month after the trip to Washington. When I came home after work, she was sitting on the sofa, her Nieman’s bag on the floor with nothing unpacked. She looked up, worried.
“What is it?” I asked.
“Mother. She’s not well, and I can’t get her to go to the doctor.”
“Tell me.” I sat down by her.
“She got so tired. She never gets tired shopping.”
“Jean, she’s getting older.”
“No, she’s different from the way she was just weeks ago. And she had no appetite at lunch.”
“She may just have a bug. Check on her tomorrow. If she’s not better soon, I’ll help you truss her up and we’ll haul her off to Dr. Bettis.”
She smiled. “OK. So, what’s new?”
“Well, I finally met this mysterious banker, Tedesco.” I told Jean how I happened to catch Howell and Tedesco in the elevator, and introduced myself when it seemed that Howell wasn’t going to. I kind of forced the issue, for I told Tedesco I had heard he was in investment banking, and wondered if he had any ideas for boosting our stock. He glanced sharply at Howell, who just shook his head. Tedesco then said he was a student of Chinese philosophy.
“What?” Jean had been smiling knowingly during my tale, but this brought a questioning frown.
“He told me that he was a student of Sun Tzu, an ancient philosopher.”
“Well, he may be, but he’s mainly an LBO specialist.”
“What?” It was my turn to be surprised.
“A guy who does leveraged buyouts. Howell sent a letter to the board just the other day saying he was exploring the possibility.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Howell and a few other officers would raise money on the company assets and buy up enough stock to control the company and take it private.”
“I know what a LBO is. What throws me is that we just went public!”
“I know. But there are some economic arguments for going private again.”
“But what about the board? And the family interest?”
“He can’t do it without board approval. But we may give it to him.” Jean enjoyed her private knowledge. “It would drive up the stock and make the stockholders happy. And Howell says other businesses have done better after going private.”
“Does he say why?”
“Yes–they become more efficient.”
“If he is in charge now, how is he going to make the business more efficient later? Why not now? It seems to me that the whole deal is full of conflict of interest. He’s supposed to be running the business for the shareholders; how can he do that if he wants to sell the business to himself for the lowest price he can?”
“But it will be lots higher than the stock goes for now.”
“But think of the debt the company will be loaded with.”
“That’s why it will be more efficient.” Jean spoke with deliberate patience. “The debt will force management to be more innovative. And managers have more incentive if they’re working for themselves.”
We argued along these lines for some time. Jean was a smart debater, and made my arguments seem simple-minded. But commonsense notions about what a business should do kept stubbornly coming back to my mind.
At work, the word about a possible buyout had begun to leak, and some of the employees were worried. Hiro confirmed some of my own misgivings. “One of those efficiences they talk about is usually laying off a bunch of workers. I read the Japanese business press now and then. They seem really bewildered by all the LBO and takeover activity. They see that some people, especially managers and bankers, get rich, but that companies often get weaker. They see a good, well-run, profitable company go into debt to fight a takeover or get broken up by a raider, and don’t see why. One letter writer said they shouldn’t try to understand the crazy Americans, but just be glad they are making it so easy for the Japanese to compete.”
“Ever think of going home?”
“Naw, I like you crazy Americans. Besides, I would be seen as too American if I tried to go home–I wouldn’t be accepted. And I don’t think I could put up with all the hedges put up around individual creativity there.”
The argument continued at work and at home. I would think I made some progress with Jean against the LBO, but then she would come back with more arguments from Howell. Howell never talked to me directly about the buyout, but I felt I was debating him through Jean. The press was full of reports on buyouts, hostile takeovers, and junk bonds, the fuel for both of these activities. Big money was being made, but mainly by those manipulating the process, not by those running ordinary businesses for ordinary profits.

During this time I had to go out to California to discuss some matters with Tom Backscheider at Wizardware. Howell insisted that I try to talk them into using some Ramforce hardware. I knew that this suggestion would be met with derision and incredulity, but Tom and his colleagues might give me some ammunition I could use.
At the airport, I was surprised to see Bonnie Drew sitting at the gate next to the one for my flight. She was trying to read the Wall Street Journal through dark glasses in rather dim light. She seemed very absorbed, but I peered over the top of her paper and said, “Hi Bonnie. Escaping Dallas?”
She reacted oddly, glancing around and saying, “I sure am.” Then she smiled and said, “Hi Tony. Off to sell Cullen?”
“As always. I’m off to see Tom Backscheider.”
She smiled at the memory. “I hope Cullen will make him enough money so he can afford a new wardrobe.”
“Now, now, he’s an artist.”
“He did seem a bit unworldly.”
“Where are you off to?” I didn’t think I was being too nosy, but Bonnie sighed and looked away.
“Visiting my sister in Oregon.”
“Well, have a pleasant trip.” I started to move on.
“Tony.” Her tone puzzled me. I looked back. Bonnie had removed her dark glasses and looked at me with a real shiner, a purplish bruise around one swollen and bloodshot eye. “Come back and sit.”
I sat. Bonnie sighed. “You might as well know now. You will sooner or later. I’m leaving Howell. This is one of the reasons.”
“My God, Bonnie, did Howell do that?”
“Yes.”
“I’m sorry.”
“Me too. It’s been coming a long time, but I never thought it would go this far. I’d take a lot from him, but I won’t be his punching bag.”
“Is there anything I can do?”
“Yes. You can watch out for him. And for yourself. I still care about Howell–he’s got a lot of good qualities. But he’s changed lately.” She paused and bit her lip. “He could get himself in real trouble, and take others with him. For his good and your own, watch out for him, don’t let his ambition make him cross the line. You may not be smart enough for this, Tony. You know we disagree about things, and I think you’re pretty naive. But I think you’re basically honest.”
“What do you think he might do?” I asked.
“I don’t know. He wouldn’t tell me, and gave me this when I objected too strongly. It may not be illegal, but it may be greedy as hell.”
“You mean besides the leveraged buyout?”
She looked at me curiously. “I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that you know about that. But yes.”
“Does he know where you’ll be?”
“No, but he could figure it out easily. But I don’t think he cares.”
“Bonnie, I don’t know what to say.”
“Don’t say anything. Just take care of yourself. And Jean. That’s my flight. Good luck.” She got up and hurried toward the gate.
I had a lot to think about on the plane to California, but as I might have expected, thoughts about present problems were replaced by visions of the past.

I was naturally curious about what would happen if Toby met Jane again, so I didn’t resist the vision of them together in Sir Andrew’s house, in the small parlor where I left them. Jane had grown from a girl to a handsome young woman. Her face was still smooth, but the outlines were sharper and the expression deepened by experience. The atmosphere in the room was tense, but both seemed to have recovered from their initial shock. Both must have realized that they had to go along with the present situation in order to avoid dangerous revelations about their past relationship. Both were very formal, playing their proper roles.
“My lady plays very well. Has my lady been practicing?”
“I have only recently taken up the viol again, Master Hume. I fear I have forgotten much.”
“Indeed, I have forgot some things myself. But they can be easily recalled.”
She looked stern. “Some things, I trust, are best forgotten.”
Toby looked down. “Yes. Well, an it please you, play that strain again.” She played. “Pray keep your left wrist straight, my lady. And elevate your right elbow somewhat more. Now, please you, play again.” Toby demonstrated, but did not touch his pupil.
The lesson continued with master and pupil maintaining polite control. After an hour or so, a maid opened the door.
“Please your ladyship, Mistress Audrey waits on you above.”
“Thank you, Elizabeth. I shall be there presently.” The maid left, and Jane and Toby rose. “I shall practice this lesson for Friday, Master Hume.”
“Very good, my lady.” Toby bowed, then spoke softly. “I hope I may offer my condolences to my lady and Mistress Audrey for the loss of their brother.”
“Thank you, Master Hume.” Jane’s reserve softened a bit. “Mistress Audrey will be glad that you are well.” Here she stammered, “I trust your–wife is in health?”
“Alas, my lady, she died in the plague.”
“God rest her soul.”
“Amen.”
They stood quietly a moment, not looking at each other. Then Jane said, “Farewell, Master Hume.”
Toby bowed, and Jane left the room. Alone, Toby gave an immense sigh, gathered up his viol and music, and went to the door. As he passed along the hallway, he heard excited whispers from the stairs above, a rustle of clothing, and steps hurrying down the stairs. He looked around to see another handsome young woman approaching him. Audrey was sharper of feature than her sister, and her brown hair, much of it hidden by a cap, was not as eye-catching; but she moved with nervous grace and her intelligence shone from her eyes. With quick movements and a serious expression, she touched Toby’s arm and guided him down the hall.
“A word with you in the gallery, Master Hume.”
Toby let himself be led. “I am glad to see you well, Mistress Audrey.”
Audrey did not speak until they were in the long gallery at the back of the house. Without any small talk, she began. “Master Hume, I understand what has happened here, and do not blame you. But I must ask you if you still feel as you did when you first wrote to my sister.”
“I must confess that I do, but–”
“Your feelings are your own, but you must not give them vent. If you truly wish my sister well, you must never act on your feelings.”
“So I intend, but–”
She faced Toby and bored in with her dark eyes. “You must understand. Even if you are–permitted, even prompted, you must not act. Sir Andrew is a proud and powerful man, who will brook no crossing, nor from his servants nor his wife.”
“Mistress Audrey, insofar as I am able to control my will with reason and prayer, I will do no dishonor to Sir Andrew, Lady Jane, nor myself.”
Audrey relaxed for a second, then turned back toward the hall, Toby hurrying after. “Thank you,” she said gravely. “I would we could talk further, but this is neither the time nor place. I am glad you are well. Pray you remain so.” She turned abruptly and ascended the stairs. After watching her a second, Toby left the house.

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