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Authors: John D. MacDonald

Tags: #suspense

A Man of Affairs

BOOK: A Man of Affairs
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John D. MacDonald

A Man of Affairs

 

 

ONE

 

I GOT OUT OF MY CAB and stood beside it on the gravel driveway and looked at the big frame house. I had not seen it in over two years, not since the death of Louise’s father put an end to those futile and meaningless conferences he used to hold in his home. The house and grounds had not changed. The blinds were closed against the heat of a midmorning Monday in May. The plantings were as formal and rich and well-tended as ever.

I tried to calm myself with a cigarette. It would do no good to rush in full of anger and indignation and confront Louise. Louise had too much experience with being bullied. Just a half hour earlier I had dropped into the bank to see Walt Burgeson, and he had been very uncomfortable as he had told me the sorry and disappointing news about Louise’s unexpected decision—the decision that might well spill all the apples out of our basket.

Though I had seen Louise here and there during the two years since her father’s death, I’d had no close contact with her. Louise had been off with Warren Dodge on a honeymoon in Italy when her father, Thomas McGann, met his tragic, slapstick death, a death that must have infuriated him during his final microsecond of awareness. The way it was reconstructed, he had dropped the soap and it had bounded out of the shower stall. When he stepped out he stepped directly onto it, and in falling struck his head squarely and irrevocably on the porcelained rim of the toilet. He had been a big and ponderous man, muscled like a steer.

I had a clear memory of how Louise and Warren Dodge had looked at the time of the funeral, after their flying trip home from Italy—Warren big and beefy, solemn and sullen, heavily scented with bonded whisky—Louise remote and subdued and pallid, more spiritless than even the death of her father would have seemed to warrant.

There are only seventy thousand people in Portston and so I had seen her around fairly often during the two years. And thought she looked unhappy. And heard the unsavory rumors about her marriage. I didn’t need the rumors. I knew what sort of man she had married.

I snapped the cigarette away, went to the door and pushed the bell. The door opened and a heavy Negro woman looked at me quite blankly. “I’d like to see Mrs. Dodge, please.”

“She busy now.”

“Go tell her Sam Glidden wants to see her right now!”

Some of my urgency and anger must have been apparent. I’m big and I’ve been told by intimates that I look a good deal rougher and tougher than I am. I saw a wider stripe of the whites of her eyes as she closed the door. She was back in a minute and a half to say, “She says you come back in the garden.”

I followed her through the house. There were glints of polish on the dark and heavy furniture, discreet gleams of brass and silver, a scent of cedar and wax and furniture oils. The house had a hushed feeling, a secret flavor.

The small walled garden behind the house was sunny and bright with flowers. Louise got up from an aluminum chaise longue webbed with white plastic and took my hand and smiled her careful smile and said, “A long time, Sam. Too long.”

“It’s good to see you, Louise.”

She indicated a chair for me and sat back on the chaise longue, still smiling. But I sensed she knew well why I had come. “Beer or anything, Sam?”

“Thanks, no.” I had to put her off balance a little bit. She was braced for argumentation. I offered her a cigarette and said, “I was remembering about once upon a time, Louise. The time when I was so in love with you I couldn’t even eat.”

Her greeny-gray eyes went round-wide with surprise. “Good Lord! When?”

“I was a senior in high, and you were a sophomore. You wore your hair a funny way. Braided and it went across here.”

“My coronet braid.”

“And you had a blue dress with white at the collar and white on the sleeves.”

“I haven’t remembered that dress for years. It was a favorite.”

“I suffered in silence. Sam Glidden had no business trying to get chummy with the McGann girl. We all knew your father sent you and your brother to public high school because he thought it was the democratic thing to do. Your brother had his own car, and you had your own crowd you ran around with, and as soon as the weather was warm enough you’d all go right from school to the country club to swim and play tennis.”

She laughed aloud and it made me feel slightly hurt. “What’s so funny?”

“Not what you think, Sam. Right about that time I had a grim little crush on you. But you were unattainable. Big popular senior, football hero. Big Sam Glidden wasn’t going to waste any of his time on a sappy little sophomore.”

“We should have found out about that,” I said. She looked at me and after a few seconds her smile looked as though it had been pasted on, and then she looked away. I knew she was about to ask me why I had come to see her, so I beat her to the gun and said, “I’ll never forget how much I owe your father, Louise.”

“He was… glad he could help you, Sam.”

I had worked at the Harrison Corporation plant-Thomas McGann, President—every summer while I was in high school. In my senior year I had a choice of football scholarships; but in the final high school game, I got hit and the cartilage of my right knee was badly torn. The word got around the conference I would be out of the game for two years at least. A football scholarship had been my only prayer of getting to college in spite of reasonably respectable marks. That was 1946 and I was nineteen. I’d been too young for World War II, and the bum knee kept me out of Korea later.

I applied for a job at Harrison, thinking I would save money for a year and then try college the following fall. I didn’t know that Thomas McGann was aware of my existence. When I applied for a job in June I got it immediately on the basis of my past working record with them, and three days later I was called out of the shop and sent up to Mr. McGann’s office. I soon found he’d followed my football career as well as my record with the company on summer jobs. And he knew my home situation. I was the only child of my mother’s first marriage. It had not been a good marriage. When I was eleven, after her fifth year of widowhood, she had married again, married a man she loved, a man who adored her. And there were, by that time, four half-brothers and half-sisters from that second marriage. It was a happy house without much money and without too much emotional room for me.

Mr. McGann offered a deal. He would get me into a good college of business administration and back me for what I needed through four years if I would agree to come back and work for the Harrison Corporation. When I was on salary I could start paying him back.

It took a long time for him to get it through my proud, thick head that it wasn’t charity. I took him up on it. When I was twenty-three I came back to work as assistant to the purchasing agent. Five years ago, when I was twenty-five, I paid him back the last dime.

In view of what he had done for me, I had to choose my words carefully in talking to Louise. “I’m grateful to your father, Louise, but that doesn’t alter my objective opinion of him. He was an overbearing, strong-minded, stupid man who refused all advice, good or bad, a man who came dangerously close to running a sound company into the ground.”

She stared at me for long seconds. She looked very lovely. She was wearing crisp white shorts with a red stripe down the sides, a red halter, red straw slippers. Her black and glossy hair was tied back with a white ribbon. She is not quite tall, and her bone structure is fragile and fine. Her flawless skin has a dusky, honeyed quality, and her legs are smooth and round and long. There is a look of brooding sensitivity about her face. I remembered how she was as a child, full of a dancing and endless vitality, a flame in shades of black and ivory. Now, in her, it is all muted. All fires are banked. But her new quietness does not give the impression of frigidity or sterility. At twenty-seven she has a way about her that is so much more provocative to me than any strip act that I could feel the annoying pulse-thud of awareness of her even while I was trying to make her understand what I had to tell her.

“You’d better explain that to me, Sam,” she said quietly.

“He insisted on surrounding himself with yes-men, in making it a one-man operation.”

“Then why have you stayed?”

“Because I gave him my promise. I have to tell you something that sounds like I’m giving myself medals, Louise. I’m considered very very good in the field. I’ve been scouted, and I have had some very handsome offers from some very sound businesses. I’m apparently one of those so-called bright young men that industry can’t find enough of. I can’t put my finger on what the special talent is. Maybe it’s just a combination of being able to think clearly, handle people and work hard. I stayed because I gave my promise.”

“I haven’t got a good head for business, Sam. But it seems to me that ever since my father died, you and Mr. Dolson have been the ones who have been running the company into the ground. Warren thinks so, too. Look at it from my point of view. My brother Tommy and I each inherited fifty thousand shares of Harrison Common from Grandfather McGann’s estate when we were twenty-one. While my father was running the company it was always listed at right around thirty dollars a share, and it always paid a dividend of around two dollars or a little less.”

“I know that.”

“Tommy and I agreed to vote our shares for the same board and everything, and what happened? There hasn’t been a dividend since my father died, and now the stock is listed at twelve dollars.”

“Maybe you don’t understand the situation because nobody has been blunt enough about your father. Harrison has gradually been losing its competitive position for the last fifteen years. Management has been unaggressive and unrealistic. Not enough money has gone into modernization of plant and equipment, so production costs have been going up in relation to the other firms in the industry. So profits have been going down. The distribution system is antiquated and inefficient. We aren’t getting our fair share of the market. There was no reason to maintain that dividend rate. Your father was paying out in dividends money that should have been used for modernization. It was like… with a car, buying a quart of oil every ten miles instead of paying for a ring job. Louise, we’ve got to work like dogs to catch up. We
had
to pass the dividends. We’ve got to modernize and cut production costs, or we’re sunk.”

“How long will it take?” she asked me.

I shrugged. “The way it looks it should be another two or three years before we can start paying legitimate dividends. Then they’ll only amount to maybe two bits a share. But by then we should be getting healthy.”

“If things are as horrible as you say, then why is Mike Dean interested in the company?”

“Mike Dean is not interested in the company, Louise. Mike Dean is interested in making some money for Mike Dean. He doesn’t care if he sinks us without a trace.”

“Are you trying to frighten me?” I despaired of trying to make her understand about Mike Dean. Mike Dean is a member of a small group of men who have come into curious prominence in the past few years. You see their pictures in
Business Week
and
Fortune
and
Time.
“This week, Mike Dean, suave and unscarred veteran of bitter proxy battles and corporate infighting, accused the management of the XYQ Company of a stale and unrealistic approach to the pressing problems of the industry.” Mike is always termed controversial, or a man of mystery. His thick thumb is in dozens of pies. He operates from a confusing web of interrelated corporate setups and has surrounded himself with a knife-sharp staff of C.P.A.’s, tax attorneys, engineers and management specialists.

The Mike Deans operate in the rich realm of capital gains. And they gain a spurious rectitude by cutting figures in the public eye in on the pies they bake. I tried to explain it to Louise as simply as I could. “Mike Dean has people who spend their time reading balance sheets, Louise. They look for one special circumstance. They look for a company like Harrison, where the book value of the stock is higher than the market value. When we passed the dividends, we left ourselves open to an operator like Dean. The stock was selling at eleven or twelve. Try to follow me, now. Please. That means that with four hundred and forty thousand shares of stock outstanding, the company was valued in the market place at four million, eight hundred and forty thousand dollars. Yet, if we closed up shop tomorrow, liquidated everything, equipment, buildings, reserves, inventory, accounts receivable, we could realize a total of nearly nine million. That means our book value is twenty dollars a share. The differential is what brought Mike down on us like a wolf on the fold. We know that he started over a year ago buying Harrison Common very, very cautiously so as not to attract attention or force the price up. Three months ago he came out in the open and started his campaign to get proxies. We can estimate that he and his group own or control close to one hundred and ninety thousand shares of Harrison voting stock. When we have the Board meeting on the first of June, he can force representation on the Board of Directors, but he cannot take control. Let’s suppose he could take control. By a change in the dividend policy, and by liquidating some of the Harrison assets, he might be able to push the stock up to thirty-five or even forty. Then he could unload for a long-term capital gain, go over on the short side and ride the stock right back down into the ground. Say he personally holds one hundred thousand shares. I can see how he could make a profit of thirty dollars a share. And pay only a twenty-six per cent tax on his three million gain.”

She nibbled at her thumb knuckle. “How do you know he doesn’t want to do what you’re trying to do? I mean modernize and so on.”

“That’s what he’s announced he wants to do, naturally. But will he do that? Or is this just a raid? We thought we were safe, Louise. We didn’t know that you and Tommy might go back on your promise to Al Dolson. We thought the hundred thousand shares would be voted our way. Those shares are our margin of safety. But this morning Walt Burgeson at the bank phoned me at the office and asked me to come in as soon as I could. He told me what you’re planning to do.”

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