Read an Excerpt
The Villiers Touch
By Brian Garfield
A MysteriousPress.comCopyright © 1970 Brian Garfield
All rights reserved.
The girl opened the bathroom door; a swath of light splashed across the bed where he lay. Momentarily he saw her silhouette, lithe Oriental girl in tight yellow silk, and then she switched the light off, leaving only the faint illumination that came in from the living room of the suite, where a lamp burned with a soft 25-watt glow. The girl walked to the hall door, long hips swaying, and paused there to adjust a bracelet, her head tipped to one side. Mason Villiers reached for the wristwatch on the bedside table, held it close to his face and squinted: four-thirty in the morning.
The girl's voice was muted, courteous. "Will you want me again?"
"I'll let you know."
"Cheers," she said, with no particular cheer. He listened to the hall door latch behind her. He stretched—a hard crackling of lean musculature; he yawned and closed his eyes and was almost instantly asleep.
He had always been a cat-napper; he rarely slept more than an hour at a stretch. At five-twenty he was up, padding across the deep carpet. The suite was mock-Victorian, heavy with the forced freshness of recent and frequent redecoration—hotel stationery and ashtrays; complimentary cut-glass bottle of Chivas Regal and bucket of ice, both of them reflected in the waxed surface of the table; thick nubby draperies, endless sets of white bath towels that were never quite big enough—all the impersonal size and ubiquitous big-city luxury of hotel quarters for rich transients. Villiers was unimpressed to the point of being oblivious; he might as well have been in a skid-row flophouse for all the attention he gave the room.
He came out of the bathroom drying himself, tossed the towel on a chair, and walked into the huge closet to paw through his bag. It was a Vuitton suitcase crested by a bar sinister coat-of-arms. The bar sinister amused him.
He put on silk socks and underclothes and a mustard-hued shirt, and a wide burnt-olive tie; he rattled hangers past a smoking jacket and a dark Dunhill suit, kicked into lean black shoes, and zipped up the trousers of an olive Italian suit while he walked to the phone in the living room. He picked up the receiver and waited, a young man who wore expensive clothes because he had once been poor.
When the sleepy-voiced switchboard girl came onto the line, he gave instructions to screen all incoming calls before putting them through; then he had the line switched to room service and ordered breakfast. He poured a drink from the cut-glass bottle, went back to the phone, and gave the girl Sidney Isher's number.
It was good Scotch; he sipped it. Isher answered the ring coughing and mumbling. "What the hell, Mace, it's not even six o'clock."
There was a woman's acrimonious muttering in the background. Sidney Isher said, "Hang on while I get to another phone."
Villiers tipped the glass up and rolled whisky on his tongue, savoring before he swallowed. He heard a click and Isher's nasal voice: "Okay—okay. How's Canada? Find any old Rollses?"
"No. I picked up a twenty-seven Pierce Arrow."
"They hard to find?"
"Anything good is hard to find."
"Funny—you still don't strike me as the hobby type."
"Peanuts," Isher said, and cleared his throat violently. "Where are you?"
"The New Executive."
"That huge Goddamn barn?"
"In big hotels they care less." He heard the click that meant Isher's wife had finally hung up the bedroom phone. He began to speak, then stopped; he heard a whispering rustle at the other end of the line. "Turn off that fucking tape recorder, Sidney."
"Turn it off."
"You know I always use the thing. I'd be a fine lawyer these days if I didn't. Even my mother-in-law goes on tape."
"All right—all right."
He heard the scrape stop. Isher said, "It's off. Now, what's so secret?"
"If it was a secret I'd hardly be calling you through the hotel switchboard. But I don't like being taped."
"Don't worry about that—nobody's ever taped you. But what have you got to say to me at six in the morning that couldn't wait till office hours? Is this the one phone call they allow you before they jug you for molesting a minor?"
"Spare me the innuendo, Sidney."
"Why don't you ever relax?"
"People don't get in my tax bracket by relaxing." Villiers didn't add that he preferred to catch people off-guard. With Isher it sometimes worked to advantage.
Isher was saying, "That's something we've got to look into, your tax bracket. We may have some trouble with the IRS people over those—"
"Some other time. Now tell me about our friends in Edison Township."
"No names—remember the switchboard."
"Sure. I can't tape the call, but the switchboard girl can take it all down in shorthand. You suppose she's listening because she owns forty thousand shares of the stock and wants to know which way it's going? You think she's listening for that, Mace?"
"Avidly," Villiers said. "Don't get flip, Sidney, it doesn't become you."
"For Christ's sake, what's a lousy switchboard girl going to know about—"
"Come on, Sidney."
"Keep your shirt on. About the Edison Township people—oh, hell, how can I make sense without mentioning names and numbers?"
"Then get your clothes on and come over here." Villiers removed the squawking phone from his ear and hung up.
The bellhop arrived faster than he had expected—an acne-faced kid wheeling the breakfast table into the room on big silent rubber tires. Villiers gave the boy five dollars. "Buy yourself some Noxzema."
The bellhop flushed deep, dropped his eyes, and hurried away clutching the money. Villiers lifted the domed steel covers and scented the food; abruptly he had no sense of hunger at all. He put the covers back and walked to the window, carrying his glass of Scotch. Momentarily he wondered why he had inflicted that gratuitous bit of cruelty on the bellhop; it passed out of his mind quickly. Once a girl had rebuked him for his careless brutality with words, and he had replied, without thinking, "I offend, therefore I am."
He drew open the blinds, turned off the lamp, and looked out at the gray morning. He was thirty stories above Park Avenue, with that incongruous stripe of trees and flowers overhung by grave-marker buildings and sooty air. Then he looked again at the breakfast cart, felt hungry, and dragged it over to the window.
He was seldom given to reflection, but the sound of Sidney Isher's catarrhal voice had taken his thoughts back—not to the real past, but into the history he had invented for himself: dull, plausible, impossible to check, and carefully rehearsed so that he would not slip and contradict himself. Now and then, like an actor with a script, after many months' run of the play, he went back over his lines.
He had devised it when he first came to New York and used it for the first time when he had met Isher six years ago. He had created a middle-class childhood for himself, pictured a quiet Chicago suburb where children rode bikes along shady sidewalks, housewives knelt on their lawns pulling up weeds and tending daffodils, weekending husbands waxed their cars in hedge-bounded driveways. He had named a public school which had subsequently burned down with all its records; invented an adolescence of proms and paper routes and hot rods; claimed three years' education at an unspecified Midwestern university and pretended it had been cut off by the sudden death of both parents in a motor accident. Of course, they would leave more debts than assets; of course, the blameless dropout they left behind had vowed to make back every penny and pay off the creditors. It gave him a plausible reason for not possessing a diploma—and for leaving no outstanding debts against him which might later be checked. The invented Mason Villiers—even his name was an invention—was next to be found working as a trainee with a small suburban bank, which conveniently had failed and gone into bankruptcy nine years ago, its depositors reimbursed by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, its employment records lost somewhere far beyond the range of any casual search; Villiers' claim that he had worked there for two years was enough to explain his financial education.
Ordinarily he was indifferent to image—his own or anyone else's—but in finance, where proxy votes depended on stockholders' confidence, a man in motion needed an unsullied background. Poverty itself was not suspect; but there were different kinds of poverty. Poor in the Horatio Alger sense was acceptable. Poor in the sewer sense was not. Mason Villiers' poverty was dead, buried in the gutters of Chicago's South Side.
Sidney Isher arrived. The lawyer was a small man with a nose like the snout of a teapot. His skin had the mottled look of fresh paste that often went with red hair.
"Hello, Mace. How are you?"
Villiers shut the door behind him. Isher cleared his throat; he had a bad case of catarrh, and a constant eye tic that made him look as if he was winking. The combination of handicaps was enough to make his success as a lawyer baffling. His jeweled cufflinks and tiepin bore his monogram—it seemed particularly fitting that Sidney Isher's initials worked out as a dollar sign.
Villiers said, "What about Melbard?"
"How quickly you always come to my point. Do you mind if I sit down?" Isher opened an attaché case and took out a sheaf of documents. "You can read it for yourself."
Villiers went back to his breakfast. "I haven't got time to read all that crap. Give me the high spots."
Isher sat, withdrew a folder, and used his thumb to flip through the pages the way a bank teller would count money. He extracted one and began to quote bits and pieces:
"Melbard Patent Chemical Processing Corporation. A mouthful of names for a small company. Got a comfortable record, nothing spectacular—founded in 1927 by James W. Melbard, who still runs it, majority stockholder and chairman of the board. Started out by producing ethyl alcohol under a patented process. During the thirties it expanded to produce various pharmaceuticals and chemicals. In World War II it was one of the early suppliers of nitroparaffin insecticides and fungicides—the stuff they used in the South Pacific. After the war Melbard went into cosmetics as well—Melody Cosmetics and Cosmeticare, a pair of minor brand names. You still see them in drugstores here and there, but they've got no advertising. In the fifties some of their early patents expired, but the company got a boost from the Korean War and got more firmly established in biochemicals. Am I going too fast?"
"You're going too slow."
"Unh. All right. Early in the 1960's Melbard started sinking a lot of money into research—the chief research biochemist is an egghead dedicated to 'pure science,' and I guess the Nobel Prize is just around the corner, but he hasn't produced enough commercially profitable discoveries, and they've been losing money on him for ten years."
"Why keep him on?"
"Because the old man, James Melbard, is an old buddy of the biochemist's. You want a rundown on him?"
"Not now. Go on."
"Okay. When the biochemist's lab expenses started wagging the dog, James Melbard went public, to finance the research department. That was in sixty-two. Most of the stock stayed in family hands—about thirty percent of the total capitalization was issued as a public offering. Melbard's a tight-fisted old son of a bitch, and he only issued enough stock to meet immediate needs. But the company's got a good record."
"Now, I've got a copy of the Dun and Bradstreet report here, from their auditors, and my staff did a little nosing around out there. The company's in fair shape. It's like a lot of family-owned companies—it's suffered some mismanagement, mostly because old Melbard's got this fixation on research. They've only got a hundred thousand shares of stock outstanding, besides the seventy percent that's still in family hands and the twenty-three percent that NCI owns. What there is of it, the available stock's worth quite a bit less on the market today than the company's book value. From that point of view, it's a good buy—if you can get your hands on some shares."
Villiers said nothing in reply, whereupon Isher gave him a sharp look and added, "But I get the feeling you're not interested in spending time and money to buy a few thousand shares."
"Should I be?"
"As an investment? I'd vote no. Melbard's been conservative in his dividend policies—twenty-five cents a year, mostly. The market price of the stock hasn't moved three points either way in the past couple of years."
"What about his board of directors?"
"Rubber stamp. Except for the two boys from Northeast Consolidated Industries. NCI's pretty well committed in Melbard, you know—Melbard makes the basic chemical ingredients in a lot of the stuff NCI manufactures. Lanolin-cholesterol for cosmetic products. Chemicals for law-enforcement equipment like riot-control foams and gas-fog generators and that banana-peel stuff they coat streets with. Tear gas, gas-mask chargers, breathalyzer reagents—"
"You don't need to read me the whole catalog."
Isher made a growling sound; he blinked and said, "Okay, then what is it you want to know?"
"You said NCI owns twenty-three percent of Melbard and puts two of its own directors on Melbard's board. The fact is, NCI owns sixteen percent of Melbard. Elliot Judd owns the other seven."
"But Elliot Judd is NCI. Board chairman, biggest stockholder, what-have-you. What's the difference?"
"The difference is, Sidney, I don't pay you for sloppy work. I want facts, not approximations."
Isher bridled. "Look, how can I give you what you want unless you tell me what you want? How am I supposed to know what to look for if I don't know exactly what your angle is?"
"Do I always have to have an angle?"
"I wish I knew more about why you're interested in Melbard. I could answer your questions with a good deal more precision. For instance, if you're out to raid them the way you did Ewing, then it's a very good setup. You offer the Melbard family a higher price for the assets than the existing market price of the stock. You can afford to do that, because you can still clear a healthy profit simply by breaking up the assets—mostly the inventory. Then pay off the family from the accumulated reserves and end up owning the physical assets for peanuts. It shouldn't be too hard to get at it—old James Melbard's sick, the rest of the family are golfers and clubwomen. All you have to do is go to them and convince them the company's in danger of running down like an old clock."
"It could be, if they don't get on the stick."
"Go on," Villiers said.
"Convince Melbard he needs help to modernize—then offer to buy him and his family out, with enough capital to save the company. You don't buy all his stock, but naturally your price for bailing them out is controlling interest: you buy fifty-one percent of the stock. The family keeps the remaining nineteen percent. It should look attractive to them—after all, old James Melbard's getting too long in the tooth to hang on much longer. If you buy in, they can't lose, no matter what happens. They get a premium price for their stock. And they might even make more money on the shares they keep. Then, of course, there's that item in the assets column called goodwill—some nice outside money could boost that for them."
Villiers opened a flat silver case and took out a cigarette. "You got a match, Sidney?"
Isher snapped, "No. I don't smoke."
"Maybe you ought to. Might clear up that cough." Villiers smiled a little.
"What else do you need to know?" Isher asked.
"For openers, we can't move into this without knowing which way NCI's going to jump when they find out Melbard's got a buyer sniffing around."
"You mean Elliot Judd may get nervous when he hears somebody's trying to move in on Melbard."
"I don't want NCI bidding me up, Sidney—I can't compete with that monster."
"Nobody could, this side of General Motors. You've got a good point."
"Give me an educated guess. Will they bid against me?"
"Depends on how you handle it," Isher said. "Do you want me to use your name?"
Excerpted from The Villiers Touch by Brian Garfield. Copyright © 1970 Brian Garfield. Excerpted by permission of A MysteriousPress.com.
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