Sims, Dorthula and Alexandra wasted no time driving to Darby Glen. Alexandra sat in the backseat poring over Trigg Moseley's files. Presumably, they would explain the Darby Glen mess and the mystery of the falling stock. She had tossed her keys to Sims, telling him to drive while she read. Sims, more New Yorker than not, handed the keys to Dorthula. He no longer had a driver's license.
As she sped down the interstate, Dorthula whipped in and out of the lanes like a JD joyrider. "You ain't got no business havin' a car like this," Dorthula said, eyeing Alexandra in the rearview mirror.
"Hush, mama. I made more in bonuses last year than you've made in a lifetime."
Harsh, perhaps, but true. Within three years of arriving at Nashville's richest white-shoe law firm, Alexandra Raines had made partner. In the process, she had become one of the more celebrated rising African Americans in the city. She served on three prestigious non-profit boards. She had just been tapped to take part in Forward Nashville's leadership training program. At the ripe old age of 32, she made the "100 Most Powerful Nashvillians" list published by a local business magazine, one of the city's few public means of keeping score. The city had no shortage of white businessmen wanting to do business with the hot new black lawyer at the toniest firm in town.
In recent months, Alexandra had been seen in the company of a fellow law partnera white man, no less. These sightings set off countless phone calls among the city's business elite and the law partners themselves. Interracial dating, let alone intermarriage, was still uncommon in Nashville at the dawn of the 21st century, at least openly. That Alexandra dated a white man didn't hurt her professionally; if anything, it only heightened her visibility, added to her allure. She was evidence that Nashville was moving ahead, behaving as other sophisticated cities do. Or so said her associates and co-workers, at least openly.
Behind her back, they called her Oreo. "You know, she's really white inside," one of the partners once remarked, and Alexandra didn't know which was worse: that he had said it, or that he had meant it as a compliment. Even so, whenever the firm's paralegals brought these comments to her with sympathetic anger, Alexandra chose not to engage. What good would it do? With a career skyrocketing in a city that was, all things considered, almost too kind and easy-going for the good of its inhabitants, she didn't want to get sidetracked by race. Had she gone to Chicago, or New York, or Houston, making partner would have taken six or seven years at least. Here, within a couple of months, she had the old white men in the firm fawning over her. The downside was that they treated her as some kind of exotic specimena performing pet, a pinned black butterfly. The upside was a career trajectory that pointed straight up.
And with good reason. By the time Dorthula had banked the last of the mud puddles dotting Darby Glen's driveway, Alexandra thought she knew what was happening with the Moseley family's real estate venture. She hadn't known what to look for, exactly; Dorthula said only that her pastor was trying to sink Trigg Moseley's real-estate venture. Even in her short career, though, Alexandra had supervised countless business closings. She knew which documents were unnecessary boilerplate, and which ones the boilerplate was meant to camouflage. So when she found a 52-page statement marked "Loan Document" among the files, she set aside the rest and started reading. By the time the BMW stopped outside the Moseley manse, she felt sick.
"What in the Sam Hell are you three doing?" Mrs. Moseley yelled. She was barely out of the house and already she had her hands squarely on her hips, as her matriarchal ancestry must have done facing down carpetbagger hordes. The cold damp air muffled even her voice. "Do you know why that black preacher is assaulting our family name?"
Wordlessly, the four walked through the front door. As the screen door slammed shut, it busted its lower hinge and collapsed awkwardly against the eaves of the doorway, hanging at a windmill tilt. Dorthula bent down and poked her fingernail into the damp, decaying wood.
"Rotten," Dorthula said, holding a pinch like snuff between her thumb and forefinger where Mrs. Moseley could see. "I betcha that whole door frame is rotten. Probly gonna have to replace the whole thing."
"Damnation," said Mrs. Moseley. "Everything about this infernal place is breaking."
As though she'd broken a spell, the signs of decay suddenly became visible all around the entrance hall. Decay in itself was not so bad: a little decay around the family homestead is a stamp of authenticity. Some of the weathered elements of Darby Glen passed for proof of shabby gentility, like the tattered Oriental rugs. They were old as Southern money, and there wasn't anything wrong with that kind of old.
But elsewhere Darby Glen's shabbiness was no longer aristocratic. Paint peeled in ribbons from some of the interior walls, and tufts of stuffing sprouted from the living-room sofa. A toilet upstairs had leaked through the roof and no one had repaired it. Even the dryer no longer worked. Mrs. Moseley had taken to hanging her clothes from a line out back. The Confederate dead were reclaiming the ground.
Clearly evident, amidst the advancing ruin, was Darby Glen's former grandness. The foyer creaked from its occasional use as a ballroom a century before, floodlit by bay windows that afforded a sweeping view of pastoral Tennessee. Pocked with water rings but polished to a shine, the dining-room table comfortably sat 16 with the leaves in, 20 in a pinch. It was at that table, now spread with files and documents, that Alexandra Raines situated the war room for Darby Glen.
"Sims Manner Moseley, perhaps you would like to tell me what in the daylights is going on?" Mrs. Moseley thundered, still on her own private warpath. "Alexandra? Dorthula? Somebody? Anybody? I hear there's some kind of trouble, and things are not looking good. At. All. Fred Milton called me himself to tell me so."
For the first time, Alexandra looked up from the table. "How is Mr. Milton?" she asked, pausing as she straightened the last of the folders.
"Why, he's, um, fine," Mrs. Moseley said, reflexively glancing in the mirror above the fireplace. Fred Milton was a far more engaging issue than family finances. "He has advised me considerably on my finances since my husband's hunting accident," she continued, tucking a wiry silver hair into place with a brush of her bony fingers. "In fact, he was courteous enough today to see if he could drive me to the Que Pasa benefit tonight. Since his wife died, he's been reaching out so. I do feel quite sorry for him."
Alexandra maintained a poker face. She too knew Fred Milton, spoke with him often, but didn't think it would be worth explaining that relationship to this lonely old white woman. It was Milton, one of the city's most powerful businessmen, who had called Alexandra Raines during her final year at Columbia Law School. He had called to introduce himself and talk about her career plans.
Where other recruiters were brash and pushy, Milton was courtly. He never really asked her anything nor said much about himself (not that he needed to: she knew his pedigree). All he said was that Nashville would hate to see a talented woman like Alexandra Raines, born and bred in the city, go somewhere else. He told her he had spent years in business in Nashville and knew it to be a decent place. He said a number of businessmen like himself often got together to talk about where the city should be going, and her name had come up as someone who shouldn't be allowed to get away. Even though he was not a lawyer, he said, he would like to see her practice law at a Nashville firm.
It was the least pushy sales job she'd ever seen. Of course, Alexandra knew someone had put him up to it. Someone, somewhere, had said, "We need some black faces at the big firms here. Otherwise, we're going to fall behind in economic development and look like some hillbilly backwater." And yet his manner and style were so genteel that she believed in his goodness. When offers from three Nashville firms came in, she couldn't detect Milton's fingerprints on them but somehow she knew. Once she moved to town, he continued to take her to lunch every month or so. He had become, in fact, her mentor, and even though he had long since retired he was steering lots of work her way.
"Fred told me that there were some developments today that were not good," Mrs. Moseley said, snapping Alexandra back on point. "Has anyone seen our stock price this afternoon?"
In the rush to Darby Glen, no one had. "What's it doing, Mother?" Sims asked.
"Well, Fred would never say so, but I got the impression that it's sinking like a rock."
"I knew it!" Dorthula exclaimed. "I knew ain't nothin' good coming from that sermon this mawnin."
Dorthula stormed off into the kitchen, trailing Mrs. Moseley in her wake. Alexandra speed-dialed her office on her cell phone. "Janet, I need a quick stock quote, please," Alexandra said into the phone. "The company is SFCI. Ess, eff, see, eye. And see if there's any news out on it."
Sims sat down next to Alexandra, slightly awestruck. Stock trades and legal maneuverings were light years removed from the tiny kitchen of his Manhattan restaurant. Frankly, this strange new world scared him. So full of conflict and threats. Dire prognostication. Cyclical boom and bust. No thank you, Sims thought. If I need crises, I'll stick to calming down Portuguese dishwashers and cherry-picking yesterday's flowers
Sweet Jesus! He had missed the 2 o'clock meeting with Joanie's florist for the Que Pasa benefit! The 3 o'clock with the caterer loomed in 30 minutes. But if the financial discussions frightened him, the idea of meeting with the caterer briefly buoyed his spirits. Finance shminance, Sims said to himself. Let's see you sweet-talk one of these drama-queen caterers out of crab puffs at the price of Robert Orr Sysco quiches.
Alexandra tapped a pencil against her palm, listening to her phone. Then, her expression unchanged, she began taking notes. "Got that," she said. "And that's down how much from the high?" More taking of notes. Another brief pause. "Obviously there's some news on this. Can you check Bloomberg? BizWire?"
As if doing reconnaissance, Alexandra scanned the room. Dorthula and Mrs. Moseley were still in the kitchen. Good, she thought. Sims and I can deal with the mothers later. Sims looked at her with a searching expression. With the phone still cradled between her shoulder and her ear, she mouthed so no one could hear: "Shit hit the fan."
"Keep reading, I don't care if it's long," she told the person at the other end of the line, scribbling furiously. After a couple of minutes, the pencil stopped scratching. "Is that it?" she said, firmly. "No, that's all I need now. But stay on this stock quote through the end of trading. I want a call every time it drops a dollar. Every time, okay?"
Snapping her phone shut, she settled into her chair, looking at Sims all the while. She folded her hands on her lap. It was as if she were preparing to answer a long and difficult question from an interviewer, and trying to sum up many parts into a cohesive whole.
"All of this is making sense now," she said.
"I'm glad you get it," Sims said.
"This deal. The real-estate deal. First there's the sermon, which threatens the viability of the project. Then the news is out on your brother's real-estate loan, which BizWire says is one unhealthy transaction. I could have told you that in the backseat. But BizWire's given it a namesomething called Death Spiral.
"On top of all this," Alexandra added, throwing her pencil on the table the way that a boxer's manager would throw a towel, "someone's shorting the stock. Big time."
Sims felt his stomach constrict. Though he didn't like the family business, he knew it was central to his well-being. He got the dividend checks, even if in recent years they had been growing smaller. He had even used his considerable chunk of stock as collateral to start the restaurant. Oh, Sims knew there were problems. Trigg had mentioned to him that the family had lots of land, acres upon acres of it, hill after hill of it, and that someday they'd have to use it to shore up the company. At the time, Sims had asked, "If we need money, why don't we just sell some of the stock?"
But Trigg said their mother would have none of that. Selling the stock would be tantamount to selling the family's history. It would mean they were slowly divesting themselves of the business, and with it the Moseley name. And Trigg didn't want to get out of the business. Sims remembered telling Trigg, "We're land poor, aren't we." His brother had laughed, but Sims knew he was right. He knew the company was having a hard time supporting Trigg and his family, his mother at Darby Glen, and him in New York. The more he thought of it, the more he hated Nashville. It was a whirlpool that never failed to suck you back in.
But at least he knew what the stock price would be: a rock-steady $34, same as it ever was. He knew it to be something like the family itself: stuck, inflexible and unyielding. It had been that way all his life, but somehow Sims felt he had to ask. "Where's the stock, Alexandra?"
"Fifteen dollars," Alexandra said. "And falling."
It was as if someone had died. "Oh my God," Sims said. He covered his face with his hands.
"Sims, be calm, okay?" She rested her hand upon his knee, in the manner less of a lawyer than an oncologist. "The next 30 minutes, until the market closes, are going to be critical. Based on my reading of the loan documents, there's a target price at which whoever is making these trades gains control of the company. I don't know how much further they have to go. I'm a lawyer, not a trader. But I can say, based on my early reading of the situation, someone's after your collective asses."
"My mother is going to freak," Sims said, falling back in his chair.
"So is mine," said Alexandra. "Where the hell's your brother? I have got to talk to him."
"Joanie told me he went to his public relations firm. It has come to this: Trigg, with a public relations firm." Sims managed a weak smile. "Some place called Smathers." The two stood, knowing that some action was called for but not precisely what.
Sims broke the silence. "Look, you seem good at ordering people around," he said. "Tell me what to do with Mother." Given the choice between an afternoon with his mother and swallowing tacks, he would ask for water. But he knew that among the many tasks of the next few hours, the role of Mother's keeper would inevitably fall to him. Maybe that's all he could do now anyway. Leave Alexandra to the heavy lifting.
"Think she can do something with those apples?" Alexandra nodded to a bushel basket filled with fruit from the trees out back.
"Yeah, I see where you're going."
"Get 'em baking a pie or two. And involve my mother too. She needs activity. I can't handle her as a distraction."
"Brilliant, Alexandra. Now you go figure out the big stuff." And with that he disappeared into the kitchen, where Alexandra could hear him delegating already: "Dorthula, I have got to have one of those apple pies before I leave. And Mother, I do love your crust. What do you say we get to work, girls. Only an hour or so before we have to start getting ready for tonight's party!"
Alexandra thought about what to do first. She would call Trigg Moseley, but first she needed to talk to someone in power. Someone who sat quietly among the city's secret rulers, governing the sleepwalkers below.
She dialed Fred Milton's number.
COPYRIGHT 2004 BY BRUCE DOBIE.