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By way of introduction, let me say that I worked, technically, as a straightforward attorney-at-law. I say "technically" because I was, in fact, a freelance defensive back in the corporate takeover game, which these days is anything but straight. You'd have to go back to the roaring twenties to find so many creative screw-jobs. Some people are drawn to power; guess I'm more attracted to the idea of occasionally whittling it down to size.

So when some hotshot raider found a happy little company whose breakup value was worth more than the current stock price, then decided to move in and grab it, loot the assets, and sell off the pieces—one of the players apt to end up downfield was Matt Walton. For reasons that go a long way back, I liked to break up the running patterns of the fast-buck artists. It's a game where you win some and lose some.

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The trick is to try and beat the odds, and I suppose I'd had my share of luck. Give you a quick example. Back in the spring, a midsize cosmetics outfit called me in as part of their reinforcements to fight an avaricious rape, better known as a hostile takeover, by one of their biggest competitors. After looking over the balance sheet and shares outstanding, I suggested they divest a couple of unpromising consumer divisions—namely a "male fragrance" line that made you smell like a kid leaving the barbershop, and a "feminine hygiene" product that could have been a patent infringement on Lysol—and use the proceeds to buy back their own common shares.

We also threw together a "poison pill" that would have practically had them owning anybody who acquired more than twenty percent of their stock. Our move scared hell out of the circling vultures and reinforced my reputation on the Street unduly harsh, I thought as a give-no-quarter son of a bitch. Another fact worth mentioning is that I worked without benefit of a real office; after selling off my piece of the law partnership, I operated out of my place downtown, with a telephone and a couple of computers.

A kindly gray-haired dynamo by the name of Emma Epstein, who had a rent- controlled apartment down the block, dropped by afternoons and handled correspondence, filing, matrimonial advice, and the occasional pot of medicinal chicken soup. The only other member of my staff was a shaggy sheepdog named Benjamin, who served as security chief, periodically sweeping the back garden for the neighbor's cat. That was it. Oh, yes, one other item. Crucial, as it turned out. I'd always been a collector of something—once it was antique spurs, for chrissake—but about ten years earlier I'd started to get interested in things Japanese and ended up going a little overboard about old swords and such.

Joanna's unscheduled departure managed to burn out a lot of my circuits, and what had been merely an obsession grew into something a little crazy. For a year or so I became, in my own mind at least, a sort of American ronin , a wandering samurai. You see, the Japanese warriors had a code that said you ought to live every moment in full awareness of your own mortality. When you adopt this existential outlook, so they claimed, all regrets, emotions, complaints, can be seen as an indulgence.

You're ready to meet life head-on, to risk everything at a moment's notice. That's the only way you ever discover who you really are, and it's supposed to make you marvelously detached. Almost enough to make you forget how your raven-haired, brilliant, sexy mate packed it in one New Year's Eve twenty. Add to which, she used my momentary disorientation to get custody of Amy. So while I was battling corporate Goliaths, I let her walk off with the only thing I would have given my life for. The more time went by, the more I wanted to kick myself.

Alex Katz of Walton, Halliday, and Katz—now minus the Walton read the custody agreement the day after I signed it, sighed, glared over his smudgy half-lenses, and announced that this kind of unconditional surrender should only be signed on the decks of battleships. What did he have, a law partner or a fucking schlemiel?

He was right, for all the wrong reasons.

Confirmation Bias

Not long after, I cashed in my piece of the firm and went independent. Win or lose, it's best to sort things out on your own. I was then forty- three, six one, and weighed in at an even one eighty. There were a few lines on the face and several more on the psyche, but the sandy hair was mostly intact, and I could still swim a couple of miles if absolutely essential. Maybe there was still time for a new start.

Part of that therapy was going to be our trip. Perhaps I should also add that I'd had a brief "rebound" fling, for what it was worth. The lady was Donna Austen, a name you'll recognize as belonging to that irrepressibly cheerful "Personalities! She'd called about a segment on the subject of the cosmetics company takeover, then very much in the local press, and I'd said fine. She ended up downtown, and soon thereafter we became an item.

In the aftermath I went back to chatting with Amy every day on the phone, putting together stock buyback packages, and collecting Japanese swords. Anyway, while the cab waited for a light, worn-out wipers squeaking, I fumbled around in my coat pocket and extracted the meishi , the business card, one side in English, the other Japanese, that had been included with Noda's letter.

Now, I'd kept track of the new Japanese investment heavies in town—Nomura, Daiwa, Nikko, Sumitomo—since you never know when a corporation might need some fast liquidity. They were starting to play hardball, and these days with all that cheap money back home they would underbid a nine-figure financing deal before Drexel Burnham could spell "junk bond. Never heard of the outfit. Well, I thought, you'll know the story soon enough. The driver had just hung a right on Fifty-seventh and was headed east toward York Avenue. I'd called that afternoon to lower the reserve on one of my lots and had been told that because of some union squabble the preview would continue till just before the sale, now scheduled to kick off at eight-thirty.

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It wasn't quite seven yet, so we would have at least an hour to run through my list of prospective buildings. As the cab pulled up next to the chaste glass awning, I took a deep breath, shoved a ten through the Plexiglas panel between the seats, and stepped out. While the battered Checker lamented remnant of a vanishing species squealed into the dark, I unbuttoned my overcoat and headed up the steps. A few grim-faced patrons milled here and there in the lobby, but nobody looked familiar.

There was even a new girl at the desk by the stairs, ash blond and tasteful smoked pearls, pure Bryn Mawr art history. A class act, Sotheby's. It appeared that most of the Japanese crowd was already upstairs, undoubtedly meditating on their bids with the meticulous precision of the Orient. I was headed up the wide, granite steps myself when I decided to check out the downstairs one last time.

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Hold on, could be there's a possibility. Waiting over by the coat check, thumbing the catalog, was a distinguished-looking guy, retirement age, wearing a light, charcoal suit. Unlike the usual Japanese businessmen, he clearly didn't assume he had to dress like an undertaker and keep a low profile.

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No, probably just some Mitsubishi board member thinking to diversify his portfolio with a few objets d'art. Abruptly he glanced up, smiled, and headed my way. I realized I'd been recognized. Walton, how good of you to come. As convention required, I held it in my left hand and studied it anew while I accepted his hearty American handshake. At last. At last? I let that puzzler pass and handed over a card of my own, which he held politely throughout our opening ritual, then pocketed.

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  • Noda had a mane of silver hair sculptured around a lean, tan face, and he looked to be somewhere between sixty and seventy. Though his dark eyes were caught in a web of wrinkles that bespoke his years, they had a sparkle of raw energy. He moved with an easy poise, and the initial impression was that of a man eminently self-possessed.