finem respice

The Curse Of Merlin

Submitted by ep on Tue, 04/21/2009 - 08:27
box your ears

It is years ago and Jeffrey is droning on, setting the stage for an "exciting new opportunity" and the square plastic earpiece on the phone receiver is already hurting the cartilage in my left ear. My right ear was already throbbing from three hours spent on the phone catering to the early-morning whims of a European time zone deal. This meant that my attention was almost completely occupied with my burgeoning and cunning plan to track down and painfully maim (or perhaps even kill) the designer of the crude successor technology to the ancient AT&T Merlin headset now responsible for the indignant offense to my person. Even in the midst of my suffering, the cobwebs lining the walls of my attention are briefly brushed away by the mention of a rather famous captive hedge fund managed by one of the big investment banks.

This was the second call I had to endure with Jeffrey. The first was a sort of set-up call that I accidentally walked in on while looking for one of Sub Rosa's other Vice Presidents. The distorted voice on the speakerphone when I walked in was Jeffery.

Jeffery is one of those former Goldman types that just barely eludes your ability to determine if he was or wasn't a victim of the up-or-out culture there. It isn't difficult to recognize the archetype. Vaguely snotty about the topic of pedigree, prone to drop the Goldman name with a little bit more subtlety than most current Goldmanites (at least those under the Managing Director level) but still presumptively suspect, no matter their cover/present affiliation, as an acting Agent of Influence for Goldman. He is possessed of one of those voices one describes most effectively to those not yet graced with the opportunity to experience it first hand by sketching what one so sounding must look like. I later described Jeffery's vocalization to Laura "The Debt Bitch" as "Most likely emanating from a creature genetically engineered on the cheap with DNA from Blankfein, Brad Pitt in Meet Joe Black and a sprinkle of hung-over Alec Baldwin." She seemed to be contemplating this so I elaborated. "And then dosed with the conflicting narcotic forces of Heroin and Adderall, each fighting a desperate battle for neurotransmitter dominance." The "Oh. Ew," I got immediately in response meant that she understood perfectly.

I had been asked by one partner or another at Sub Rosa to "evaluate an interesting opportunity forwarded to us by a friend of the firm." This was code for "listen to Jeffrey drone on to appease the Limited Partner who suggested we should, give us plausible impoliteness deniability and then get back to revenue generating work quickly." This sort of "passive aggressive Heisman duty" (hereinafter "PAHD") tended to issue forth primarily from one intensely disliked partner at Sub Rosa, let us call him "John William," and drift through the air dangerously before eventually settling on whomever shared common space-time coordinates with "JW" while looking as if they didn't have enough to do. In this period I had not yet conditioned out of myself the habit I had of looking through walls, windows and people when working out a finance problem in my head. As one might imagine, this meant that a disproportionate subset of PAHD work fell to me. I've since taken to writing nonsensical notes on a legal pad while staring through the desk when in deep thought in a professional context. This has the effect of deflecting any requests of the "since you have some time" persuasion and has the added bonus of producing some rather entertaining stream-of-consciousness financial prose. Laura, on discovering one such pad and forcing my trite confession as to its deceptive origins, suggested that somewhere, out there, there was a group of investors who would be happy to pour capital into a global macro fund based on the trades suggested by this prose. I didn't believe it then. I absolutely do now.

That Jeffrey was able to pull my practiced disinterest into the sharp focus of even momentary curiosity was remarkable, especially in the face of my malicious plottings against faceless product design engineers. Jeffrey was now a senior member of a small Gibraltar/Zurich firm. His pitch boiled down to this: we have exclusive access to some of the more notable and better performing hedge funds on the planet. Funds that don't solicit outside investors. In particular, the captive fund of a rather famous investment bank. As the historically informed finem respice reader might suspect, his was intriguing back in that period. In the middle of a rather long winded soliloquy on the noble subject of financial results, I intercomed Laura and told her to quietly listen in.

"I've got that Jeffrey guy on. Don't say anything," I hissed. "I'm supposed to be the only one on the call, but you've got to hear his voice." She mumbled something resembling assent so I conferenced her in. Jeffrey didn't even miss me, or a beat, for that matter.

As is always the unfortunate and inescapable fate of such calls, question and answer time approached. I had spent the last twenty minutes crafting a question of suitable penetration to suggest intelligent interest, and to demonstrate that I had been listening when I had not, but possessed of insufficient depth to foster much follow-up conversation. Anyone who has practiced finance knows exactly the equilibrium balancing effort to which I refer.

"I'm curious about the due diligence and know your customer regulations that you face," I intoned, this being an area I had, unfortunately, been required to research extensively when Sub Rosa was considering acquiring a brokerage (a bullet we barely dodged). "Am I right in thinking that the locales of Gibraltar and Zurich are connected to that issue?" Of course, I was awfully pleased with myself for having caused at least a half-hem-haw from Jeffrey.

"Well, we have, of course, structured things to avoid overly burdensome regulation. Primarily, it is a mechanism for clients with more substantial public profiles who need that extra bit of confidentiality." The tone in his voice telegraphed: "You know exactly what I mean and you therefore also know that this is the point in the answer when you are supposed to say, 'Ah, yes. Of course.'"

"Ah, yes. Of course," I obligingly concluded.

I was literally drawing in air to close with the obligatory, "Well, I want to thank you very much for your time, let me circle back to you after I've had a chance to absorb the materials you've forwarded and have had the opportunity to have some internal discussion," when a voice broke in sharply.

"I think we'd need to talk to the fund managers and understand the relationship better." It was Laura. I should have known better.

"Well, of course. That could be quite easily arranged." If Jeffrey was offended that someone had been lurking the call, and I certainly would have, he didn't let on. Leave it to the Debt Bitch. Of course, this had the unwanted (for me) side-effect of guaranteeing another meeting. Damn it, Laura.

I was getting ready to be very pissed at Laura for that bit of teleconference theater, but, as is her standard modus operandi, before I could even pick up the phone and intercom her to yell at her she was knocking on my office door fifteen milliseconds before opening it and plopping herself down in the chair next to me.

"Gee Laura, have a seat."

"Thanks! What a tool. That guy is from Goldman? What the hell is he doing in Zurich?"

"You are surprised?"

"Not really. This is going to be fun," and with this a thin smile, the kind she wore when she was up to something that was about to become really unfortunate for others. "Who gave you this guy?" I was about to ask her what the hell "This is going to be fun" was supposed to mean, but Laura freight-trains over me habitually in cases like these, and without even looking back at the wreckage. I compounded my already mounting list of mistakes by telling her.

"John William," I eye-rolled.

"Perfect. Watch and learn, sister. Watch and learn." Laura has never been particularly appreciative of other people's boundaries, personal space issues or professional expectations. Or, in fact, anything about what anyone else thinks at all for very long. It is only a measure of the fact that I had learned to cope with her irreverent idiosyncrasies with a sort of affected bland indifference, as if they simply didn't get to me, that I wasn't taken off-guard when she leaned over, picked up my phone and stabbed at the keypad.

"JW?" Calling John William by his initials was beyond ballsy. It just wasn't done. "Laura. I'm with Equity Private. This Jeffrey thing is kind of interesting. I think we need to send a couple people to have a look. They are in New York, right?" She knew damn well they weren't in New York. "What? Zurich? Oh. Never mind then. That's quite a hike. Well, what do you mean?" A smile was growing on her face, even as her voice grew more and more irritated. The juxtaposition was Kafkaesque. "Well, I'm not sure I can schedule that.... Well, no, but Project Right Field is heating up..." Project Right Field was going nowhere, of course. "Well, no. Well, maybe it would be better if Equity went? She is practically on the beach."

I had long since learned not to bother to protest, but, between powerful urges to smack her, I eyed the modular plug on the handset Laura was holding nonetheless wondering if I could quickly pinch the plastic clip and disconnect it from the phone. Laura clearly read my intentions because she looked at me and quickly grabbed the phone's base and leaned way back, holding it in her lap. I was going to find that designer if it killed me.

"Well, yes, I did say a couple people, but really I think Equity can handle it if.... Well, yes. Yes. Yes. I would need to clear it with Bob." Bob was the corpulent pseudo-rainmaker Sub Rosa partner Laura liked to invoke if anyone asked her who she reported to. I am convinced this was primarily a function of Bob's disdain for e-mail, extensive travel schedule and the fact that he was so intensely difficult to reach by telephone no one but his assistant even tried anymore. Really, I'm not sure anyone, including Bob, knew who Laura actually reported to. After some reflection it occurs to me that Laura probably didn't know who Laura reported to at that particular point. Laura made a few more weak protestations. A few appeals to expenses. Even a side mention of the Associates nuclear bomb: the weekend wedding. John Williams was having none of it. John Williams was, in that moment, The Debt Bitch's Bitch.

And, just like that, Laura and I were bound for Zurich.

...to be continued....

[Art Credit: "The Avaya Merlin Magix 4424LD+ 24-Button Digital telephone ," Photograph (Unknown Date), Unknown Provenance. The Merlin Magix system, successor to the widely successful AT&T Merlin and Merlin Plus lines fell to Avaya from Lucent, that had, in turn, brought the technology over from AT&T. Merlin systems were standard, even ubiquitous in small and medium business contexts, their distinctive boxy, rock hard plastic earpieces thereby perpetuating a sad legacy of painful ear conditions for some two decades. Even the post-modern private equity professional was unlikely to do many turnaround deals before becoming acquainted with the highly liquid secondary and (eventually) salvage markets for Merlin gear. Mercifully, Avaya cut off the blood flow to the Magix system in 2006. Unfortunately, Avaya's next generation product, the Partner system, carries on a long tradition of telecommunications design subsidies to the airline industry by making so painful a two hour conference call that the gentle graces of the Department of Homeland Security and commercial airline travel present a far less distressing alternative. So far, the offending product design engineer remains safely anonymous.]

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