Read Miranda's War Online

Authors: Howard; Foster

Miranda's War (9 page)

“Why?”

“Because you're my wife and I'm paying for everything you do.”

“But that's what you love about me, isn't it? I take you places you wouldn't go to on your own. And you've brought me here, a place I wouldn't have reached on my own.”

“It's true, but you're on the public stage now. It's not like taking me to a performance of
King Lear
in modern dress or a vacation on the Frioul islands.”

“I'm bored with my life. I need challenge. This excites me. And deep down I think you agree with what I'm trying to do. You're not really ready for a strip mall on Route 2. You don't want our boys in the public schools, you don't like paying high taxes, you don't know anyone living in the subsidized housing units. Need I go on?”

“You have a point. We might be better off with that land on Route 2 instead of the Pierce Estate,” Archer said. “I just don't like your method. We both know that Blair Hull repainted the peace sign. You didn't get rid of it. Lincoln likes it. I like it. I like living in this progressive rural place with educated people and yes, I'm willing to pay for the privilege. And you like it here too. Need I go on?”

“The market value of the Pierce Estate is 12 million tops. Zenni is willing to pay 14.5. What more do I need to say?”

“Why is he willing to pay more than the market value?”

“Because he sees it as buying goodwill, cachet, class, call it what you will.”

“It's cashing in on our good name.”

“You academics really hate that, don't you? Capitalism is tainted. The market always leads us astray.”

“Markets need to be regulated. Land is money, and your job is to conserve it.”

“I'm not a happy person, love. I just don't take pleasure in the little things. I have no interest in serving on a board that approves building permits. That's not why I tried so hard to get on the Commission. I have a vision. I'm here to do something consequential, to be Frederick Law Olmstead, to make big plans, to beautify my world.”

“Lincoln doesn't want you to do that. Lincoln is happy with what we are. If you go far, you'll be shot down very fast.”

“I think Lincoln needs to be told it doesn't have a long-term future as is.”

“I might not be able to stop you from trying, but they will.”

Chapter Sixteen

The next morning Archer arrived at his office at about 8:30, and the very first thing he did upon setting his worn cordovan attaché on his desk was to make a call to Karl Anderson.

“Mr. Chairman, I need to speak to you but just can't find the right words to express how I feel. My wife is working her will, and it's driving you through the roof. She's determined to sell the Pierce Estate. Had I known she had this agenda …”

“I'm equally at fault. You asked me to keep her off the Commission for three years. I did.”

“I had my reasons, personal reasons. Miranda shouldn't serve in public office.”

“And I read between the lines. There was no need to elaborate, Professor. I cast a tie-breaking vote once on a brilliant young law professor we were looking at for Harvard. He was an impressive scholar and impressed us in interviews, but I knew one of his colleagues at Georgetown. The young man had had a mental breakdown and nobody wanted to talk about it. People were touchy about these things back then. There was no diagnosis. Well, five years later he was asked to leave Cornell after his arrest on drug charges.”

“She's not an addict. She hasn't had a breakdown. She's just …”

“When you told me she wanted to run for Selectman, I thought this might be the best way out for both of us, and the town.”

“It wasn't, I knew it. But I just didn't want to have her run for public office.”

“You knew she would lose.”

“I knew she would win. Miranda gets what Miranda wants in life. She may not like the consequences, but she is very, very effective in working her will.”

“If the town knew she'd been asked to leave the Board of the Wang Center and her own alma mater.”

“If you knew that, then why did you put her on?”

“Because she's also brilliant. I know what determined brilliant people can do.”

“Miranda doesn't understand the concept of public service. One has to listen to others,” Archer said.

“I agree. If this teaches her that, it will be a valuable experience, something nobody else has been able to do.”

Archer called her as soon as they were done.

“Let's go to L'Espalier tonight. And I want to bring the boys.”

“Any special occasion?”

It was her favorite French restaurant, and they usually went when he'd cleared a hurdle in a piece for one of the scholarly publications he contributed to.

“Tonight no. I just feel like it.”

“Well who am I to resist such an invitation? Can you get a res?”

“I'll mention your name. We'll get a table.”

The distraction behind her, Miranda returned to fervent efforts to attract the attention of Garrett Tristan, a renowned French documentary filmmaker. His current obsession was class. He'd done a documentary on the elite French secondary academies and was rumored to be interested in a project in the U.S. So far she'd got through to one of his assistants, describing her work in both French, which she spoke fairly fluently, and English. Writing bilingual emails was a challenge, but she persisted, receiving requests for more information about “snob zoning” and the Commission. Today the assistant was going to call her, and she now knew the call would be conducted in French. She called Miranda at 7:00 a.m. Eastern time and asked for a single-sentence encapsulation of what was going on in her town.

“It's a modern-day American Revolution,” Miranda said. “It's a revolt of the haves. And we're next door to where the first one started.”

“I understand that; that's extraordinary.”

“So if Mr. Tristan is interested, then have him call my cell.”

Two hours later, he called.

“I prefer to speak on my landline,” she said tersely. Please call me back,” and gave him the number.

He called, and they spoke for forty-five minutes in English.

Chapter Seventeen

Miranda arrived early for the Commission meeting and flipped on the lights in the room. She sat in the Chairman's seat and looked to her right and to her left, to the empty seats of her colleagues, and visualized them from Karl's perspective. His chair was actually elevated about a foot above the rest of them on the dais. The room looked different from this spot. When she was at her seat at the end, to his right, she really could only see Julia, next to her, and Karl's bow tie. That was intentional. He wanted her marginalized with Julia as a buffer. And if that was his goal, to have Julia cut her off from the rest of them, it had failed. She had mastered Julia weeks ago, and Julia still did not know Miranda. Julia was as money conscious as anyone she had ever met. If she did not take the $14 million bait, then Miranda would cook up a bigger deal, $20 million for the Pierce Estate and some other parcel under their control. But Julia was going to side with her and bring along Nate Griswold. Ten million was probably enough; it would happen tonight.

She swiveled her chair around and faced the rows of dusty old books lining the shelves, the annual town reports. She pulled out 1904, opened it to page 111 and saw the yellow Post-it note she put there the day after Karl had rejected her first application for membership on the Commission: “Why am I doing this to myself?” She pulled it off the page and put down a new note: “I have a clear path to power. Only I can stop myself.”

Soon the meeting was underway. Miranda was seated at her assigned seat. Karl called for order, and they breezed through the first three agenda items in fifteen minutes by unanimous consent. Then he brought up item four, the proposal of Commissioner Dalton to form a subcommittee to study the feasibility of selling the Pierce Estate to New England Properties, LP, for $14.5 million, pursuant to a written offer, which was attached as an exhibit.

“I'm very troubled by this proposal,” said Karl. “It's made in total disregard of section 2 of our charter, which is to maintain all property under the jurisdiction of the Lincoln Conservation Trust and add to them from time to time as our resources allow. I'll ask Commissioner Dalton to explain why this proposal doesn't run afoul of that.”

“Mr. Chairman, this is our mission statement: “to enact ordinances to maintain Lincoln's semi-rural character in the face of the trends toward suburbanization. All we're doing is taking it to the next step, a feasibility study, the right to negotiate, to make a formal proposal.”

She saw Julia nod and Nate scribble as she finished.

“Commissioner, your major hypothesis, as we lawyers like to say, is that we need to sell the Pierce Estate because we can't afford not to. Terrible things will come our way if we don't join you on this path. But you've not shown us anything. We downzoned some land along Route 2 for commercial development. That's enough revenue-making for my tastes for a few years. The land hasn't even been sold yet.”

“I emailed you a piece from the Association of Land Trusts about this,” said Miranda. “Did you see how other towns around the country are handling estates like this? The trend is to sell with tight restrictions. And I haven't heard any reason we shouldn't consider it.”

“Well, I didn't receive that. I ask for delivery to my box in Town Hall, hard copy as they say.”

“I read it, and I'm interested,” said Nate. “Let's see if we can put together a deal that does everything we want, preserves the estate and gets if off our books. Mr. Chairman, is there anything in the charter that prevents that?”

“This is upending the way we do things! You don't sell a town jewel without a plan. What's the plan, Commissioner Dalton? What exactly are we doing with that excess money? I want a detailed proposal on my desk, my real oak desk in my study, tomorrow!”

There was an unnerving silence as Karl glanced to his left and then his right to gauge their faces. There was a rapt silence. What would he do? Invoke his executive power to put off the vote for up to seven days? Meet with her privately and ask for some sort of compromise, or use his power to call for an emergency town meeting? Miranda doubted he would use the nuclear option.

He called for a vote. It began with her, the most junior member. Then Julia voted yes, Nate Griswold voted yes, tepidly, and then stated that he had “the highest esteem for the Chairman, and this vote was in no way any sort of rebuke for how he runs this body,” which, in Miranda's view, and to Karl, it most certainly was. And then Henry Gerstenzang voted with Karl, saying the very idea of selling the Pierce Estate was “unthinkable” to him without “years of study and deliberation.”

Karl thought for a bit and whispered something to Henry.

“It seems Commissioner Dalton has prevailed, for now, and I must decide how to respond. I could let this process run its course and see what sort of agreement we end up with. How much money are we all really going to get, and what do we have to put up with to get it? And then I could raise my voice to the town. But that would be wrong. I have no idea how this will turn out. Is this Act 2 of King Lear, where the reality of dividing the kingdom starts to run its deadly course, or are we merely closing one chapter of this town's life and opening another? Lincoln should decide. So I ask Commissioner Dalton to put this off until the annual town meeting next March.”

She thought about that for a minute. It could easily be delayed. Anthony Zenni would understand. He wasn't about to cease being an inveterate climber. She also knew if she said no, Karl would take it to the town right away, an emergency town meeting, which would avoid putting the decision on hold until the regular March town meeting approved what they had done tonight. This was ultra-high-risk. He had the clout with the people. Who the hell was Miranda Dalton, newly appointed after years of rejection? Miranda just had this instinctive sense Karl could not compete with her on a modern stage where technology and the riposte would have equal footing with his aging CV. She knew how Lincoln's money-hiding outer self and money-adoring inner self interacted. He didn't.

“I'm sorry, Mr. Chairman, but for a number of reasons, particularly the mood of the buyer, I cannot agree to defer this for nine months. It will likely kill the opportunity we have.”

“Then I use the power I have under section 14 of our charter to call an emergency town meeting to take up this resolution, Commissioner Dalton. You're going too far, and now there's going to be a Nantucket sleigh ride.”

Miranda didn't understand the reference but allowed no hint of fear.

“My colleagues and I have made our decision. We're ready to explain our decision to the town, sir.”

Julia looked wan and stunned. Nate asked procedural questions: when was the town meeting going to be held, and what other options were there? Karl answered him tersely and adjourned. He got up from his chair, cast a quick dismissive glance in Miranda's direction and exited in the other direction off the dais and into the hallway.

“You didn't tell me this was going to happen,” Julia said acidly. “An emergency town meeting! That says we don't know what the hell we're doing. It's the worst way to present the Pierce House sale to the town.”

“He's overreacting,” Miranda assured her. “We want to study selling the museum. Study the idea, and he goes berserk. Do you know how much an emergency meeting is going to cost the town? And for what, so we shouldn't study the idea of selling it for $14 million?”

“It didn't have to come to this.”

“You could have sponsored the sale, not me, if that's what you're thinking.”

Julia nodded. “I suppose he doesn't loathe me.”

“But he would see my handiwork all over it, right?”

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