See if you can tell where this is going. Tell me what you think.
The cab was in a queue of much nicer cars. There was a canopy from the door of his destination clear to the curb, and very much needed today, with a steady cold rain. A uniformed doorman with a huge umbrella shielded guests, as they stepped across to shelter.
The cabby was angry, scowling at him in the mirror. He’d pretended to not understand English very well when he’d picked David up at the airport. Then he’d taken off on a circuitous route, designed to inflate the fare. David checked the man’s license to confirm his name fit his appearance, and then corrected him in harsh terms in Farsi, producing a shocked expression, and grudging compliance. Then he’d wanted to drop David off at the curb, well away from the door. He would have been soaked through before getting to cover.
Not that he wasn’t eager to leave. The well entrenched stink of garlic and sweat seeped around the bullet-proof partition, and infused the whole cab. The insult was compounded when they pulled up, and the uniformed doorman tried to open the door. It was locked, as if David was some deadbeat who might skip on the fare. It remained locked, until David swiped his pay card past the pay-point bolted on the partition.
He stepped out of the cab, but declined to do more than leave the man with just his fare and no tip. The cabbie glared at him, but voiced no insult. He had no idea how lucky he was today. David had other irons in the fire, and other players of immediate concern, starting with his half brother, who had exited the limo in front of him in line.
Mark was already at the front door of the office building as David exited the cab. David hadn’t seen him in years, yet the sight of him stirred stale animus. The man radiated arrogance in his every step and gesture. It was a mark common to the entire family. He watched another liveried worker ease the massive brass and glass door shut behind his brother, keeping his hand on the door as David approached.
His half brother was black as a piece of coal, and proud of it. The whole family was fiercely proud of the fact they were not the descendants of slaves, but had come to America as immigrants. Around the turn of the previous century, when legal entry for their race was near impossible, they came in as household servants of a French diplomatic family, and stayed to the astonishment of their employers. A very unusual history, but not one he could personally see as relevant today. Yet they all retained the French language, and made a point of teaching it to the children.
He was probably the only one of the family in town, who hadn’t been met at the airport by a driver, and treated with dignity. No private limo had been available at the airport, so his only choice had been a grimy hack, that smelled like a Basra slum. As it was, he wouldn’t have been on time if he hadn’t been able to intimidate the driver.
The doorman greeted him with a friendly, “Good afternoon, sir,” but the man didn’t know his name. He nodded pleasantly, the cabbie dismissed from his thoughts in just a few steps. He’d been in the building once when he was seventeen, and never since. That made it eight years since he’d been here, and the place looked exactly the same. Pale Italian marble walls and intricate terrazzo flooring didn’t lend themselves to a remodeling every few years, like a modern office building with steel stud walls and carpeted floors. It contained the offices of his father’s attorneys. They fancied themselves the family’s attorneys, but David retained another firm, who he was certain would not mistake his father’s interests or the family’s as his.
He was here to hear his father’s will read. Crenshaw, of Henry, McPherson, and Crenshaw called him in Atlanta just yesterday, and told him he was a beneficiary. That’s all he would tell him, suggesting strongly he be there. If he’d interrupted his schedule to receive the equivalent of a posthumous raspberry from his father, he was going to be seriously pissed. To the point he’d find some way to make a certain attorney intensely unhappy. It was possible he had been left a final scolding, and the nominal dollar that made it more difficult to contest a will’s provisions.
His mother died six years ago, and he’d ignored the hostility from the family to attend her funeral. When his father passed recently he’d been in Germany, and they managed a memorial service so quickly he hadn’t been able to get back. He was pretty sure that’s exactly what they had in mind. With the reading of the will, he doubted they could exclude him without dangerous legal consequences. They had still failed to notify him by letter, rushing him with a phone call just a day ago. He had to wonder if he’d been overseas, if he’d have been notified at all.
The high ceilings and marble made the sound of his hard dress shoes on stone echo in the corridor. The elevators were old fashioned, with a brass arrow above each door indicating the floor it had reached. He’d hung back to let Mark get ahead of him. Neither would fancy sharing an elevator with the other. He punched a call button and took his coat off, giving it a little shake to rid it of any water beaded on.
The law firm entry was slightly more modern than the building. It had a single glass door, with a glass panel on each side. One bore the name of the partners in gold letters. The Secretary inside looked up at him, expectantly.
“I’m here for the Carpenter reading,” he told her.
“Thank you,” she said grabbing a clipboard. “You are?”
“David Carpenter,” he supplied. “The son.”
“Excellent,” she said, checking off a line on the document.
She pouted a bit at the list. David wondered if the family relationships were noted, and what it said beside he and Mark’s name.
“Everyone is here now.” She didn’t seem inclined to take his coat, or direct him where to go.
David thought of his offices, and wondered if their own receptionists were ever as clueless. He’d have to have a friend test them. It was certainly a security issue too.
“So, if you could find somebody to take my coat, I can wander around until I find the family,” he suggested. If that didn’t give her a hint, he’d have to be blunt.
“Oh, let me take that. There’s a rack in the conference room. Just follow me,” she said coming around the desk.” As far as he could tell, she just left the front door unmanned and unlocked, while she took him out of sight. There was no security here at all.
The conference room had the normal long table, but it also had a nice lounge, with upholstered furniture, and a table with a coffee maker and fixings. The family had all the soft furniture occupied, and a couple of the cousin’s children sitting half way down the conference table, were playing some hand held computer games.
David grabbed a high backed executive chair from the conference table, and wheeled it over by the windows. The noise level in the room had gone down a notch when he entered, and the receptionist removed herself without a word after hanging his coat. David looked around at his relatives, but didn’t greet or acknowledge any except Mark, who nodded, and he nodded back, a neutral sort of gesture. Everyone else avoided his eyes. Mark was looking older. He’d be thirty-five now, a full decade separating them. There were a few uncomfortable strangers, being ignored just as thoroughly as him.
Dave went over and helped himself to the coffee. He poured a bit in a cup and sniffed it. It smelled good enough to take a taste. Not bad, he decided, surprised. He poured, and then added cream, playing an old game his father had hated. He tried to get the coffee the same color as the back of his hand. It came close, but no match. The few times he succeeded seemed to require evaporated milk, and that was rarely offered except in remote areas, and private homes.
The rest of his family couldn’t play the game. They all matched a strong espresso straight up, as his father had. That was one thing they had against him, but there was more than that. They resented his independent success, and the fact he didn’t knuckle under to his father, as almost every one of them had at one time or another. His father had made fortunes in food service, real estate, and property management. David had dropped out of collage early, and formed a company around several patents he owned. Space based com, and aerospace electronics, was what he designed and sometimes actually built. His hardware was all through LEO and the moon. Someday he hoped to get out there himself.
He sat in the chair sideways to the windows, watching the rain hammer down, and sipped his coffee. Some of the family were fidgety, but patience was something he’d taught himself.
Crenshaw came in with several folders. He looked at the children playing at the table, and everyone comfortable in the lounge, and decided to drag a chair over like David, instead of uprooting all of them. He pulled up close enough they were a half circle before him, and he could speak normally. He distributed copies of the will. By the time he was seated some were on the second page. He was very casual crossing his leg over his knee to make a desk for the folders. David thought how his tailor would be outraged, to see him stretching the knees of his trousers out.
“Thank you all for coming. I’ve been instructed to read Joshua Carpenter’s will as he wrote it, with no abbreviations. I will say, he made conditional bequests, which we encouraged him not to do. They complicate matters, and sometimes result in the final disposition of the estate being delayed. Mr. Carpenter therefore said that I should remind you, and I quote. “If my family decides to contest the provisions of my will, I have instructed the firm to fight it vigorously in the courts, sparing no hours or effort. If you are collectively so foolish as to see the money wasted on extravagant billings to lawyers, rather than let someone else get a chunk of it, so be it.”
Crenshaw looked over the tops of his half glasses at them. “I think you will find the body of his will, has the same blunt economy of expression.”
“I, Joshua Carpenter, being of sound body as I write this document, and more importantly of sound and undiminished mind,” – ‘Here he attached certification from his physician and an attending psychologist as to his condition,’ Crenshaw noted, “do make this my true and final will,” he droned on through more boiler plate.
“To the following blood relatives I leave the sum of one-hundred dollars instead of the traditional dollar, to establish I did indeed remember them, but felt this was an adequate bequest. I do this because if any of you answered the call to the reading of my will, I don’t wish to insult you with a dollar for your morning. Most of you have not spoken with me in years, and a hundred dollars is adequate compensation for a morning lost.”
“There is a list of thirty-eight recipients of a hundred dollars, only two of whom have come in today. The rest will be sent a check by certified mail.”
Well, at least I’ve got a hundred, even if that wouldn’t pay the air fare, David thought.
“To my cousin Queena’s children, I leave two-hundred-fifty-thousand dollars each, conditioned on them attending a university, starting sometime between the age of eighteen and twenty-one.” Neither of the children at the table looked up. Nor had they been given hard copies, although their mother had. “Henry, McPherson, and Crenshaw shall disperse funds sufficient to cover their documented expenses while at university, and a lump sum of any remainder upon graduation.”
“To my secretary, Eva Johnson, I bequest five-hundred-thousand dollars. Thank you for your loyalty, and the many times you put extra effort into your work. Now, I’d suggest you and your husband Bob can pay off your mortgage, and I hope this helps make you a little more comfortable. To my miserable family, no I wasn’t sleeping with her, or I’d have left her several times as much.”
“To John Harding, the bartender at Elaine’s, I leave an identical gift of a half million dollars. John listened when I wanted, and never shorted my drink or assumed he had a tip coming. Also he could mix the best vodka gimlet straight up I ever drank. I bet you didn’t even know I knew your last name, did you John?”
A beefy fellow who had a five o’clock shadow, and looked like a wise-guy, was sitting with his mouth hanging open in shock.
“To my son by my first marriage Mark, I leave the sum of ten-million dollars.” That cause a stir and a murmuring to pass around the room. “While this is not the bulk of my estate it should offer you security for the rest of your life, if you do not slip into the error of thinking yourself independently wealthy. If you fall into the trap of spending wildly on homes, cars, and boats, it will be gone faster than you can imagine. You are not receiving the bulk of my estate, because I judge you incapable of maintaining the businesses I’ve created over a long period. When major adjustments are needed, I don’t think you are the decisive, strong willed sort, to make them. There are thousands of people in my companies, depending on them for their livelihoods, and I couldn’t throw their futures away on the chance I’m wrong, and you’d rally to the occasion.”
“To my son by my last marriage David, I leave the rest of my estate conditionally. He must travel to Africa, and take a walking pilgrimage with a traditional healer in our Homeland. I found doing so the firm basis of much of my business ability. I believe he has the temperament, and genetic make-up, to benefit from the experience. If he is unwilling to do so, I leave him the same ten million dollars as his half-brother, and will have my counsel Henry, McPherson, and Crenshaw put the balance of my estate in a trust, with professional management, for the benefit of future generations of the Carpenter family. This will have the additional benefit of encouraging you to produce such future generations, instead of selfishly remaining childless.”
The crowd was making quite a bit of noise, several people with their heads together whispering urgently.
Crenshaw looked at David, seeming really interested for the first time. “These are the conditions of your undertaking the pilgrimage. If you decide to do so, you will receive an immediate payment of ten million dollars the same as your half-brother. You will leave and undertake your mission within thirty days. You must survive, and report back to the firm within three years, as to whether you were successful in accomplishing your duty. You must decide today, before you leave the building.”
“He gets to decide himself if he was successful?” Mark asked, incredulous.
“Yes,” Crenshaw confirmed, smiling.
“He can hole up in a hotel, and drink and whore, and never see the back country.”
“Indeed, he could, if he was so disposed. Mr. Carpenter must have made the judgment he was of a character not to do so. We were not instructed to hire investigators to check on him. I imagine some of you might.” Something about the way he said it made it an accusation.
“I have my own company, and people depending on me. I’m not sure I want to do this,” David protested. Most of the family were looking at him like he’d lost his mind. “I’ve not kept up with what my dad was doing. May I ask what the remainder of his estate amounts to, over the minimum bequests?”
“After the twenty-one million-five-hundred-three and eight-hundred dollars of bequests, the total value of all stocks, properties, and insurance, will approximate one-hundred-seven million. The total will vary with market conditions, expenses, and we have ongoing hours billed. But that was the value yesterday, give or take a million.”
The murmur from the relatives was loud, and Crenshaw frowned disapproving.
“I had no idea,” David told him. “I thought a few tens of millions at most.”
“Three or four years ago, yes,” Mr. Crenshaw confirmed. “The market has been kind.”
“In that case I shall undertake to complete his request,” David told him.