Home > The Testament(5)

The Testament(5)
Author: John Grisham

They wouldn't have to wait for the tumor after all.

IT TOOK Joshua Stafford a minute or so to recover from the shock and start thinking like a lawyer again. He waited until the third and last family was visible below, then asked Snead and Durban to step inside.

The camera was still on. Snead faced it, raised his right hand, and swore to tell the truth, then, fighting tears, explained what he had just witnessed. Stafford opened the envelope and held the yellow sheets of paper close enough for the camera to see.

"Yes, I saw him sign that," Snead said. "Just seconds ago."

"And is that his signature?" Stafford asked.

"Yes, yes it is."

"Did he declare this to be his last will and testament?"

"He called it his testament."

Stafford withdrew the papers before Snead could read them. He repeated the same testimony with Durban, then placed himself before the camera and gave his version of events. The camera was turned off, and the three of them rode to the ground to pay their respects to Mr. Phelan. The elevator was packed with Phelan employees, stunned but anxious to have a rare and last glimpse of the old man. The building was emptying. Snead's quiet sobs were muffled in a corner.

Guards had backed the crowd away, leaving Troy alone in his puddle. A siren was approaching. Someone took photographs to memorialize the image of his death, then a black blanket was placed over his body.

For the families, slight twinges of grief soon overcame the shock of death. They stood with their heads low, their eyes staring sadly at the blanket, organizing their thoughts for the issues to come. It was impossible to look at Troy and not think about the money. Grief for an estranged relative, even a father, cannot stand in the way of a half a billion dollars.

For the employees, shock gave way to confusion. Troy was rumored to live up there above them, but very few had ever seen him. He was eccentric, crazy, sick -  the rumors covered everything. He didn't like people. There were important vice presidents in the building who saw him once a year. If the company ran so well without him, surely their jobs were secure.

For the psychiatrists-Zadel, Flowe, and Theishen -  the moment was filled with tension. You declare a man to be of sound mind, and minutes later he jumps to his death. Yet even a crazy man can have a lucid interval -  that's the legal term they repeated to themselves as they shivered in the crowd. Crazy as a bat, but one clear, lucid interval in the midst of the madness, and a person can execute a valid will. They would stand firm with their opinions. Thank God everything was on tape. Old Troy was sharp. And lucid.

And for the lawyers, the shock passed quickly and there was no grief. They stood grim-faced next to their clients and watched the pitiful sight. The fees would be enormous.

An ambulance drove onto the bricks and stopped near Troy. Stafford walked under the barricade and whispered something to the guards.

Troy was quickly loaded onto a stretcher and taken away.

TROY PHELAN had moved his corporate headquarters to northern Virginia twenty-two years earlier to escape taxation in New York. He spent forty million on his Tower and grounds, money he saved many times over by being domiciled in Virginia.

He met Joshua Stafford, a rising D.C. lawyer, in the midst of a nasty lawsuit that Troy lost and Stafford won. Troy admired his style and tenacity, and so he hired him. In the past decade, Stafford had doubled the size of his firm and become rich with the money he earned fighting Troy's battles.

In the last years of his life, no one had been closer to Mr. Phelan than Josh Stafford. He and Durban returned to the conference room on the fourteenth floor and locked the door. Snead was sent away with instructions to lie down.

With the camera running, Stafford opened the envelope and removed the three sheets of yellow paper. The first sheet was a letter to him from Troy. He spoke to the camera: "This letter is dated today, Monday, December 9, 1996. It is handwritten, addressed to me, from Troy Phelan. It has five paragraphs. I will read it in full:

"'Dear Josh: I am dead now. These are my instructions, and I want you to follow them closely. Use litigation if you have to, but I want my wishes carried out.

"'First, I want a quick autopsy, for reasons that will become important later.

"'Second, there will be no funeral, no service of any type. I want to be cremated, with my ashes scattered from the air over my ranch in Wyoming.

"'Third, I want my will kept confidential until January 15, 1997. The law does not require you to immediately produce it. Sit on it for a month.

"'So long. Troy.'"

Stafford slowly placed the first sheet on the table, and carefully picked up the second. He studied it for a moment, then said for the camera, "This is a one-page document purporting to be the last testament of Troy L. Phelan. I will read it in its entirety:

"'The last testament of Troy L. Phelan. I, Troy L. Phelan, being of sound and disposing mind and memory, do hereby expressly revoke all former wills and codicils executed by me, and dispose of my estate as follows:

"'To my children, Troy Phelan, Jr., Rex Phelan, Libbigail Jeter, Mary Ross Jackman, Geena Strong, and Ramble Phelan, I give each a sum of money necessary to pay off all of the debts of each as of today. Any debts incurred after today will not be covered by this gift. If any of these children attempt to contest this will, then this gift shall be nullified as to that child.

"'To my ex-wives, Lillian, Janie, and Tira, I give nothing. They were adequately provided for in the divorces.

"'The remainder of my estate I give to my daughter Rachel Lane, born on November 2, 1954, at Catholic Hospital in New Orleans, Louisiana, to a woman named Evelyn Cunningham, now deceased.'"

Stafford had never heard of these people. He had to catch his breath before plowing ahead.

"'I appoint my trusted lawyer, Joshua Stafford, as executor of this will, and grant unto him broad discretionary powers in its administration.

"'This document is intended to be a holographic will. Every word has been written by my hand, and I hereby sign it.

"'Signed, December 9, 1996, three P.M., by Troy L. Phelan.'"

Stafford placed it on the table and blinked his eyes at the camera. He needed a walk around the building, perhaps a blast of frigid air, but he pressed on. He picked up the third sheet, and said, "This is a one-paragraph note addressed to me again. I will read it: 'Josh: Rachel Lane is a World Tribes missionary on the Brazil-Bolivia border. She works with a remote Indian tribe in a region known as the Pantanal. The nearest town is Corumba. I couldn't find her. I've had no contact with her in the last twenty years. Signed, Troy Phelan.'"

Durban turned the camera off, and paced around the table twice as Stafford read the document again and again.

"Did you know he had an illegitimate daughter?"

Stafford was staring absently at a wall. "No. I drafted eleven wills for Troy, and he never mentioned her."

"I guess we shouldn't be surprised."

Stafford had declared many times that he had become incapable of being surprised by Troy Phelan. In business and in private, the man was whimsical and chaotic. Stafford had made millions running behind his client, putting out fires.

But he was, in fact, stunned. He had just witnessed a rather dramatic suicide, during which a man confined to a wheelchair suddenly sprang forth and ran. Now he was holding a valid will that, in a few hasty paragraphs, transferred one of the world's great fortunes to an unknown heiress, without the slightest hint of estate planning. The inheritance taxes would be brutal. "I need a drink, Tip," he said. "It's a bit early."

 

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