Until Death Do Us Part
by Patric Quinn
“Good evening, Mr. Penney.” Alton, the Woodlocke household valet, helped my boss slip out of his raincoat and reached for the umbrella I held. I handed it over, wondering how long the late Mr. Woodlocke’s faithful retainer would last after tonight’s reading of the will. Alton nodded to me. “Mr. Brand.”
I smiled. “Thank you, Alton. How are you?” He nodded again.
“If you and Mr. Penney will go into the library, I’ll take care of your things and tell the family that you’ve arrived.”
Mr. Penney started across the expansive marble foyer. As Mr. Penney’s assisting attorney and witness to the proceedings, I get to lug the files and carry the brief cases, although there was only one mildly thick file for tonight. I’m Steven Brand.
I didn’t feel quite comfortable in such sumptuous surroundings. Mr. Penney was, and, clearly, Mr. Woodlocke had been. Opposite the massive front entry and across the foyer, rose a wide staircase that split near the top to each side. In the wide space was a large painting, which was an historic family heirloom, or so Mr. Penney had told me. It was striking to look at even if I didn’t know what it was about.
A massive chandelier hanging over this grandeur was softly lit, and the space was quiet with no hint of the pouring rain audible. A light scent from the flowers on the table at the center of the foyer followed as we entered the library.
The library was a carved wooden dream with bookshelves to the ceiling, heavy comfortable furniture and a huge desk that dominated the room. I loved the times we had come and worked here.
Many of the hundreds of volumes had been read, Mr. Penney had assured me. But by Mr. Woodlocke, when he was visiting, not the children. He always called them “the children,” not “my kids.” As a young, inexperienced lawyer, I had learned that both my boss and the deceased Woodlockes had learned their behavior in a more formal era, maybe a more gracious one than today’s tech-driven rush.
However, I had on occasion found the daughter, Trish, curled up on the leather couch and absorbed in some book or other. She was an attractive young woman with long, dark hair and long legs. Even in today’s world, she took her time reading to a convenient stop, would drop a bookmark in the page, slip the book back onto a shelf, recognize me with a nod and leave me to my work. Patricia didn’t smile much.
While I arranged the papers from the file on the desk for Mr. Penney, he browsed the room yet again, touching a bit of craftsmanship here and there. A graceful man with gray hair, patrician features, rimless glasses, and a tailored suit, Mr. Penney looked like he belonged in a place like this. He could afford it, but his tastes were quite conservative.
Some years ago, I had applied to his firm as a proud “attorney” who had freshly passed the bar. He had addressed that in his quiet way: “Attorney? We are lawyers here, Mr. Brand. We work in the law.”
I finished the papers and stood up. “A beautiful place, isn’t it, sir?”
“Yes, beautiful, Steve. And improved.”
He came and stood by me, glanced at my preparations. “After Mr. Woodlocke died, Mrs. Woodlocke brought it back the way she had it to begin with. She hated the chair heights.”
“Chair heights, sir?”
“The seats, Steve. Mr. Woodlocke had the highest seat behind the desk and in front—”
“Oh, I get it. The seats in front were lower. The old ‘looking down on you’ trick.”
“Actually, a sign of his insecurity. He was very domineering, another sign. He didn’t even work that much here, spent most of his time in New York. Connecticut could have been Mars to him. After he died Mrs. Woodlocke couldn’t wait to change it back.”
I was puzzled. “Then, why did he build it at all? Like he was re-
“He didn’t. Mrs. Woodlocke built it. You know she’s a successful writer of romance books. She built it with her own money from writing. Built it the way she wanted it, but he didn’t care what she wanted.”
“Is that why they seemed so cool when they were together?”
“They were no match at all. I never... well. Tonight we read her will, and you’ll find out what happens to all this.”
“You know, sir?”
“Yes, but you know these things are confidential, Steve. Are we ready?”
“Yes, sir.” As I answered, Alton came in.
“Everyone is in the foyer, Mr. Penney.”
“Please have them come in, Alton.” Mr. Penney moved to the front of the desk and shook hands with the men as they came in. Patricia held out her hand, and he took that, too. As a group, they were not sad, rather somber. “William, Edward, Patricia, you know my associate, Mr. Brand. If you’ll take the seats near the desk, we can start.”
The lovely Patricia moved to what I remember as her favorite couch. William was like her: tall and slim, long hair, too, and also well tanned from his golf tournaments. Edward was the business brother. Handsomely suited, a serious face, maybe a little mean, and a bit on the soft side. New York was his milieu. He had followed in his father’s footsteps. I sat next to Mr. Penney to assist and witness.
“Trish, Will and Ed, this is the processing of your mother’s will, which includes the residue of your father’s estate which went to Mrs. Woodlocke when Mr. Woodlocke passed. I mention that because it is significant. The papers have the legal jargon, but I’ll tell you in plain language what the distributions are.”
Edward sat up in his chair. “But they should be equal, just a matter of disposing of the assets suitably.”
“Not quite that simple, Ed. Your mother was a very fair person. And in her way she loved you all. She was also very precise. Trish probably knows that; she stayed here and lived with her. You and Will went your way and may not.”
Will shook his head. “I don’t get what you’re talking about, Mr. Penney, but let’s do it and see how things lie.”
“Yes. The assets are of two kinds, and so are the recipients. Your father left assets to your mother when he died, as he did to you. You’re all equal there. The assets now are partially your father’s and partially your mother’s. Your mother developed significant assets from her writing career. And Patricia continues keeping her estate viable as that business entity.”
Will chuckled. “Patricia in business? Come on. What is she doing, writing those silly books Mom played around with?”
Trish glanced at him, but said nothing.
Mr. Penney held up a hand to stop the discussion. “I assure you that the will and bequests are totally prepared and, in any event, unchangeable. This is a completely tight will. And your mother told me all the reasons behind her decisions. But your family secrets are safe with me. Even Mr. Brand doesn’t know them unless you require me to expose them here tonight.”
Ed grumped. “This doesn’t sound good.”
Will shook his head side to side impatiently.
Trish watched her brothers but stayed quiet.
Mr. Penney took a long brown envelope out of his breast pocket and laid it beside the papers on the desk.
“The assets are stocks and bonds and this property and house. The financial assets are totaled and divided by six. Five parts of the six are divided between Will and Ed. The sixth part goes to Trish. Mr. Brand, please?”
I handed three copies of that bequest to him. He laid them out on the desk beyond his own papers. Trish was silent, but watching and listening. Her concern at the shortage between her and her brothers clear on her face.
Will was sitting at the front of his chair now. “And how much does this add up to, in dollars?”
“It depends on the market, but some is in cash securities.”
Will was insistent. “How much?” Mr. Penney checked his papers and gave him a “close approximation.” Will flopped back in his chair. “That’s it?”
“That’s quite accurate, Will. certainly enough to build on.”
“That won’t last me more than two years. Then what?”
Ed spoke: “Two years, unless you start finishing higher in the money in your tournaments.”
“Yeah, very clever, Ed. Big businessman.”
“I do okay. It’s not a big deal, but I’m doing okay anyway.”
“And I’ll wind up as some two-bit golf pro at some two-bit country club.”
Ed shrugged and waved at the surrounding room. “There’s always this place. It should be worth a small fortune by now. The land alone.”
Mr. Penney held up his hand to stop the talk. “Will, and Ed, and, of course, Patricia. We are conducting the last will and testament of your mother. I’ll complete the bequests first, then, with reference to Mrs. Woodlocke’s testament, I’ll explain the decisions. Your mother was specific in what she did and equally specific in why. She confided everything to me and her reasoning is explained in her testament. Her testament means her last words to her heirs. Patricia, you’ve been silent, but please pay close attention. The same for you young men.”
Will slouched back in his chair in a sulk. Ed grimaced, but showed no feeling, and Trish seemed as attentive as she had been. I passed Mr. Penney the next set of papers and noticed him removing a business-size brown envelope from his breast pocket. I hadn’t known about that. He laid it unopened beside the papers.
“We’ll continue now regarding the property. This property — house, land, horses and associated buildings — is known as Margo Manor. In addition to her previous bequest, Patricia receives exclusive ownership of Margo Manor and its complete inventory of associated furniture and fixtures.”
I glanced at Trish and caught a little grin, a small but knowing smile. I didn’t know how she knew, but she did. Mr. Penney held up the brown envelope casually and continued.
Will and Ed were both aghast on the edge of their seats.
“To clarify, that includes any income, due, present or future, derived from activities that took place in this house and property. Patricia was informed of her participation and why back at that time. In short, Will and Ed, everything about Margo Manor, now or in the future, belongs to Patricia. Do you understand that, Patricia?”
Mr. Penney looked at them, from one to another. A little glimmer ran along the edge of his glasses. Will was slouched in his chair, his thinking somewhere else. Trish folded her hands together. Did she smile? Ed stood up, walked around his chair and stood with his back to us. His voice was firm and even.
“I think this deserves an explanation, Mr. Penney.”
Mr. Penney waved the brown envelope slowly. “I had hoped you would accept these proceedings as I’ve presented them. Some of the reasoning may be unexpected. And uncomfortable.”
Copyright © 2019 by Patric Quinn