A Man of Property
The county courthouse stood in the center of a small park, Court Square, with Main Street skirting one side. Town Hall, the Public Library, and attorneys’ offices surrounded the park. Sam Dobbin occupied the second floor of a brick townhouse. As Louisa climbed the steep, narrow stair, she was glad she wore sensible shoes.
A secretary met her at the door and took her into the front room, with windows overlooking the historic square. Mary Willis was seated in an armchair, and her son Skip was seated in another. He had just come from his last class at the high school, and Mary had arranged to leave work early. They exchanged greetings while Sam brought another chair from the back room and set it for Louisa. He returned to his desk chair and took up a typed document.
“Thank you all for coming today. As you know, Ralph Willis died three days ago. I believe the funeral took place today?”
“Yes,” Mary said. “At St. Giles. He was buried in the churchyard. Father Percy spoke, and the music was beautiful.”
“I’m sorry I could not be there,” Sam said. “Ralph hired me as his attorney several years ago. Among other business, he had me draw up a will. It’s strictly a formality, but I like to conduct a reading of the will after the deceased has been laid to rest. The immediate family members who could be located are here. Mrs. Jones is here as a disinterested observer. Is that right?”
“A friend of the family,” Mary said. “I invited her.”
“Very well. The document is not long. Please note that it is dated January 6 of this year.”
Last Will and Testament of Ralph E. Willis
I, Ralph Edward Willis, being of sound mind and body, in the forty-third year of my age, residing in the town of Hapsburg in the County of Quidnunc in the Commonwealth of Virginia, do hereby make this Last Will and Testament. It is a solemn occasion for me, less so for those I leave behind. If you feel inclined to laugh, I won’t be able to stop you.
Samuel Dobbin, attorney, is the recorder and preserver of this Will. In view of my unmarried status, lack of descendants, and the uncertain whereabouts of living relatives, Samuel Dobbin is also appointed the Executor of this Will. He is the man.
As a member in good standing of the Episcopal Church of America, I direct that a funeral or memorial service be held as soon as practical after my demise, in the church of St. Giles in Hapsburg. My body is to be buried in a plain pine coffin in the grave already purchased and recorded in my name. All expenses related to the funeral and burial are to be paid from my estate. Please don’t go overboard.
As I hope for forgiveness for all sins committed knowingly or unknowingly against my Lord and fellow man, so I forgive those who have sinned against me. Jesus instructs us to love our enemies. As I reflect on the passage, a number of people come to mind.
All my spiritual riches, I leave to my neighbors and fellow citizens. If a man can never have too much advice and too many well-meaning critics, then I have been truly blessed.
The artistic treasure of music I leave to those best able to appreciate it, the singers and musicians of Hapsburg, all who can carry a tune or swell the chorus. If you never knew how much you meant to me, this would be a good time to start.
All my worldly goods, possessions, real estate, investments, valuables, cash, and so forth, after payment of all legal debts and obligations, including the aforementioned expenses incurred when I shuffle off this mortal coil, I leave to my nephew Brendan Schuyler Willis, also known as Skip.
In the event that the aforementioned Skip Willis is a minor at the time of my death, I appoint his mother, Mary Daley Willis, as Guardian of the estate with power of attorney. Samuel Dobbin is to provide counsel and all appropriate and necessary legal services.
Lest anyone misunderstand the intention of this Will, let me state unequivocally that my brother, Patrick Willis, is to have no share in the material benefits of my estate. He benefited from it mightily during my life. Hereafter, all he may expect is a resounding raspberry.
Sam Dobbin laid the document on his desk and looked up. In the stunned silence, Louisa was the first to speak.
“Congratulations are in order.”
“Yes,” Sam said. “Congratulations to Skip. And to Mary.”
“What does it mean?” Mary asked. “What does Skip inherit?”
“A very good question,” Sam said. “The major asset in the estate is the house on Myrtle Avenue, which you know about. There is a small amount of money in his bank account, and a small retirement account or pension created by St. Giles Episcopal Church for its employees. Unfortunately, it is my duty to inform you that Ralph left significant debts. The house has a primary mortgage incurred at the time of purchase, as well as a secondary mortgage or equity line of credit incurred later. In addition, there is a loan on Ralph’s car and another loan that appears to be against personal property. If my preliminary arithmetic is correct, the liabilities on the estate equal the assets.”
“Does that mean I inherit zero?” Skip asked.
“Not exactly. If you sold the house, car and all other possessions, then paid all the debts, you might net a small surplus. Another course would be to rent out the house and use the rental income to pay the loans. On the other hand, if you find a job, and if you and your mother pool your income, you could refinance the loans, continue monthly payments, and enjoy the use of the property.”
“We could move from the apartment,” Skip said to his mother.
“Why are there so many loans?” Mary asked.
“Possibly to finance the house restoration. Construction is an expensive hobby. Ralph’s salary from St. Giles was modest. He earned something from performing. But organ recitals do not generate the same ticket sales as rock concerts. Also, he didn’t say explicitly, but it appears that his brother, Patrick, asked him for money.”
“I should have known,” Mary said. “To pay his gambling debts. That was the story years ago—rob Peter to pay Paul. Except, this time it was Ralph, his own brother.”
“The personal loan bears an address that looks suspicious,” Dobbin said. “It might be that of a shady business that charges high interest.”
“A loan shark?” Louisa asked.
“A lender of last resort. The date is recent. By then, Ralph had exhausted his other options.”
“That’s what the last paragraph of the will refers to,” Mary said.
“Two months ago,” Louisa said, “it seems as if Ralph anticipated some dire event. Do you suppose Patrick turned up on his doorstep again?”
“Without the will,” Mary said, “Patrick would inherit as next of kin, wouldn’t he?”
“That is correct,” Sam said. “I suspect that Patrick did not know the value of his brother’s estate. For that matter, Ralph may not have known. But Patrick would have been interested in getting his hands on it. When we met in January, Ralph was determined to prevent that from happening. A client’s motive is beyond my scope.”
“What about Patrick’s motive?” Louisa wondered aloud. Her words had a chilling effect, as the same though passed through everyone’s mind.
“Did my father want Uncle Ralph to die?” Skip said.
“Let’s not jump to conclusions,” Sam said.
“But he’s here!” Mary said. “I saw him earlier today, at the funeral. He could have been lurking in Hapsburg since Sunday.”
“That is significant,” Sam said.
“He vanished before I could say anything. Captain Ryder was there, too. Patrick has an outstanding warrant for failure to pay child support.”
“It was risky for him to attend the funeral,” Sam said.
“Foolhardy,” Mary said. “Or maybe he’s losing his marbles. Years of hard drinking can do that to a man.” She looked at Skip, who shifted uncomfortably.
“How old are you, Skip?” Louisa asked.
“Seventeen. And I don’t drink.”
“Glad to hear it, young man,” Sam said. “You and your mother have plenty to think about. I suggest we reconvene in a few days to discuss what course to take. Meanwhile, if you authorize me to start legal work, I will submit the will to probate.”
“How long does that take?” Skip asked.
“A few months, at best. With complications, a year or more.”
“What do you say?” Mary asked Skip. “You’re now a man of property.”
“I say go for it.”
“I agree,” Mary said. She looked at Louisa for confirmation.
“I have no say in the matter.” Louisa looked at mother and son. “Except to wish you well.”
About the Author
Robert Boucheron is an architect in Charlottesville, Virginia. His short stories and essays appear in Fiction International, London Journal of Fiction, Lowestoft Chronicle, New Haven Review, Poydras Review, Short Fiction (UK), and The Short Story (UK). His plays will be staged this year in Concord, North Carolina and the Detroit Fringe Forward Festival.