Read The Testament Online

Authors: John Grisham

Tags: #Fiction, #Thrillers

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BOOK: The Testament
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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.”

They walked next door to Mr. Phelan’s office, and found everything unlocked. The current secretary and everybody else who worked on the fourteenth floor were still on the ground.

They locked the door behind themselves, and hurriedly went through the desk drawers and file cabinets. Troy had expected them to. He would never have left his private spaces unlocked. He knew Josh would step in immediately. In the center drawer of his desk, they found a contract with a crematorium in Alexandria, dated five weeks earlier. Under it was a file on World Tribes Missions.

They gathered what they could carry, then found Snead and made him lock the office. “What’s in the testament, that last one?” he asked. He was pale and his eyes were swollen. Mr. Phelan couldn’t just die like that without leaving him something, some means to survive on. He’d been a loyal servant for thirty years.

“Can’t say,” Stafford said. “I’ll be back tomorrow to inventory everything. Do not allow anyone in.”

“Of course not,” Snead whispered, then began weeping again.

Stafford and Durban spent half an hour with a cop on a routine call. They showed him where Troy went over the railing, gave him the names of witnesses, described with no detail the last letter and last will. It was a suicide, plain and simple. They promised a copy of the autopsy report, and the cop closed the case before he left the building.

They caught up with the corpse at the medical examiner’s office, and made arrangements for the autopsy.

“Why an autopsy?” Durban asked in a whisper as they waited for paperwork.

“To prove there were no drugs, no alcohol. Nothing to impair his judgment. He thought of everything.”

It was almost six before they made it to a bar in the Willard Hotel, near the White House, two blocks from their office. And it was only after a stiff drink that Stafford managed his first smile. “He thought of everything, didn’t he?”

“He’s a very cruel man,” Durban said, deep in thought. The shock was wearing off, but the reality was settling in.

“He
was
, you mean.”

“No. He’s still here. Troy’s still calling the shots.”

“Can you imagine the money those fools will spend in the next month?”

“It seems a crime not to tell them.”

“We can’t. We have our orders.”

________

FOR LAWYERS whose clients seldom spoke to each other, the meeting was a rare moment of cooperation. The largest ego in the room belonged to Hark Gettys, a brawling litigator who’d represented Rex Phelan for a number of years. Hark had insisted on the meeting not long after he returned to his office on Massachusetts Avenue. He had actually whispered an idea to the attorneys for TJ and Libbigail as they watched the old man being loaded into the ambulance.

It was such a good idea that the other lawyers couldn’t argue. They arrived, along with Flowe, Zadel, and Theishen, at Gettys’ office after five. A court reporter and two video cameras were waiting.

For obvious reasons, the suicide made them nervous. Each psychiatrist was taken separately, and quizzed at length about his observations of Mr. Phelan just before he jumped.

There was not a scintilla of doubt among the three that Mr. Phelan knew precisely what he was doing, that he was of sound mind, and had more than sufficient testamentary capacity.
You don’t have to be insane to commit suicide, they emphasized carefully.

When the lawyers, all thirteen of them, had extracted every opinion possible, Gettys broke up the meeting. It was almost 8 P.M.

FOUR
_____________

A
ccording to
Forbes
, Troy Phelan was the tenth richest man in America. His death was a newsworthy event; the manner he chose made it downright sensational.

Outside Lillian’s mansion in Falls Church, a cluster of reporters waited on the street for a family spokesman to come forth. They filmed friends and neighbors as they came and went, tossing out banal questions about how the family was doing.

Inside, Phelan’s four eldest children gathered with their spouses and their children to receive condolences. The mood was somber when the guests were present. When the guests were gone, the tone changed dramatically. The presence of Troy’s grandchildren—eleven of them—forced TJ, Rex, Libbigail, and Mary Ross to at least try and suppress their festive feelings. It was difficult. Fine wine and champagne were served, lots of it. Old Troy wouldn’t want them grieving, now would he? The older grandchildren drank more than their parents.

A TV set in the den was kept on CNN, and every half hour
they would gather for the latest announcement of Troy’s dramatic death. A financial correspondent pieced together a ten-minute segment on the vastness of the Phelan fortune, and everyone smiled.

Lillian kept a stiff upper lip and did a credible job of being the grieving widow. Tomorrow she would work on the arrangements.

Hark Gettys arrived around ten, and explained to the family that he had spoken to Josh Stafford. There would be no funeral, no service of any type; just an autopsy, a cremation, and a scattering of ashes. It was in writing, and Stafford was prepared to do battle in court to protect his client’s wishes.

Lillian didn’t give a damn what they did with Troy, nor did her children. But they had to protest and argue with Gettys. It just wasn’t right to send him off with no service. Libbigail even managed a small tear and a breaking voice.

“I wouldn’t fight this,” Gettys advised gravely. “Mr. Phelan put it in writing just before his death, and the courts will honor his wishes.”

They came around quickly. No sense wasting a lot of time and money on legal fees. No sense prolonging the grieving. Why make matters worse? Troy always got what he wanted anyway. And they had learned the hard way not to tangle with Josh Stafford.

“We will abide by his wishes,” Lillian said, and the other four nodded sadly behind their mother.

There was no mention of the will and when they might actually see it, though the question was just below the surface. Best to be properly grim for a few more hours, then they could get down to business. Since there would be no wake, no funeral or service, perhaps they might meet as early as tomorrow and discuss the estate.

“Why the autopsy?” asked Rex.

“I have no idea,” Gettys answered. “Stafford said it was in writing, but even he is not sure.”

Gettys left and they drank some more. The guests stopped coming, so Lillian went to bed. Libbigail and Mary Ross left with their families. TJ and Rex went to the billiards room in the basement, where they locked the door and switched to whiskey. At midnight, they were slapping balls around the table, drunk as sailors, celebrating their fabulous new wealth.

________

AT 8 A.M., the day after the death of Mr. Phelan, Josh Stafford addressed the anxious directors of The Phelan Group. Two years earlier, Josh himself had been placed on the board by Mr. Phelan, but it was not a role he enjoyed.

For the past six years, The Phelan Group had operated quite profitably without much assistance from its founder. For some reason, probably depression, Troy had lost interest in the day-to-day managing of his empire. He became content to simply monitor the markets and the earnings reports.

The current CEO was Pat Solomon, a company man Troy had hired almost twenty years earlier. He was as nervous as the other seven when Stafford entered the room.

There was ample cause for anxiety. Within the company’s culture there was a rich body of lore surrounding Troy’s wives and his offspring. The vaguest hint that the ownership of The Phelan Group might somehow fall into the hands of those people would terrorize any board.

Josh began by stating Mr. Phelan’s desires regarding burial. “There will be no funeral,” he said somberly. “Frankly, there is no way to pay your last respects.”

They absorbed this without comment. With the passing of a normal person, such non-arrangements would seem bizarre. But with Troy, it was difficult to be surprised.

“Who will own the company?” Solomon asked.

“I can’t say now,” Stafford said, well aware of how evasive and unsatisfactory his answer was. “Troy signed a will moments before
he jumped, and he instructed me to keep it private for a period of time. I cannot, under any circumstances, divulge its contents. At least, not for now.”

“When?”

“Soon. But not now.”

“So it’s business as usual?”

“Exactly. This board remains intact; everybody keeps his job. The company does tomorrow what it did last week.”

This sounded fine, but no one believed it. Ownership of the company was about to change hands. Troy had never believed in sharing stock in The Phelan Group. He paid his people well, but he did not buy into the trend of allowing them to own a piece of the company. About 3 percent of the stock was held by a few of his favored employees.

They spent an hour haggling over the wording of a press release, then adjourned for a month.

Stafford met Tip Durban in the lobby, and together they drove to the medical examiner’s office in McLean. The autopsy was finished.

The cause of death was obvious. There was no trace of alcohol or drugs of any kind.

And there was no tumor. No sign of cancer. Troy was in good physical health at the time of his death, though slightly malnourished.

________

TIP BROKE the silence as they were crossing the Potomac, on the Roosevelt Bridge. “Did he tell you he had a brain tumor?”

“Yes. Several times.” Stafford drove, though he was oblivious to roads, bridges, streets, cars. How many more surprises did Troy have?

“Why did he lie?”

“Who knows? You’re trying to analyze a man who just jumped from a building. The brain tumor made everything urgent.
Everybody, including me, thought he was dying. The wackiness made the panel of shrinks seem like a great idea. He set the trap, they rushed in, and now their own psychiatrists are swearing that Troy was perfectly sound. Plus, he wanted sympathy.”

“But he was crazy, wasn’t he? He did, after all, take a leap.”

“Troy was weird in a lot of ways, but he knew exactly what he was doing.”

“Why did he jump?”

“Depression. He was a very lonely old man.”

They were on Constitution Avenue, sitting in heavy traffic, both staring at the taillights in front of them and trying to think it through.

“It seems fraudulent,” Durban said. “He lures them in with the promise of money; he satisfies their psychiatrists, then at the last second he signs a will that completely guts them.”

“It was fraudulent, but this is a will, not a contract. A will is a gift. Under Virginia law, a person is not required to leave a dime to his children.”

“But they’ll attack, won’t they?”

“Probably. They have lots of lawyers. There’s too much money at stake.”

“Why did he hate them so much?”

“He thought they were leeches. They embarrassed him. They fought with him. They never earned an honest dime and went through many of his millions. Troy never planned to leave them anything. He figured that if they could squander millions, then they could waste billions as well. And he was right.”

“How much of the family fighting was his fault?”

“A lot. Troy was a hard man to love. He told me once that he’d been a bad father and a terrible husband. He couldn’t keep his hands off women, especially ones who worked for him. He thought he owned them.”

“I remember some claims for sexual harassment.”

“We settled them quietly. And for big bucks. Troy didn’t want the embarrassment.”

“Any chance of more unknown heirs out there?”

“I doubt it. But what do I know? I never dreamed he had another heir, and the idea of leaving her everything is something I cannot comprehend. Troy and I spent hours talking about his estate and how to divide it.”

“How do we find her?”

“I don’t know. I haven’t thought about her yet.”

________

THE STAFFORD law firm was in a frenzy when Josh returned. By Washington standards, it was considered small—sixty lawyers. Josh was the founder and principal partner. Tip Durban and four others were called partners, which meant Josh listened to them occasionally and shared some of the profits. For thirty years it had been a rough-and-tumble litigation firm, but as Josh approached sixty he spent less time in the courtroom and more time behind his cluttered desk. He could’ve had a hundred lawyers if he wanted ex-senators, lobbyists, and regulatory analysts, the usual D.C. lineup. But Josh loved trials and courtrooms, and he hired only young associates who had tried at least ten jury cases.

The average career of a litigator is twenty-five years. The first heart attack usually slows them down enough to delay a second. Josh had avoided burnout by tending to Mr. Phelan’s maze of legal needs—securities, antitrust, employment, mergers, and dozens of personal matters.

Three sets of associates waited in the reception room of his large office. Two secretaries shoved memos and phone messages in his direction as he removed his overcoat and settled behind his desk. “Which is most urgent?” he asked.

“This, I think,” answered a secretary.

It was from Hark Gettys, a man Josh had talked to at least
three times a week for the past month. He dialed the number and Hark was immediately on the line. They quickly went through the pleasantries, and Hark got right to the point.

“Listen, Josh, you can imagine how the family is breathing down my neck.”

“I’m sure.”

“They want to see the damned will, Josh. Or at least they want to know what’s in it.”

The next few sentences would be crucial, and Josh had plotted them carefully. “Not so fast, Hark.”

A very slight pause, then, “Why? Is something the matter?”

BOOK: The Testament
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