Chapter 1. The Codicil

Not published, not applicable

The Moving Finger writes, and having writ,

Moves on:

            The Rubaiyat of Omar Kayyam, E. Fitzgerald.


Chapter 1                                              The Codicil 

It wasn’t so much a town, really, as a hamlet with pretensions. Quiet to the point of somnolence on most days, today promised to be different. What’s normal to the locals often seemed eccentric to outsiders, and five of them were due at the bank in an hour.

An old man on the other side of town finished tying his tie. He reached for his suit coat, hesitated, and left it where it was. “Too damned hot today,” he grumbled. “Wouldn’t bother with a tie if I knew these kids better.”

His wife finished brushing her teeth, looked in the mirror, and counted to ten. She’d listened to him whine about this meeting for a week, and it was getting hard to feign sympathy. “How do you think it will go?” she asked.

“I do not know. You can’t play games with bank stock and not expect some consequences, even if you are dead.” He scanned his dresser and the bed. “Where the hell are my socks? I had ‘em in my hand a second ago.”

“On your left shoulder, Al,” she called to him, “where you put them while you tied your tie.” She bit her tongue and stopped there. Sarcasm wouldn’t improve his mood, and the meeting would be over in a couple hours, if she could get him moving.

Thirty minutes later in the bank Board Room, Al watched Seth, Doc’s oldest son, pace back and forth at the other end of the conference table. Seth was not smiling.

Small town, small bank, but they’ve got a Board Room big enough for JP Morgan, Seth thought. He looked down the length of the table at the elderly attorney in tie and shirtsleeves. Too cheap to turn on the lights or air conditioner; must be one of Dad’s high school buddies.

Seth scanned the room, the wainscoting, wide moldings around the doors, windows, and ceiling, and the wood flooring that creaked and groaned as he paced. Only the flooring wasn’t darkened with age. Cripes, built in 1880 and I’ll bet these are the original furnishings.

Other heirs, his sister Julie, brother Jed, and cousin Mark, sat at the table, fanning themselves with whatever was at hand. Yellowed curtains behind the attorney fluttered in a light breeze from an open window behind him. It wasn’t enough for a generation raised with air conditioning.

Al glanced at his watch and the door. Late, he thought. Doc warned me.

The light from the windows was enough for Al. He’d drafted the will years ago and reread it after the funeral last week. Nearly 70, wizened and bald, he’d agreed to do this as a favor for Doc. That was before the codicil. Crazy bastard, I told him not to do this. Just like him though, the stubborn S-O-B.

He looked at Doc’s sons. Both appeared to be in their mid-forties, Seth slightly older than Jed. He recognized the family resemblance, especially when Jed smiled. Ah, hell, I owe it to him. We had some great times – but for Christ’s sake, squirrel-fishing?

The pendulum clock on the wall struck ten. The old man looked over his glasses at it, then toward the heirs lining the table. “Julie, Jed, Seth, thank you for coming. Do any of you know if Josh plans to be here?

“He’s coming,” Julie said. “At least he said so yesterday.”

Seth took a chair, sprawling more than sitting. “Josh hasn’t been on time in twenty years. Let’s get started.”

Al, elbows resting on the table, pressed his fingers tips together in front of him. It was an old habit, a pose he struck to make it clear he was in charge. “That’s what your father said. He also left instructions I was not to begin until all of his children were present, barring accident or catastrophe.”

He turned his attention to Mark. “Mark, as…”

Mark looked up from his newspaper. “I still go by Mark, Jr., at least for legal documents.”

At 33, he was the youngest in the room, a cousin, and the only one wearing a suit.

“I’ll make a note of that. As you know, there is not a financial settlement for you and your family in the will, but you and your brother and sister are mentioned in a codicil. Are you expecting other members of your family to join us?”

“Nope. Mom isn’t well enough ... ”

The door opened and Josh, a harried looking man in his late 30’s peeked into the room. He caught site of Julie and grinned. “Guess I’m in the right room. Sorry I’m late.”

Al introduced himself and explained they had three items on the agenda: the will, the safety deposit box, and the codicil. Copies of the will were distributed to each of Doc’s children. The terms were straightforward; all assets except the farm and those covered by the codicil were to be divided equally.

The bank president, another old friend of Doc’s, brought in the safety deposit box, and behind him came his secretary with her lap top. They sat on either side of Al. The president opened the box and gave it to Al as his secretary booted her computer.

Al went through the contents, naming each item aloud, accompanied by the soft clicks of the secretary’s key board as she prepared the inventory. The routine was broken when Al came to four sealed envelopes.

Al thought a moment. This was unexpected. “These envelopes have your names on them. I will assume they are yours and are not part of the estate. I suggest you open them later,” and he passed them out to Julie, Seth, Jed, and Josh.

Only a brown envelope remained in front of Al. He’d put it aside earlier, hoping to get the bulk of his work completed before the fireworks, just as he’d turned off the air conditioning to encourage people to leave rather than argue. Al planned ahead.

Doc had given Al the envelope five years earlier. It still mystified him. It resembled a standard business envelope, but was heavier– made of card stock, rather than paper. “Buy War Bonds” was printed in large blue letters across the front, and in the upper corners were an eagle to the left and an American flag on the right. It was an antique in its own right, a survivor from World War II. Doc insisted the codicil be stored and delivered to his children and his sister Linda’s children only this envelope.

Al didn’t recognize the name written on the front, or the handwriting. Maybe it had something to do with the final request in the codicil. Al glanced at each of the heirs and hoped Doc had passed on his sense of humor. Guess this is when I find out.

“Doc and Linda inherited two properties. One is the family farm, now being managed by the grandson of your grandmother Elspeth’s, ah, grandmother’s …” Al was a bit prudish and finding the right words with the lady’s granddaughter in the room came hard for him. “Ahem, ah… your grandmother’s companion.”

“You mean Gramma’s boy toy,” Julie said.

The heirs giggled and Al turned red. At least they had a sense of humor. “Whatever. This is a document, signed by Doc and your mother, Mark, stating that, as none of their issue has expressed interest in farming, the farm will be put in trust until it is sold. The current manager has the right of first refusal. The net proceeds of the sale will be divided as follows: 15% to the current manager, 50% to the children of Linda and Doc, and up to 35% to fund the codicil, including expenses incurred by the heirs in discovery and administration.”

“Discovery? What’s that all about? And why is the manager included?” Seth asked.

Al remembered Doc had warned him about Seth. “Your father recommended the young man to your Grandmother and helped her hire him away from another farm decades ago. It was only later that they discovered the relationship to… ah, the relationship. Doc and Linda have, or had, great respect and affection for the young man.”

“There’s a property other than the farm?” Mark asked.

“Stock in this bank. It was purchased by your grandfather in 1950 when he served on the board.”

“Grampa was on the Board of Directors? Here?” Julie asked.

“He was the Chairman of the Board. There were two factions on the board, and the only person in town who could get along with both of them was your grandfather. Board members sold him bank stock at a discount to get him on the board. He left the stock to your grandmother, and she put it in trust until Linda was fifty. Apparently neither of your grandparents thought people under fifty should be trusted with money. Doc and Linda agreed to set the stock aside for the next generation. They saw it as a means to bring you together, bring you back to their home town, and teach all of you a lesson.”

Al knew he’d made a mistake as soon as he finished the sentence.

Seth came out of his chair “What? Teach us a…”

Al tried putting his fingertips together again and looked over his glasses at Seth. This was not going well, and he hadn’t even gotten to the hard part. “Doc was one of my best friends. Mark, your mother is another. Your mother and Doc prepared this codicil together, against my advice and over my objections.”

Two crazy bastards, Al thought, but immediately regretted it. Men of his generation and background didn’t use words like that to describe women, even in their thoughts. He looked at the heirs again. They were staring back at him. He took a deep breath and forged ahead.

“Doc, with the approval of Linda, requested I read the following: ‘Linda and Mark, and I and Mary, are proud of all of you. You are honest, hardworking, and bright. That’s a good start in life, but we are asking for more.

“We would like you to laugh and sing, loudly and often. Be kind to others, help your fellow man, love those close to you, study for the joy of learning, and seek out difficult tasks and go at them. Do not fear failure; it happens.

“Your checking accounts will be empty before the end of the month from the time your kids are in high school until they’re out of college, maybe even longer. Buck up; it will pass. Enjoy them while they’re with you.

“Be honest, be truthful, and always, always remember to take Doofus squirrel-fishing.”

Al quickly moved on to an explanation of the finances. At least he knew what that meant, sort of.

“The terms of the codicil are that the stock is to be sold within five years, or as needed, to allow the estate to get the best price. The proceeds will be used to purchase three sets of certificates of deposit in this bank. The certificates will be held in Doc’s safety deposit box until they are dispersed. The initial set of CDs will be given to you when one of you answers the first question.

“What’s the question?” asked Jed. A puzzle fan, he was enjoying this.

Al swallowed hard. He’d be lucky if he wasn’t committed for psychiatric evaluation after this meeting. “The first question is, ‘Would you like to go squirrel-fishing?’”

Silence. Al had never seen five people so clueless. Make that six, counting himself. He had no idea what the answer was. That was in a smaller envelope.

Al continued reading the codicil. “The second set of CDs will be given to those of you who take Doofus squirrel-fishing, and…”

Seth snorted, got up and resumed pacing the floor. The squeaking floor was the only sound in the room until Al resumed reading.

“A bonus CD will be given to the person who returns this envelope to its rightful owner. If any of you do not earn your CD, the proceeds will be given to your issue upon your death.”

Seth glared at Al. Josh looked at Mark and shrugged his shoulders, and Jed dropped his pen.  The soft clatter sounded like an overturned garbage can.

Jed retrieved his pen and broke the silence. “Who is Doofus, and where does he fish?”

“I do not know. I suspect it is allegorical. The answer for each question is in a sealed envelope. There are three. Each is to be opened only when necessary,” Al said.

“How much is the bank stock worth?” Mark asked.

This was a question with an answer they should all understand. The heirs nodded in agreement.

“Yeah, what’s the payout on this dizzy game?” Seth asked.

This is where it gets worse, Al thought. Maybe nasty.

“My guess, which is only a guess, as shares in the bank are sold infrequently, is somewhere between $75 and $85 K. Sale of the farm will add at least four times that, depending on the appraised value and costs incurred by the estate during the life of the codicil.”

Seth glared at Al. “Dad expected us to jump through hoops to divide 240 bucks between seven of us?”

Al fidgeted. Even with the breeze from the window behind him, he was sweating. “You misunderstood me. Seventy-five to eighty-five K is seventy-five to eighty-five thousand dollars. With 35% of the proceeds of the farm, that could be sixty to seventy thousand for each of you, with a possible twenty thousand dollar bonus CD.”

Josh whistled. The rest of the heirs looked, in turn, incredulous, happy, and upset.

“Why the hell tie everything up in bank CDs?” Seth asked.

“None of you are fifty yet. Linda and Doc agreed with their parents about young people and money,” Al said.

The heirs, some scribbling on scraps of paper, some looking into space, each quietly calculated how that would affect them.

Al broke the silence. “I didn’t mention it before, as the value is uncertain, but your father’s book is due to be published in November. Proceeds from the publisher’s contract will add two thousand dollars per heir to the CDs. If the book sells well, that figure could be increased substantially.”

Mark looked surprised. “Unk wrote a book?”

“It was a fantasy,” Josh said. “Something about a guy named Doofus. He talked about it all the time after mom died, but I never paid attention.”

Julie thought for a minute. “I did. So did your kids. All our kids did. Dad told those stories every Thanksgiving - silly stories, stories about the family and his work. The kids ate it up. Kids love to hear the same story, over and over.”

Seth nodded. “Marcie learned a bunch of new words from Dad’s stories. Martha was furious. That’s why we cut back on holidays with the family.”

Josh snickered. “Ya, Dad’s language could be ­−”

Seth stopped his pacing. “I’ll be damned if I’m going to −"

Al interrupted him. “One of the reasons I mentioned the book was that your father - and your mother, Mark - signed the codicil before he wrote the book and negotiated with the publisher. I’d suggest you contest the codicil, were it not for that, as the sums involved and the bizarre requests bring Doc’s sanity into question. I don’t think that’s open to you now.”

Seth wasn’t mollified. “Well, I’m not going to give up that kind of money. He wanted an answer? Okay, I’ll go squirrel-fishing.”

Al already had the appropriate envelope in hand. He’d hoped someone would answer the question today. It gave him a chance to look at the response Doc wanted, which might give him an idea what the hell the old fool had been up to.

A small piece of paper fell from the envelope. Handwritten. Great. Doc’s handwriting was nearly indecipherable. Al read the answer, straightened a crease in the paper to see if that would help, and finally pulled out his handkerchief and wiped his glasses. The answer remained the same.

Al re-evaluated his friendship with Doc, trying to remember if there was a reason Doc would deliberately torture him. The last time he’d seen Doc was after Doc’s retirement. They’d been having a beer on the deck at Doc’s. A couple squirrels were in a tree above ...

Al remembered. He tried not to, but he started to laugh. He gave up any pretense of self-control and let loose, howling with laughter. Tears were running down his face by the time he regained his composure. God, I loved being around that guy

Al turned to Seth. “No. That is not the correct answer.”

Seth’s face was dark. The other heirs were silent; the men, other than Jed, were sullen.

Al decided he’d better do something. “Doc didn’t say I couldn’t give you a hint. Remember the back yard of your parent’s home. They were inveterate gardeners. One structure was unusual. That structure is the key to this question.”

Silence, again. Al felt a trickle of sweat running down his back. He held his breath as the trickle became a stream.

Julie started to laugh. “Dad, you crazy … .” Grinning, she looked at Seth. “Will I go squirrel-fishing? Freshwater or marine?”

Al exhaled. “I believe we are done for today. With your permission, I’ll sell thirty percent of the bank stock and have the CDs mailed to you as an initial payment for the question.”

He began to gather the papers before him. “There are no limits on the number of answers you submit or the time you require to take Doofus fishing. You are to discuss this amongst yourselves, as Doc and Linda did this, in part, to assure continued communication between the branches of the family. Contact me if ...”

“What the hell. That was the answer?” Seth asked. “What­­ is ...”

“That is correct. Congratulations, Julie. You read your father’s mind.” Al stood, put the brown envelope in his brief case and moved around the table, shaking hands.

Seth’s handshake was uncomfortably firm.

As they left, the heirs passed the door to a cloak room. It was a long, narrow room of a type common in public buildings built before 1920. Seth caught the attention of the others and held a finger to his lips when he was level with the door. With exaggerated care he turned the door knob, stepped to the side, and jerked the door open.

A smell, a veritable miasma to the noses of city dwellers, rolled from the little room.

Josh slapped a handkerchief over his nose. “Wheeuww. For God’s sake, close it. Smells as bad as Grandma’s barn.”

“What possessed you to open that?” Julie asked.

Seth didn’t answer. He took a gulp of air, flipped the old fashioned light switch next to the door and quickly explored the windowless room. “I heard somebody in here,” he said as he came out. “Somebody was listening to our meeting. I heard him laughing.”

The room was empty, and Seth was standing in the only exit.