I stood in the darkness, far enough away not to be seen but close enough that I could hear what was going on. The two sisters and their other halves sat down on the front row. Smithers had done his best to get a dozen chairs, but clearly he hadn’t been able to find a matching set. While Lily and Hayden were sitting on regular kitchen chairs, Kennedy was lounging on a leather swivel chair and Jezebel looked slightly odd as she was sitting in what looked like a faded and chipped throne.
The three that I didn’t recognise were sitting in the row behind them. They looked like pretty ordinary folks - I guessed they weren’t family. I supposed I’d find out soon enough.
On the last row, slumped down on the end chair was Smith. From where I was standing, I could see that he and Barclay kept glancing at each other.
Once everybody was settled, Barclay took out a pair of reading glasses, perched them on the end of his nose and started to speak.
“I was expecting Chastity Lillywhite to also be here, but it appears that for whatever reason, she is unable to attend, so we will have to proceed without her. I’ll make sure she has a copy of the will tomorrow.”
He looked up.
“Normally,” he said, “I would just distribute a copy of the will to each of you to read but...”
He was interrupted.
“Sorry I’m late!” said Chastity, right on cue. “Please,” she said to Barclay. “Do continue.”
She sat down next to three old ‘uns on the second row. The others in the group turned round, and some whispering went on. I saw Barclay glance up at Smith with a questioning look, and Smith frowned and shrugged.
‘Yeah.’ I thought. ‘I bet you’re confused.’
Barclay looked a bit flustered, but pulled himself together.
“Right.” he said. “Well I’m delighted that Mrs Lillywhite was able to get here, and so if there’s nothing else, then I’ll proceed.”
He fiddled with his glasses and started to speak again.
“As I was saying. Normally I would simply distribute a copy of the will to each of the interested parties, but as you can see...” He smiled and waved an arm at the surroundings. “Norm clearly wanted something a little out of the ordinary, so if you’ll indulge me, I’ll read it aloud.”
He patted his briefcase.
“I have copies for everyone which I’ll give to you all once we’re done.”
Despite being thrown by Chastity’s late arrival on the scene, Barclay now had a slightly smug air about him. He knew what was coming. And from what I knew, I reckoned he was going to enjoy himself. For a while, anyway.
He took a breath.
“I, Norman Richard Lillywhite, being of sound mind and body, do hereby declare that this is my last will and testament. First. To Mitch Benson, my chauffer and good friend for more than twenty five years, I leave the Jaguar, plus, for the lifetime of the vehicle, an annual stipend of $30,000 for it’s upkeep. In addition, I leave the sum of $500,000 in cash.”
The short, balding guy looked absolutely gobsmacked. I took a wild guess that he was probably Mitch.
“Second, to Mary and John Sanderson. As housekeeper, cook, butler, handyman and countless other job titles, you looked after my family and I for many, many years, for which I am eternaly grateful. To you, I leave the sum of $500,000 cash, each, with many thanks.”
I saw the little old guy squeeze the little old lady’s hand, and she dabbed at her eyes with a handerchief.
“The remainder of my estate is to be divided equally between my two daughters, Lily and Jezebel. Should either daughter wish to sell their share of the business to the other, they may. However. Should either daughter wish to sell their share to anyone else, then they must first get agreement from their sister, and they must also first offer a share to that sister, in order that the family retain at least a 51% controlling interest.”
Barclay took off his glasses and looked up. Lily and Hayden had their heads together, Jezebel was looking pretty pleased with herself, and Kennedy didn’t appear to be paying much attention at all.
In the second row, Benson and the Sanderson’s had turned to Chastity with baffled looks on their faces. For the first time since I’d got here, Smith had started to look relaxed.
Barclay spoke up again.
“Mrs Lillywhite. It appears that Norm made this will after Grace died, and never actually got around to making a new one after you and he were married. I’m very sorry.”
Chastity looked as baffled as the others.
“Now if that’s all,” said Barclay, standing up. “I’ll give you each a copy of the will and we can head back to the hotel.”
That sounded like my cue.
“Just one moment, please.” I said, stepping forward into the light. There were a few gasps from the assembled party - I do like to make an entrance.
“Actually I don’t think that’s quite all...”
I watched Barclay’s face drop and he shot a questioning look at Smith. Smith looked baffled but Barclay shook his head as Smith started to get up. I then noticed Smith pat his inside pocket and give a tight nod.
Barclay pulled himself together.
“It’s Mr Able, yes?”
“Do you mind explaining what you’re doing here? This is a private reading of a will, and I don’t believe you were invited.”
“Well I certainly wasn’t invited by you.” I said. “However, I have reason to believe that things may have got a little.. mixed up. Just wanted to see if I could help straighten things out.”
The retirement gang started looking worried. I winked at them.
“Don’t worry folks - ain’t nobody taking nothing away from you.”
At this point, Hayden stood up.
“Look, excuse me, Mr Able, but who are you and what’s this all about?”
“Ok, folks, ok. Let me start at the beginning. My name is Chuck Able, I’m a Private Eye from back in New York. My client, Mrs Lillywhite here, called on me a few days ago. Seems she was a little concerned that... certain parties were going to sabotage the reading of this here will, and that she was going to be defrauded of what her late husband wanted her to have.”
I looked around the room.
“When she first gave me the details; rich old guy, will being read at midnight... gotta admit, I wondered whether she might have been a bit kooky, but from what I just heard...”
“You heard what the man said,” I said to Mrs Sanderson. “Don’t sound like Mrs Lillywhite did so good, right?”
She looked at her husband, then looked back at me.
“Well,” she said. “I must admit I was a little surprised that Mr Lillywhite didn’t leave anything to Mrs Lillywhite here. It does seem a bit strange.”
“Now see here,” piped up Barclay. “Like I said, Norm made the will after Grace died, and he just never got around to making a new one to include the new Mrs Lillywhite. These things happen. He was as fit as an ox. I guess he just thought he had plenty of time. But then he got ill, and, well...”
“Yeah.” I said. “Then he got ill. Mrs Lillywhite... Mr Lillywhite... Seems there’s a history of dying early in this family.”
“You leave my mother out of this!” barked Jezebel, rising to her feet. “In fact I think you’ve said quite enough. This is a most upsetting time for all of us. I think it would be best if you left. Right now.”
“You heard the little lady.” said Hayden. “Let’s not let things get unpleasant.”
‘Things not getting unpleasant.’ I thought. ‘How many times over the past few days have people said to me that things shouldn’t get unpleasant?’
I raised my hands.
“Easy folks,” I said. “Nothing’s going to get unpleasant. But I’ve looked into this case for Mrs Lillywhite, and there’s just a few things that I don’t understand, and I figured that you good folks could help me, y’know, see what’s what.”
I smiled and did my best to look disarming.
Kennedy, who had practically slept through the reading, had perked up a bit now it seemed that things were getting interesting.
“Let’s hear what the man’s gotta say.” he said. “Sounds kinda intriguing, doncha think, Jez?”
Jezebel sat there, tight lipped and wasn’t saying anything.
‘Thank you, Mr Kennedy.” I said. “Must say, it ain’t every day you get to meet a real live film star. Might ask you for an autograph later.”
Barclay stood up.
“Mr Able. This will is a legal document. It has been executed according to law, and that is that. If you’re... confused about matters, then may I suggest that you come and see me at my office next week and I’m sure I’ll be able to put your mind at rest. Now, shall we?”
He attempted to get everybody standing and moving, but there was a lot of whispering going on, and apart from Smith, who hadnt taken his eyes of Barclay, nobody was paying a lot of attention to him.
Hayden had clearly made a decsion to take charge.
“Very well, Mr Able, we’ll give you a couple of minutes to say yer piece.” he said in a mid-west drawl. “Can’t guarantee we’ll believe y’all, but no harm in hearing you out.”
Barclay started to protest but Hayden waved him silent.
“Sit down, Mr Barclay.” said Hayden. “I’m sure this won’t take long.”
I walked to the front, to stand alongside Barclay’s desk, and addressed the group.
“Like I said, I’m a Private Eye, and Mrs Lillywhite came to me, concerned that the was going to be cut out of Mr Lillywhite’s will. In fact she was warned at the funeral last week, I won’t say by who just yet, that she should make the most of this last week, as after tonight she would be...”
I looked at Chastity.
“What was the phrase, Mrs Lillywhite? ‘In the gutter?’ ”
The others twisted round to look at her as she nodded.
I waited until I had everybody’s attention again.
“I’ve dealt with more criminals than I care to remember, and there’s one think I don’t get.” I chuckled. “Why they always seem so darn keen to warn the people that they’re out to cause trouble for. If they could keep their mouths shut, then I reckon the unsolved crime rate in this country would double overnight. Anyway, I’m getting off the point.”
I walked across the front of the desk to stand in front of Hayden. This was my big scene, and damn if I wasn’t going to milk it for all I was worth.
“So I started doing a little digging. Looked into a few backgrounds. There’s a whole bunch of information out there on public record if you know where to look. And there’s a whole lot more that ain’t quite so public too. That - the good stuff, you really gotta know where to look to find that. And I’m afraid I don’t.”
I looked around.
“But I know a man who does.”
I put my hands in my pockets and started walking in slow circles. I musta looked like I was talking to myself.
“Now the late Mr Lillywhite here, he seemed like a pretty decent fella from what I can make out. Good father, good husband, good employer...?”
I raised an eyebrow at the folks in the second row, and they all nodded enthusiastically.
“...good businessman. Now somehow, I find it pretty surprising that Norm, being the sharp guy that he was, would run a multi-million dollar business, making crucial decisions every single day, and yet somehow...”
I looked at Barclay.
“...he forgets to make a will for five years? Is that what you’re saying, Mr Barclay? He just forgot to make another will?”
“Well. I know it sounds unlike him, but... well, yes. Unless he went to another lawyer - and I’d like to think that after we’d been good friends and had worked together as long as we had, I’m pretty sure he would have told me if that was the case - then this,”
He tapped the will on the desk in front of him.
‘...this was indeed his last will and testament.”
I scratched my head.
“Y’see, Mr Barclay, that would be ok, except that I know he wrote another will.”
There were gasps from the crowd, if you could call it that.
“And furthermore... I’m fairly sure that four people - here tonight - knew exactly what was in it.”