He was just beginning to relax when a loud, slightly static voice broke the silence. "Mr. Malcolm, there's a gentleman out here wishing to speak with you: a Mr. Van Greeves."
Roland Malcolm moved his feet off the desk and sat up straight in the chair, pressing the intercom button. "Does he have an appointment, Margaret?"
"No sir," his secretary answered dryly, "but he insists on seeing you as soon as possible since Mr. Fletcher isn't in today." Papers could be heard rustling, then Margaret added, "And you don't have any appointments for another hour."
Roland paused for a moment, then nodded to himself. "Send him in and rearrange anything that might be a problem."
"Yes sir," she replied and the intercom clicked off. A moment later the large doors across the room opened, admitting Margaret and an older gentleman. Roland stood up as Margaret left, closing the door, and gave a winning smile. "Good morning Mr. Van Greeves."
The older man nodded his welcome as he approached the desk and reached out for a handshake. Taking the man's hand, the younger Roland was surprised at the firm grip his guest gave. "Please be seated," he stated, motioning to an oak chair to the side of Roland's desk front.
"Thank you very much," Van Greeves replied, taking the proffered seat and bringing his briefcase up onto his lap. "I promise I won't take much time, Mr. Malcolm, and please do forgive me for not making an appointment earlier," he said, opening the briefcase and shuffling around a couple papers. "I'm usually not this disorganized."
"It's all right, Mr. Van Greeves," Roland replied, "you seemed to come at a good time in my schedule." He leaned back in his chair and asked, "So, what can we do for you?"
"Well," Van Greeves drawled, still shuffling around some papers inside his briefcase, "I represent a Mr. Edward St. James, a former long-time member of your Sacramento based charity on 13th and J streets."
"You're a lawyer?" Roland interrupted, groaning inwardly. It couldn't be another lawsuit, could it? They'd had twenty-two in the past two years alone, all of which had been settled out of court, and had ranged from alleged sexual harassment to compensation for a former worker who had fallen off a six foot ladder and complained of back and neck pain.
Van Greeves looked up at the interruption, a perplexed look on his face, then he understood. "Yes, I am a lawyer," he replied, "but I'm not here to serve summons or any subpoenas." He took a paper out of the briefcase, set it aside and closed the bag, setting it on the floor before him. "It is my duty to inform you that my client, the deceased Edward St. James, has left you in his Last Will and Testament. Or, more precisely, your company."
Roland's eyebrows drew together in a puzzled frown. "I can't place the name," he stated uncertainly, "but I'm not involved in certain aspects of the business such as the fund-raising and money departments."
Van Greeves nodded. "Mr. St. James was one of your charity's longest running contributors. Records of his donations go back to..." He scanned the paper in front of him, then continued, "Go back to 1957, which I believe was the year after the charity was founded."
Eyebrows arched to his hairline, Roland whistled appreciatively; whoever this man was, he'd certainly been around a long time. "He's probably in the records then," Roland mused but Van Greeves shook his head. "He's not in the records?" Roland asked, surprised.
"No, my client had been an anonymous donor, sending his checks monthly to the Sacramento branch."
Roland's lips tipped up on one side. "Checks? As in personal checks? If so, he wasn't as anonymous as he might have thought."
"No, he requested that his donations not be recorded in your company's records except under 'Anonymous'. However, he kept explicit records himself, most likely for tax reasons. Actually, the total of his donations to your charity alone has been over one million dollars." Ignoring Roland's dumbfounded expression, Van Greeves pulled out a paper from his briefcase and stated, "One million, twenty-six thousand, four hundred and eighty-six dollars, to be exact."
So much money! Roland was more than a little surprised; someone who donated that much, even if he wished to remain anonymous, should have been noticed. "What did the man do for a living?" Roland asked, genuinely curious. "Was he an upper class citizen, well off?"
"Hardly," Van Greeves replied, chuckling. "He worked in construction mainly, although he didn't always stick to that field. I believe he told me that he was also a dock worker, a busboy, a cab driver, and a horse trainer among other things."
"And he still managed to give us regular donations," Roland mused aloud.
Van Greeves nodded. "He was a very smart man," the lawyer added determinedly. "He didn't move around from job to job because he couldn't stay there, he moved because he simply wanted to experience it all. He did finally settle into being a Sacramento bookstore owner in '74 with his wife and three children, where he stayed until two weeks ago."
"How did he die?" Roland asked curiously, then hastily added, "If it's all right to ask?"
Van Greeves nodded, a weary look in his eye. "He'd been having heart problems for about four years, and it finally took him in his sleep. It was like he was perfectly healthy one day and in the hospital the next. He passed away yesterday."
Roland gazed at the old lawyer before him. "Were you and him close?" he asked gently.
"I was a friend of the family, really," Van Greeves replied, pulling himself back together. "I just sometimes wish that...well, that life could have been a little kinder to him later in life."
"What, did he start to grow a hunchback or something?" Roland joked, but his grin was vanished when he saw the deep sadness in Van Greeves' eyes. "What happened?" he asked, all humor now erased.
"It wasn't anything that happened to him specifically," Van Greeves stated tiredly, "it's what happened to his family." He sighed as he continued. "A little over a year ago, both his sons, a daughter-in-law, and two grand children were killed in a drunk driving accident on highway 80. The resulting trial of the drunk driver was thrown out of court after three months because police at the scene had been heard making racial comments towards the drunk, who was black, and someone had mishandled evidence. Two months after the trial, his wife had a stroke; she too died about a week later."
"Jesus," Roland breathed, unable to believe anyone could take all that in so short a time. Most people wouldn't have been able to handle the compounded tragedies.
"It gets worse. About seven months after that, his daughter was raped and killed somewhere outside New York, and they never found who did it. His son-in-law committed suicide a month later, saying he couldn't take it all anymore and leaving behind a child with leukemia. The boy was only 7; he died less than a week after his father, never knowing why his dad stopped coming to the hospital." Van Greeves reached up under his glasses and massaged the bridge of his nose, obviously distraught.
"My God," Roland managed after a moment, "his whole family completely wiped out in less than a year?!"
"No," Van Greeves stated, sitting up but not losing his sad expression, "he has one granddaughter left: Sierra Matthews, twenty-three years old and the daughter of his eldest son. She is his only living relative."
"My God," Roland repeated, stunned by the story. "She's the only living relative from the whole family?"
Van Greeves nodded sadly. "The funeral is scheduled for day-after-tomorrow and the reading of the will is the day after that. Only she, I, and your company's representative will be attending." He shifted in his chair, attempting to get back to business. "I had been hoping to speak with Mr. Fletcher himself today."
Roland got a hold on himself after a moment as well. "Kyle Fletcher is out of town today on a business trip." With his mistress, he thought privately but figured it wasn't something he needed to disclose. "He's expected to be back sometime early tomorrow, but I'm not sure if he can make the funeral."
Van Greeves nodded. "I would have wished otherwise, but if it can't be helped..." When Roland shook his head Van Greeves sighed and reached into his shirt pocket, removing what appeared to be a business card. "As I said, the reading of the Will is going to be in two days and at the address on that card. The funeral, if Mr. Fletcher happens to get back in time, is at the Rosary Courtyard Funeral Home in Galt at three o'clock tomorrow afternoon." He reached into his suitcase and pulled out one last thing. "Here's an official invitation," he stated, gently handing over the document. "Ms. Matthews wanted me to give it to you."
Roland took the proffered invitation and opened it up. Inside, written by hand, was a short but sweet invitation to come to the funeral service of Mister Edward St. James, beloved father, grandfather, and husband. A calligraphy pen and gold foil had been used with stunning results, making this plain white notice seem almost beautiful with the golden ivy border and large beautiful letters. Small mistakes, such as the foil on one side being crinkled and one of the calligraphy letters smeared, gave him an idea as to the creator's identity. While Roland knew that there were businesses that specialized in this type of thing something told him that Ms. Matthews herself had written this, evidenced possibly by the care the lawyer had taken when giving it to him. He stared at the card for a few moments as Van Greeves packed up his briefcase, then stated, "I'll try my best to get Mr. Fletcher to go to your client's funeral, and if he can't come himself I promise I'll come in his stead."
Van Greeves smiled widely. "Thank you very much Mr. Malcolm. Now, I really must be going." He stood up and offered his hand, which Roland gladly accepted. "I'm glad I was able to do business with you. I'd heard....stories about Mr. Fletcher."
"Oh, he isn't all that bad once you get to know him." Once you get used to him is more like it, he thought to himself but didn't vocalize. "A little hard around the edges certainly..."
Van Greeves' eyebrow raised quizzically. "I'd heard a slightly harsher description, but to each his own I suppose. It was nice meeting you anyway, and good luck with your charity."
Roland almost couldn't believe that Van Greeves was a lawyer, he was so nice. His own lawyer was cold, distant, and very professional; he would never have been so free with information nor this personable. "Do you need a job, Mr. Van Greeves?" he asked politely, wondering what this elderly gentleman would be like as an addition to the company's team of lawyers.
"Job? Oh, no I don't have any other clients," the older man replied, chuckling. "I've actually been retired for about three years now, but I stayed on with Mr. St. James as a friend. Now that he's gone though, I suppose it's time for me and my wife to visit our relatives in Nebraska."
Roland nodded. "Well, it was worth a try anyway. Thanks for informing us of the news."
"You're quite welcome. Now, I believe you probably have some work you need to do so I'll be on my way." Van Greeves stood up in the chair, picked up his briefcase, and with a little wave exited the office.
Roland stared into space for a moment, then picked up the phone. "Margaret," he asked, pressing the intercom button, "do you have Kyle's cabin phone number?"
"He requested that this week he not be contacted at all unless it was an emergency. He was quite adamant about that fact."
Roland blanched; he wasn't going to like this call then. "Give it to me anyway, and if he asks say I rummaged through your desk and found it myself."
Across the line came a snort. "As if that'd happen," he heard the secretary mutter softly, but a moment later she relayed the number. Roland thanked her, clicked the phone offline once, then dialed the number. As it began to ring, he prayed Kyle wouldn't be able, or willing, to answer it.
No such luck. "I thought I told you not to bother me this week," a frustrated male voice stated before Roland could even draw in a breath to begin talking.
"Kyle, we need you back here." Uncertain what to say to convince his friend and boss to come home, he hesitated for a moment, but Kyle didn't even notice.
"What could possibly be so important that you disobey an order by your boss?" Kyle stated angrily.
The statement apparently rubbed Roland raw because he retorted, "Look Kyle, I was your friend before I was ever your employee, something you seem to have forgotten. You've known me for a long time, and you know that I never obey orders from peers who act like assholes."
"Yeah, I know, and I'm sorry." Kyle sighed at the other end. "This hasn't been the best of vacations; I guess I'm a little worked up."
"Yeah, well I noticed," Roland replied, but added a little more calmly, "You and Kay split up?"
"No, Kay split. As in left. She said that I wasn't committed to the relationship, and she was getting tired of waiting for me to propose. She said that sex just wasn't enough for her, and she wanted to know how I felt about it."
"Well, she had a point there. What did you say?"
Cold laughter from an angry and frustrated man reverbrated across the phone. "I told her the truth; that while she was above average in bed she was obviously below average in intelligence if she thought she could bully me into marriage, or that I'd ever go for the airhead look. I also told her she should be a little more discreet sneaking out with that other man of hers and that I couldn't believe she'd be so stupid as to believe I didn't know."
Kyle sighed, rolling his eyes. "So, she left after she ripped your head off?"
"Pretty apt description, although she got me in the gut as well. Geez but she had more fight in her than I thought she would."
"Should have known better than that, buddy. Women are amazing when their angry."
"Yeah, amazingly strong is a better description." There was a pause and the sound of rustling clothes. "Now, what was so important that you had to intrude on my ruined vacation?"
"Well," Roland hedged, then decided to get it out in the open. "I need you to attend a funeral of one of our former benefactors. Before you say no," he added quickly, drowning out the angry comments already starting to come across, "might I remind you that you are running a charity and that so far what you've managed to accomplish by your candor with your mistress is possible bad publicity if she goes public."
"She wouldn't dare to do that," Kyle replied, dead certain. "She knows what I've done to others. And I'm careful, even in bed; she knows about as many company secrets as she did when we met."
"Kyle, you aren't the boss of a law firm anymore, you run a charity! Face it man, you got screwed by your partner, dumped on the streets, and inherited your family's business."
The line went dead. It was so abrupt Roland pulled the receiver away from his ear and stared at it. Uttering a sharp curse, he slammed it back on the hook...then picked it up immediately when it rang again. "That was pretty childish Kyle," he gritted out.
"Temper temper," Kyle stated in a reprimanding voice and Roland could almost see him shaking his finger. "Now, what was it that you wanted me to attend?"
Not even an apology, Roland thought but stamped down the frustration. "A long time benefactor recently died, and I thought it might be good publicity if you went to the funeral..."
"How much did he donate?" Kyle cut in.
"Does it matter?"
"No, but I want to know."
"Kyle, of all the lousy...." Roland's lip curled indignantly but he cut off his sentence. "Oh, alright, over the past fifty-seven years he's given about one-point-three million dollars, but frankly I don't see why that would influence your decision..."
"I'll go," Kyle stated nonchalantly as if he were merely saying he was going to the store.
"Good," Roland replied after a moment, mollified but still angry that it was the amount of money that apparently made up Kyle's mind. "The funeral is in two days; can you make it?"
"No problem," came the simple reply. "I'll see you there."
Roland was about to state that there needed to be only one representative attending but Kyle hung up before he could say anything more. Hanging up the phone a little more calmly this time, he found that he didn't really mind going all that much. He wanted to meet Sierra Matthews, to see the woman who had made the invitation. Something seemed to pull him that way, and he wasn't going to argue.
"What is this? What's going on here!" Sierra Matthews stared at the people exiting her grandfather's house carrying off his old couch, lamps, and paintings.
"Are you Ms. Matthews?" a man in a grey uniform with a clipboard in hand asked. Sierra turned to him, intending to vent her anger on someone, but realizing that might not be the best course of action managed to keep down enough to ask as politely as she could, "Why is my grandfather's property being removed from his home?"
"Well," the man, whose tag said Tom, "it says here that because of an inability to pay off bank debts his property is going to be auctioned off, and all proceeds given to the bank."
"Debts?" Sierra squeaked out, outraged. "My grandfather never had any debts! He wouldn't even use a credit card!"
The man didn't even bat an eye, obviously used to this kind of questions. "It says here that he took out a loan five years, using his house and belongings as collateral." Sierra blushed in frustration; five years ago she'd started college, graduating only a year back. But her grandfather had said that money for college hadn't been a problem! "He stopped making payments two months ago," the man continued, "and has ignored repeated attempts by the bank to convince him to pay. He is now obviously unable to make the payments so the bank is possessing what he borrowed against." He seemed to realize then that the last phrase had been callous and tried to apologize, but Sierra turned around quickly and left before he could say what he wanted.
She rushed into the house, intent on saving something. She passed two workers carrying out a rolled up rug, obviously one of the Persian rugs from her grandfather's room, and she quickened her pace. When one of the workers waltzed past her carrying one of his Chinese vases though, she stepped in front of him, effectively stopping him. "I'm afraid you can't take that," she stated authoratatively.
"I'm afraid I can, and will," he answered, rolling his eyes and moving to go past her, but she just moved with him. "Look," he stated, obviously exasperated, "why don't you save yourself and us a little trouble..."
"That is my vase, given to me by my mother, who got it from her mother." It surprised her just how easily the lie came out. "It's a family heirloom, one I loaned my grandfather for decoration and am going to take back. Now."
The man's face screwed itself up into an annoyed frown, the brown eyes tightening around the corners. "Ma'am, unless my boss tells me to do otherwise or you have some proof on you, everything in this house goes."
Sierra, shocked at the rebuttal, was about to break down and beg for him to stop when a loud annoying voice rose up from the front yard. "What in hell's name is going on here? Where are you all taking Sierra's stuff?!"
Sierra's eyes widened as she realized who it was, relief and trepidation going through her body as she raced down the stairs and out to the front. "Meredith!" she called, racing out to her loud friend.
Meredith was very easy to spot; a bright red shirt, short black leather skirt, fish net stockings and stiletto-like heels on a black woman with blond streaked hair greeted her from across the driveway. She had obviously found Tom, the man with the clipboard, the one who had informed Sierra as to what had been happening. Even from this distance Sierra could hear her friend's side of the conversation clearly and rushed over as quickly as she could. "Just who the hell do you think you are, barging into my friend's house and taking everything that was hers? And don't you dare give me all that bullshit about you just doing your job!"
"Meredith," Sierra called out again, and this time her friend heard her name and turned her head. "Sierra," she stated angrily, hands going to her hips in dismay, "what in God's name is going on here?"
Sierra winced slightly at the curse but replied, "It seems grandpa had taken some loans out and used the house for collateral..."
"What?! Your grandpa was one of the most self reliant people I've ever met! He wouldn't take out any loans that he couldn't pay off..."
"It was for my tuition, Meredith," she answered, and as Meredith's eyebrows went up Sierra took the opportunity to apologize to the frazzled-looking coordinator. "I'm really sorry about my friend. Sometimes she gets a little worked up about things...."
"Worked up! I'm not worked up, I'm pissed!"
"....but she means well," Sierra continued. "I'm her friend after all, and she's a little protective." Before Meredith could formulate a response to the last part, Sierra grabbed her arm and pulled her to the side; Meredith followed obligingly, staring daggers at Tom. "What the hell is going on here?"
"Meredith," Sierra stated as if speaking to a child, "remember what I asked you about swearing around me?"
The black woman looked down at her friend, then smacked her forehead. "I'm sorry baby," she stated, "I completely forgot. It's just that when I get so angry it just comes out like that."
Sierra turned back to the house with movers carrying away all her grandfather's belongings, and her jaw began to quiver. "Couldn't they have at least waited a few days?" she asked sadly, her voice breaking and tears coming to her eyes.
"Oh honey," Meredith replied gently, gathering the smaller woman into a hug, "I know, I know, it's hard." She looked at the house she had once thought a mansion, now being emptied of all its possessions, and felt for her friend. "Do you know if you can still live there?" she asked softly, stroking her head like she would a child's.
Sierra frowned through her tears. "I didn't think to ask. Do you really think they'll kick me out of my house?"
"It's been known to happen," Meredith muttered darkly, then looked up and shouted, "Hey, you with the clipboard! Come here!"
Sierra flinched at the loud voice right next to her ear and stepped away. "Did you have to do that?" she asked, rubbing her ear and crinkling her nose.
"Sorry, didn't mean to," Meredith answered, then put her hands onto her hips. "Well, I'll be da...." With a quick look at Sierra she instantly amended her choice in phrases. "...darned! Come on, he's ignoring us." Grabbing Sierra's arm, she dragged the shorter girl after her towards Tom, who had his back still turned to them.
Sierra worked her legs to keep up, but when she saw one of the movers holding a stack of books come out of the door, her eyes popped wide. "Wait, please!" she exclaimed, tearing her arm from Meredith's hold and rushing over toward a bleached blond mover in grey. "Don't take those, they're mine! Please, not those!"
The mover stopped, surprised to see the diminutive red haired woman running towards him at full speed. "Are these yours?" he asked when she came close enough to hear.
"No, they're my family's but it's all I have about them and it wasn't really my grandfather's, just being stored there mostly although he helped to put them together." She realized she was rambling as well as breathing hard but was desperate to get the books. "Please, don't take those, they've been in my family for a long time...."
"Hey! Hey, it's alright! You can have them." And with that the mover dumped the stack of books into her arms and headed back into the house, leaving Sierra, who wasn't the strongest person alive, to deal with the combined weight of the books.
"Let me help you with that sweetie!" Meredith rushed over and grabbed several of the books before they fell to the ground, relieving the weight enough so that Sierra wasn't in danger of falling over anymore. "That was rude, leaving you here to carry that," the black woman stated, walking over towards her car.
"Well," Sierra commented over the books, "at least he gave them to me. The last one I talked to wouldn't even consider it."
Reaching her car, Meredith balanced the books on her left hand as she rummaged through her gold purse for her keys. "What's so big about these books anyway?" she asked as she unlocked the trunk of her Metro, swinging it open and putting the books carefully inside.
"They're my family's history," Sierra stated proudly, handing her books over into Meredith's waiting arms. "Journal entries, bills of sale, everything is in these books. They go all the way back to 1723." The books, some four very thick volumes in all, were her prize possessions. The accumulated history and works of her family, it had enthralled her as a child to read through the old journals and histories of her ancestors. Through the civil war, the World Wars, Korea, and Vietnam, she had the histories of her whole family.
That's when it hit her, right in the gut: she was the last of her family. There were no more St. James, no more McDougals, no more Matthews; she was the last and only part of her family. "Meredith," she stated weakly, clutching her stomach, "I don't feel so good."
Meredith slammed the trunk closed and quickly gathered Sierra, who had bent over hugging her stomach, and steered her to the car door. "It's alright baby, I'm here with you." Supporting the shorter woman with one arm, Meredith opened the car door and slowly settled Sierra into the passenger's seat.
"I'm the last one," Sierra sobbed out, tears of grief beginning to run down her face. "I'm all that's left."
Meredith had no clue what the redhead was talking about but continued in her comforting voice, "We're just going over to my house now and getting you settled in. You're in no shape to live here, even if you could."
"But what will Jake say?" Sierra protested weakly. "You know he doesn't like me."
"Jake can learn to deal," Meredith promised, shutting the passenger door before Sierra could utter another word and moving around to the driver's side.
"But what about Roger? Won't he be a little put off that you have an unexpected guest?"
Meredith sighed. "Roger's in school half the day and in day care until five. Look Sierra, if you don't want to come, you don't have to..."
"No, it's not that at all." Sierra sighed, staring out the window at her grandfather's old house. "I just don't want to be a burden to anyone." Waving her hand out the window towards the house and the moving people, she added softly, "Look what it did the last time."
"Honey, it's not your fault. Your grandfather chose to help you, and from what you said you didn't even know." Starting the car, Meredith backed out of the driveway and turned towards the main road. "And it's not a bother that you're going to stay with me; it'll be like old times except that you'll be staying at my house."
Sierra didn't respond at all but just stared at her grandfather's house, now being emptied of all its contents, as she drove off. "Why now?" she repeated quietly, watching as the old house disappeared around a corner.
For Sierra, the funeral came all too quickly. The two days spent at Meredith's house, trying to sort out her life and get herself back under control, came and went faster than the wind and she was once again face to face with the grim reality of her family.
© Sarah Pearson, 1998