From the unedited manuscript, herein lies the fourth chapter from The Breaking of Worlds I: The Wedge in the Doorway, my first novel. (Reformatted for web presentation). This is posted as much for your review as it is for your comment—good or bad.
— — — — — — — — — —
Head resting against the kitchen door, I fumble through my keys. Only a dozen jangle on the key ring, but my mind hiccupped and those dozen keys became a dealership pegboard with the one needed hidden somewhere in a mix of hundreds.
Taking a deep breath to clear my thoughts, I locate the appropriate key after a second and push it into the lock. Twisting the bolt closed, I wonder why Beth’s grandmother Irene spoke of the Dreamdarkers, and I wonder what she meant when she said they were coming for all us dreamers.
Sweat beads over my entire body before I can walk down the steps to the parked cars. Heat and humidity leave a smothering blanket even inside the garage.
“It’s going to be a scorcher,” I tell the automobiles.
The combination garage and storage building stretches away from Carr Beholden’s southern flank, the extension jutting along the clearing under the drip line of surrounding forest. Shadows of massive oaks and hickories and pines lay over it. The trees’ collective canopy full and green, they barter shade for minor care and every bit of sunshine they can grab. Let them consume their fill and then some. The more they take, the less that falls to my level.
The first garage door hums open in response to the wall control. Stepping to the IS 350 parked nearest the house, the key fob gives up the right button and the Lexus chirps its unlocking approval.
A cardinal sings in the distance, its high-pitched whistle greeting with unmistakable charm. Many other birds vocalize in the surrounding trees. Falling into the car and shutting the door, the argumentative call of a blue jay says goodbye.
Nestled behind the steering wheel, I press the push-to-start-button and the motor purrs to life. My left hand hits the button to roll down the windows while my right hand turns the environmental knob to AUTO. Unbearable heat will force the car to rightly choose blowing ice cubes.
Despite its place in the shade, the Lexus’s interior cooks with the fervency of a toaster oven on bake. Sitting outside, it would already broil on its way to vaporize.
Vents quickly transition from stale hot air to fresh cold air. Meanwhile open windows allow some trapped heat to escape. I hit the button and the four windows slide silently upward, sealing their respective doors. The torrid day outside becomes little more than a navigable medium, a simmering atmosphere held at bay by the wonders of automotive manufacturing.
Reversing out of the garage and closing the door once clear, a brief pause reveals half a dozen buzzards circling above a possible meal on the far side of the lake. They glide in wide loops over the treetops. The casual disks they draw in the sky slowly tighten. Scavengers interested in the regular servings of carrion found in the woodlands, vultures have the local sobriquet of “carcass cleaners.” They provide a useful service. While not exactly revered, they elicit respect for their roles. Secondary to cleaning up messes, they can serve as homing devices leading to misplaced livestock and people, generally those subject to recovery as opposed to rescue. They will squander no time getting their share of the meal their noses have detected.
Leaving them behind with their lunch, I drive away from the lake, wending along the private lane that connects Carr Beholden to State Highway 49. After traveling the quarter mile to the end of the drive, the journey having happened seemingly without my participation, I turn left on SH 49 for the mile-long trek to FM 727. There I take a right toward King’s Hope proper.
My destination is Perenson’s, Eli Perenson’s gas station and convenience store at the corner of Main Street and Allen Camp Road. The necessities on my mental shopping list require nothing more than Perenson’s can supply. I fuel the cars and do my odds-and-ends shopping there. I buy my beer there despite a liquor store huddling on the same block as The Food Bin at the far end of town. What can I say? I like Eli and his wife Svetlana. And I adhere to strict canons about living in King’s Hope.
As a known commodity for anyone who watches movies or reads books, and as King’s Hope’s wealthiest citizen, I make a sizable target for those who enjoy digging in the personal lives of public personalities. But I’m a private man. Not a recluse by anyone’s standards, I still prefer living my life away from the limelight. I want my privacy respected. I cherish that premise more in King’s Hope since my parents live here.
So I maintain strict rules about my residency. Do as much business as possible with locals and maintain a give-and-get relationship with the town. Keep that relationship amiable and personable. Don’t be or become the rich schmuck who lives by the lake but otherwise plays no part in the community. The town can bill itself the home of the famous David A. Crichton. Both the hamlet and its citizens can pocket coin from me and from my fame. In return they treat me the same as any other King’s Hope citizen, which includes respecting my privacy and my parents’ privacy. Precepts in place, this relationship works well.
Most can’t refrain from calling me Mr. Crichton, which I hate unless it comes from strangers or the media. But not calling me Dave seems the one noticeable bump in an otherwise smooth road.
A bit of hero worship abounds at times, those unable to see beyond “knowing” David A. Crichton. Indelicate opportunists sometimes make an appearance briefly importuning me to subsidize a business venture or to underwrite a personal endeavor. Mostly women and girls but also a few men, a number of romantic admirers pine for my affection since I’m an eligible bachelor with sophistication and means whose status as a widower grants him much understanding and leeway in his affairs; many of these people have more interest in the means than the man. Some look down their noses at me because I write “those books” they dislike or because I acquired the old lakeside hotel but refused to make it a lucrative bed and breakfast as they wished. I can’t satisfy those people, but I can be a part of the town and drop some currency with locals as much as possible, and I can use my fame to bring business here when suitable. In return I ask for nothing more burdensome than treatment as a person and a part of the town, and I ask King’s Hope to give me the same respect its citizens give the rest of their neighbors. This creates a win-win scenario.
Thus I don’t normally use the Texaco or the 7-Eleven or the Valero, cold and heartless big-business establishments with only thin ties to locals. Instead I buy my gas from Eli. I shop locally as much as I can, meandering the aisles of The Food Bin right along with everyone else. I eat in local restaurants, chatting with townsfolk about the weather or the price of hay or the scuttlebutt making the rounds. I attend community events. I treat residents friendly so in the end I can stroll the downtown area from time to time without an entourage. Despite fame and affluence, I get to be a normal person.
For I love what I do—writing—and I love that my books succeed domestically and internationally, often becoming bestsellers, and I love that half of them have become movies that became blockbusters, and I love that my short stories, novellas and articles appear in anthologies, newspapers and magazines around the globe. Yet my job as my passion doesn’t negate my desire to live without constant hounding, to be another joe, an everyman in the street. David A. Crichton has fame and wealth, and he has ties to studios and publishers and a name that can elicit headlines, whereas Dave Crichton has neighbors and friends and family, and he wants to live in peace.
Attaining status as the town’s richest person comes without difficulty given hardly more than two thousand souls live in King’s Hope. Additionally, the old money, the Carr, Camp and King dynastics, pretty much shriveled and vanished.
The Doubledays maintain a presence in town, Doubleday and Associates the oldest law firm in the area with the most respected lawyers one can imagine, but they never possessed the wealth bandied about by the three primary families. Stu McCreary stands in for the McCreary line who came with the Doubledays to serve a purpose, not to lord over the manor.
With regards to the Camps, their descendants turned the estate into a bed and breakfast following the loss of the family’s fortune. Morgan and Cynthia Camp enjoy the weight their surname carries in town but otherwise work for a living.
One King remains, Lawrence, and he lives in the old estate at the end of Joseph Drive, but that family consumed its fortune in the 1980s and 1990s as though wealth had become the last edible thing on the planet. That left poor Lawrence the sole heir of a once vast and impressive fortune that became a huge house, lots of land, and a paltry inheritance that barely keeps him afloat. He could sell the property and find himself set for life, but he hangs on to the cursed thing with white knuckles. Of course most think he has sources of income if one credits the ample hearsay about his “extracurricular activities.” But those are hushed town secrets we either don’t believe or don’t repeat, at least not in polite company.
And of course I own Carr Beholden, the last bastion of the once powerful Carr family. I wouldn’t reside here if they lived and wielded some fraction of the fortune and power they once represented. But the King’s Hope Carrs passed away more than thirty years ago, the last of their line dying from old age.
As for the majority of residents, a good number of them are get-your-hands-dirty working class, most owning or employed by farms and ranches and supporting industries. The rest fill in the customary town workforce, restaurants and stores and such.
One shouldn’t confuse real-world novelists with the rich-and-famous depiction of romantic fantasy. Most literary wordsmiths ply their inscriptive trades on the side while holding down day jobs to pay the bills; most whose livelihoods rest entirely within the book world scrape by at best. In the United States, about a handful of novelists make of it a livable career. It pays an infrequent pittance unless you kick out hits and keep them coming, or you augment narratives with other paid writing, or both. And to date my writing has accomplished both.
Income from my novels has remained in the low six-figure range year over year since 1999 when my first book, Gifts from a Quantum God, landed on store shelves. I’ve published twelve more novels during the intervening fourteen years, each earning advances, foreign language rights and recurring royalties. Better yet, two of my novellas and seven of my books have made the leap to the big screen, so movie money adds to my revenue.
On top of literature and films, authoring short stories and novellas puts greenbacks in my wallet, and article work for magazines and newspapers continues unabated. Most writers who build a successful brand for themselves find paid gigs from time to time, such as speaking engagements, lecturing and guest teaching; these things I do as well. All told however, working with words represents generous though not excessive funds. It makes for secure living; it does not equate to true wealth.
Beth pushed me into the rich category—both her life and her death, more so the latter. Her six-figure earnings soared above mine. While she lived, we had an impressive pile of gold stacking up in the corner. We lived frugal lives thinking we would someday have children, and we tucked away as much as possible and invested smartly but unstintingly. I drove an old Chevy Blazer, which I still have by the way, and she drove a Toyota Camry. Our house on White Rock Lake was comfortable and roomy without being bourgeois and extravagant. In basic terms, we saved more than we spent and what we saved earned its own way.
Then she died. Tragedy pays, you might infer, since two double-indemnity life insurance policies, one through her workplace and one we purchased jointly as personal protection, both coughed up big checks. Then along came accidental death and dismemberment, vehicle loss, and other insurance payouts I never knew existed, each dropping more on the growing pile. What a racket! But in the end I had a pretty penny.
Following rapidly came the shipping company that owned the truck that ran the red light and hit her. They feared the Mighty and Powerful David A. Crichton, a known commodity who received an outpouring of public sympathy following his wife’s tragic death. The trucking firm and their insurance carrier knew the court of public opinion would decimate them, and they knew the driver of that deadly truck made the biggest possible on-the-scene-of-an-accident blunder: he admitted to the police that he couldn’t remember approaching the light, not to mention running it, and perhaps he’d fallen asleep, though by golly he’d slept like a rock the night before and didn’t feel a bit tired. He admitted his guilt, maybe he wasn’t paying attention as he approached the intersection, maybe he zoned out. Liability clearly established. And since he drove a commercial vehicle …
With the deck stacked against them in more ways than one, the shipper and its insurance company dealt out settlements, bigger checks—much bigger checks in fact—than the already received insurance payouts. And to think I hadn’t talked to a lawyer, let alone filed a lawsuit. With no interest in a legal battle—avarice didn’t enter my mind and wealth could never fix what broke—I accepted the reparations and promised not to sue them or vilify them. In my opinion, if it refuses to be a bad nightmare, it should hasten into history.
Yet everything related to the accident equaled excess but not vulgarity. Pushed into the millions by unsought redress, the dollars added to lack of fear with regards to financial ruin. Still dwarfed by the stock options of internet entrepreneurs in the ’90s, what I banked from death didn’t make me rich, not in the intellectual sense and not in the societal sense. It made me wealthy but not loaded. The final nail in the not-rich coffin came from an unexpected source—my wife’s personal contribution.
An only child, Beth never mentioned what her mother and father did; both died before their daughter’s eighth birthday. Therefore I assumed she didn’t know about her parents’ livelihoods, as children often don’t at those ages. Or possibly she stowed away that early part of life in some memory vault where she no longer looked, a child casting away hurt and anger and loss in the best way possible—forgetting.
Either way, she intimated with everything she said that she knew of no relatives. A measure of the people in her life revealed only friends and acquaintances and colleagues. Whatever her family history, it vanished when her grandmother died.
Three days after the accident, unbidden tears obscuring the world and raw emotion clouding the path ahead, I received a surprise visit from two starched-and-pressed individuals, tailored Armani suits, brilliant white shirts, expensive silk ties and polished leather shoes.
“My name is Jean-Marie de Vérité,” one said as he offered his hand, gesturing toward the second gentleman with his other hand as he added, “and this is Pierre de Savoir.” Then handing me a business card materializing out of nowhere in his free hand he added, “We are from the law firm of de Vérité et de Savoir of New Orleans, Louisiana. We represent the de la Roche family.”
His French accent soothed. Not the blinding spotlight of harsh and incomprehensible diction, but instead the soft candlelight of culture and refinement. I shook his outstretched hand, then the other’s, then invited them in, my reeling brain having somehow waded through surging emotions to discover the nexus between de la Roche, Beth’s maiden name, and New Orleans, her city of birth. While I didn’t know a great deal about her pedigree, I suspected these gentlemen aimed to remedy that deficiency to some extent.
To call them vampiric would do the blood-sucking undead justice in the best possible sense. Handsome to the point of untouchable beauty, both men had mocha hair and the chiseled features of Baltic States or Caucasia, traits softer than Russian yet harsher than European, that distinctive middle ground that spits out stunning good looks without trying. They stood tall and broad-shouldered, dapper for sure, finely cut wears resting against strapping frames. While their overall impressions gave me a geographic reference as to their provenance, I couldn’t help but be struck by the luminescent skin that seemed untouched by sun, untouched by time, flawless and radiating inner light almost to the point of translucence. Both men represented enviable combinations of genes, graced with unending youth that bordered on unnatural. I wouldn’t have dared guess their ages because neither looked old enough to drink alcohol, yet both had made it through law school and served as senior partners in their firm.
After taking seats in the living room, before either of them spoke, I made note of the business card. Thick, fine texture, embossed writing felt as much as seen, ivory stock and charcoal ink. An ornate emblem emblazoned the right third of the card, an archaic design reminiscent of the lines and curves of medieval religious artwork adorning ancient texts and not too few churches. Yet the pattern also held a certain Celtic design: not too curvaceous or gaudy, somehow geometric, symmetrical with sturdy lines. Evidently an old signet, maybe of an order.
A mix of Druidism and Christianity wouldn’t have surprised me, combining the two a widespread practice as Catholicism swept the world and consumed and integrated pagan faiths to make conversion easier for the great unwashed. Heathens would come to church more often if it looked, sounded and tasted familiar.
Covering the other two thirds of the card, to the left of the compelling logo, the name of the firm appeared printed in a gothic copperplate font—de Vérité et de Savoir, Attorneys at Law. Recognizing it as French but never having learned the language of love, I breezed over it knowing it stood for partner names.
Before I could speak, my eyes fell below the firm’s name to their motto. I mumbled the words absently, “Ex Scientia Vera …”
While I don’t know French, I took four years of Latin in high school because words are power, I’m a writer, and linguistics and etymology fascinate me. The moment I read it I knew ex scientia vera roughly meant “from knowledge, truth.” My eyes returned to the name of the firm—de Vérité et de Savoir.
“de Vérité,” I said more firmly, “possibly from Latin veritas from Latin vera.” Not knowing French and having no clue of the etymology of vérité, my mind couldn’t verify the connection it made. Nevertheless I suspected the French word had a similar meaning to the Latin word—truth. This meant little for names are just names, especially old surnames which have rather obvious links to their formation: Wise coming directly from “wisdom” and describing someone learned, Rector coming from “rector” and describing someone involved with a church, and on it goes. Contemporary surnames represent centuries of linguistic evolution for titles made up as needed to differentiate people with the same first names.
de Vérité could easily mean “of or from truth” and could betoken descent from soothsayers, priests, investigators, wise men, prophets, or any number of other functions that imply seeking truth. That would include—Heaven forbid!—attorneys, judges, lawyers. The name made tangential sense.
Acknowledging I wasted time on wordplay since I partly feared their visit’s purpose, I looked at the two men. They sat upright, impeccable posture, two pairs of crystal blue eyes focused on me with compassion and sharp interest.
Pierre de Savoir said, “Your interpretation is correct, Monsieur Crichton. The French word vérité stems from the Latin veritas and means truth. And savoir means knowledge and comes indirectly from Latin sapere meaning ‘to be wise’ or to have taste.” He smiled, though not a bragging smile declaring his name meant more than a name but rather the happily satisfied smile of a presumption now proved. His comrade had the same approvingly pleased smile on his face. Unbeknownst to me, I had passed a test.
“So what is this about, Mr. de Savoir and Mr. de Vérité?”
“Monsieur Crichton,” de Vérité replied, “please call me Jean-Marie.”
“Please call me Pierre,” de Savoir added.
“Then please call me Dave.”
Pierre immediately responded, “That would be improper, Monsieur Crichton.”
“Why might that be?”
“Please, Monsieur Crichton, let us not cloud this discussion with the fog of propriety. We come at this time of deprivation not to bother you with such pedantries. First let us offer our sincere condolences on the loss of your wife.”
Both men set their mouths firm and their eyes soft, Pierre giving a small shake of his head. Sympathy, a precious commodity so long as it doesn’t become pity. Sympathy comes from the heart, a sincere feeling of shared pain and loss. Pity, on the other hand, comes from the intellect, a sense of detached mercy felt by the strong for the weak.
Pierre offered, “A calamitous mishap indeed, Monsieur Crichton. A senseless tragedy.”
“Oui,” Jean-Marie included. “I am truly sorry for your loss, Monsieur Crichton. But come, your time is precious, your bereavement real. Mon Dieu! Let us not tarry. Our visit is Pavlovian, yet hopefully it also is propitious and edifying.”
“Of course!” Pierre interjected before continuing, “As we said, our firm represents the de la Roche family. More specifically, our firm serves as paladin-in-absentia and guardian-in-aeternum for the de la Roche Legacy Trust. Established in 1658, the Legacy Trust represents the interests of the combined estate formed by the marriage of the Mademoiselle Simone du Pont de Nemours to the Baron Charles-Édouard de la Roche de Châteauguay.”
de Vérité appended, “A primary function thereof is to act as benefactor in the furtherance of economic assurance for the trust’s licit beneficiaries—rightful male members of the de la Roche de Châteauguay family. However, Monsieur Crichton, rightful male members of the de la Roche family ended with the life of Louis de la Roche. At that time, according to the Monsieur de la Roche’s previous instructions, exhaustive rights, resources, funds and information from the Legacy Trust transferred en bloc to his daughter, the Mademoiselle Elizabeth de la Roche.”
“Clearly, Monsieur Crichton, we speak of your late wife,” de Savoir clarified.
My eyes had already glazed over from understanding and from disbelief. I had no comprehension of this trust, but already it seemed bigger and more powerful than what I could associate with Beth. Why had she not shared news of a centuries-old lineage and her name’s untold antiquity? Stories of her childhood intimated poverty, minimalist survival. But that came from the maternal side with Irene. Her father however … Too much buzzing confusion.
Pierre carried on, “In 1994, lacking a rightful male heir for the first time in more than three centuries and acting upon the binding directives provided by her father the Monsieur Louis de la Roche, representatives of de Vérité et de Savoir made personal contact with the Mademoiselle Elizabeth de la Roche upon her twenty-first birthday to inform her of her birthright and its resources.”
His partner picked up the trail and said, “At that time, Mademoiselle de la Roche initiated a stay upon rightful and due annuities from the Legacy Trust and directed our firm to retain said moneys, reinvesting them according to the trust’s due and proper objectives, accepting that she could from time to time call forth a dispensation in those forms most prerequisite to fulfill her needs.”
“Having made no further contact and no petitions since that time, Monsieur Crichton,” de Savoir continued, “in March of 1998 the Madame Elizabeth Crichton, formerly the Mademoiselle Elizabeth de la Roche, contacted our office following your matrimonial vows. She filed appropriate changes, including a commandare post obitum, which continued her previous stay of annuities and enjoined de Vérité et de Savoir to supplant her rightful authority and privilege by naming you, the Monsieur David Allen Crichton, rightful heir to the Legacy Trust should she not rescind, alter or otherwise subvert her mandate prior to death.”
March 1998. The month we married. So soon …
“Additionally,” Jean-Marie stated, “Madame Crichton, via her commandare post obitum, properly and suitably instructed our firm to make available to you forthwith upon her death the heretofore unpaid annuities, including gains therefore realized, and to make accessible to you resources, information and funds from the Legacy Trust.”
“Ergo, Monsieur Crichton,” his partner added as he reached into his coat pocket, withdrew a white envelope and handed it to me, “we present to you, as instructed, the hereunto unclaimed and reinvested annuities, including realized gains, originating from the Madame Elizabeth Crichton’s repudiation of her annuities.”
I held the envelope in shaking hands, unsure of the world in which I found myself. Two men, two lawyers, by name chief partners of their firm, had traveled from New Orleans to Dallas to hand me that envelope. Their story traced heredity stretching more than three centuries into the past, the heredity of my wife, deceased, dead no more than three days. It scared the shit out of me, left me bemused and engendered a multitude of questions.
The envelope had the same emblem, name, motto and address in the upper left corner that appeared on the business card. My full name, David Allen Crichton, filled the address space in neat type akin to the copperplate font. Fingers roaming the surface reported heavy cotton bond; eyes scanning what I held reported more ivory than white; mind looking for comprehension reported something reminiscent of vellum. I briefly traced my fingers over the sigil and discovered it both a visible and a tangible stamp.
Before opening it, before seeing what it held, the envelope represented a secret past, a vast story Beth hid during the eleven years of our marriage. I felt deceived. Slicing and dicing the facts, I deduced a story overflowing with misdirection and untruths. Had I known her? Or did the fresh grief of loss selfishly yet falsely infer malfeasance, perhaps because I felt betrayed somehow by her death?
Had she felt impartial to, embarrassed by, or uninterested in her past? Had she ignored it, finding it unnecessary, somehow prohibitive to her ongoing happiness? She didn’t know about it until she reached twenty-one years of age. Maybe by then she had decided the future held the hope of her life, not the past, so when the past jumped in her face she pushed it aside, uncaring for the intrusion and already beyond the implications. I wished she could help me make sense of the situation.
de Vérité looked at me with a deferential gleam in his eye as he stated, “And ad rem, Monsieur Crichton, in addition to the meager assets you hold, please understand the whole of the de la Roche Legacy Trust, en bloc, now belongs to you and waits at the ready to assist you, three centuries of resources, information and moneys available as your need demands. Annuities will commence henceforth, paid quarterly. de Vérité et de Savoir stands compelled and bound to tender riposte as you call upon us.”
Both men stood as if on cue, prepared to leave with their business concluded. I had questions. They had answers. And I had yet to open the envelope.
“We have taken the liberty of forwarding germane information and documents to your attorney, the Madame Lydia Hagerup, providing her our contact information should she have inquiries not already addressed in the materials provided,” de Savoir offered as they turned in different directions and walked around the couch.
“Ad interim,” de Vérité said as they reached the door and faced me, “de Vérité et de Savoir will, faute de mieux, continue conducting the business of the trust and achieving the goals of the trust according to the wishes of the Mademoiselle Simone du Pont de Nemours and the Baron Charles-Édouard de la Roche de Châteauguay. Meanwhile, we shall await your behest or request.”
Thinking it polite to show them out, I stood, though already they had opened the door and paused in the anteroom, ready to leave, looking back as if awaiting permission to depart. The unopened enveloped trembled in my hands, continued to tremble, weighing heavily upon me. I could scarcely look away from it.
“En rappaport, Monsieur Crichton,” one of them said—I could no longer see them or tell them apart, tears misting my eyes, my heart heavy, my mind spinning out of control—”wealth does not wash away the distaste of death, but I hope Madame Crichton’s intent shines as clearly for you as it does for us.”
“We offer our heartfelt condolences for the loss of your wife. Madame Crichton’s spirit will be missed,” the other said.
“Take the path that leads up from the cavernous abyss of loss, Monsieur Crichton, up from here sans worry or concern. Trials await and death is only the beginning.”
“With respect, mon cher, we take our leave. We await your word.”
The door closed. Silence filled the living room, the house, the emptiness of solitude, the reality of aloneness. They had gone. The house sheltered only me. And the envelope continued shaking in my hands. How surreal the meeting, how surprising, how strange their parting words.
The men and their business card and the packet I held reeked of expense. Money. From the sound of it, old money.
They had sealed the enveloped with a wax stamp using the design of their logo, that odd conflation of lines that represented an amalgam of ideologies or a blend of different eras. The garnet wax looked like blood, crimson and dry yet fresh and wet. Not wanting to touch it, I shook away my apprehension—Don’t be daft!—and slid my finger beneath the flap. The wax separated from the paper, clinging to the flap, a stain of red where it once held the packet closed.
Removing a folded sheet of paper from within, I smoothed it open with one hand, finding it contained another piece of paper, this one a third the size of a page. A bank name at the top left, my name in the middle, numbers and details scattered across the remainder.
The main sheet had the same symbol, firm name, address. At the bottom of the page, stretching from margin to margin, a bulleted list of cities indicating where de Vérité et de Savoir had main offices: New Orleans, London, Paris, Beijing, New Delhi, Tokyo, Pretoria, Moscow.
Those represented some serious places, though New Orleans hardly fit with the others. The capitals of England, France, China, India, Japan, South Africa and Russia, led by New Orleans, the powerhouse capital of—capital of naught since Baton Rouge is the capital of Louisiana. Capital of Mardi Gras? Capital of the French Quarter? Likely the firm started in New Orleans and grew into a global legal empire from there, ignoring of course that New Orleans didn’t exist three hundred years ago. More confusion for later, I supposed.
Quickly scanning through the letter—To the estimable Monsieur David Allen Crichton—it read as both explanation for the check and declaration of my incipient relationship with this law firm. Knowing what a letter of intent means, creating the legal paperwork to retain an attorney’s services, the missive struck me as incongruous because it performed the same function except in reverse. Rather than showing I had retained the representation of de Vérité et de Savoir, Attorneys at Law, the text spelled out that, according to the wishes of the late Elizabeth Crichton, de Vérité et de Savoir represented me as a course of ongoing management of the trust. In essence, you need not do a thing, Dave, because we already work for you. No signature required.
And the check … The letter explained it represented the funds previously refused by Beth, annuities and their reinvested gains, about fifteen years of automatic payments she declined. The annuities came automatically, the larger trust tapped at any time. Beth renounced both options.
de Vérité had called the check “meager assets.” So I finally pulled it into view.
Pay to the order of David Allen Crichton …
My eyes slowly meandered toward the value. On the right. In a box.
I tried to clear confusion and frustration, tried to make sense of the numbers. No zeroes, a lode of digits, need to find the decimal.
Still not clarified, the sum not meager. Look at the text.
Four hundred twenty-seven million five hundred ninety-nine thousand one hundred eighteen dollars and forty-seven cents.
Huh? Look at the numbers again, in the dollar box.
Brain circuits short and fizzle. Thoughts try to comprehend.
Memory: “the hereunto unclaimed and reinvested annuities, including realized gains …”
Memory: “in addition to the meager assets you hold, please understand the whole of de la Roche Legacy Trust, en bloc, now stands at the ready to assist you …”
Memory: “Annuities will commence henceforth, paid quarterly.”
Memory: “we shall await your behest or request …”
“They didn’t include a complete accounting of the trust’s worth, but the overview implies a value at least in the many tens of billions,” Lydia Hagerup explained.
It had taken me a few days to call her about the visit from the French lawyers. No avoidance involved, though shock played a part. Mostly I delayed since Beth had died a few days prior, my life remained in chaos—mental, emotional and otherwise—and the voice of logic said Lydia would need some time to do her homework on the information they sent her. And she would definitely do her homework, forever a thorough and tough attorney.
“As long as you don’t make withdrawals, your financial ramifications stay limited to investment income from annuities. When you deposit the check you already have though, you’ll want to claim it as inheritance. They’ve already paid the taxes.”
“I figured as much,” I replied. “But what interests me more is the overview of the law firm, the trust, all of it. Is this real? Do you have any idea how unbelievable it is, Lydia?”
“Without a personal frame of reference, I can only imagine it strikes you as so out of left field and so incredible that it must be a bad joke or a bizarre accident of identity. But it’s real, Dave. Let me tell you what I found.”
She proceeded to explain that the law firm in question, de Vérité et de Savoir of New Orleans, Louisiana, with offices spread around the globe, appeared to have no clients aside from the de la Roche family, a vast, nebulous estate with a centuries-long history. Beth’s directive to transfer the trust to me legally bound the firm. But more than cash—obviously a great deal of that—the trust represented centuries of history, a private version of the Vatican’s collection of information, artifacts, texts, art and such.
Lydia made clear the trust took financial care of the de la Roches, not to mention legal care; yet also, according to the firm’s documents and the trust’s charter, the law firm had responsibility to conduct the business of the trust and to achieve the goals of the trust, both rather ill-defined objectives in the available and public records.
“They’ve worked in secrecy for more than three hundred years, Dave. Since they seem to have just one client, the court documents I’ve found thus far show them involved in matters somehow connected to those goals, though how is anyone’s guess. I discovered property acquisitions, ownership disputes for artwork and ancient texts and heirlooms, and various odds and ends that look rather innocuous.
“But it doesn’t end with that. There are court records either sealed or heavily redacted that indicate other matters that hardly look related. For example, there’s a case from about fifty years ago when the trust fought a lengthy battle to obtain remains buried beneath the Vatican. The Vatican, Dave, the heart of the Catholic Church. And the trust won! They got their remains, though the records are so blacked out that it’s impossible to determine why the trust had interest in retrieving remains interred in the Vatican’s catacombs.”
“Right. And there’s more of that. As I said though, these records are hard to find and harder to understand because they’re either completely sealed or they’re edited heavier than documents coming out of the Department of Defense. It would be easier to learn the secrets of the stealth fighter with a Freedom of Information Act request than it would be to figure out what madness lies behind these expurgated records. At least for me …”
“What do you mean?”
“As the trust’s sole beneficiary, you might have access to information that no one else can access save those working for the firm.”
“True. I intend to ask some questions. I can’t help but be curious about this, given its strangeness and unexpectedness.” I paused for a breath, weighing options, then inquired, “What about the firm itself?”
“The firm is a private company. The most you can find comes from tax records. Otherwise they file no other revelatory paperwork save the bureaucratic kind. The tax records tell the story we already suspect—a lot of money. The firm’s income, tied exclusively to the trust, trends per annum toward a global value around a billion dollars. It tapers off the further back you go, as you’d expect.
“But a billion annually?” She sounded incredulous. “I’d say that’s excessive since there’s only one client. Nevertheless, if that one client, the trust, has a lot of business to manage and a lot more money than the firm’s income …” She let her words fade, leaving me with the striking allusion.
“The trust must be massive.”
“Precisely. Property, art, investments, cash, who knows what else. This law firm’s tax records clearly indicate the trust has material assets in the many tens of billions at minimum, though it wouldn’t surprise me to learn it’s a hundred billion or more. That is if they’re not sucking it dry.”
“This check signifies otherwise.”
We paused to consider the magnitude of what we wanted to understand, the remarkable secrecy behind the firm’s practice, the suddenness of it.
After letting my mind rove a few moments I asked, “Is depositing the check a wise move?”
She laughed a warm and gentle laugh as though I had inadvertently told an amusing joke. Finally she answered, “If you want to be rich.”
“Thanks, Lydia!” I shot back with good-humored sarcasm.
“From your perspective it’s an inheritance, nonbinding and noncommittal with regards to the trust or the firm. In fact, given the paperwork they forwarded for my review, the obligations created from Beth’s directions are entirely one-sided—theirs. As with all such relationships, they’re now legal counsel for you, bound by the trust to serve your interests as though you’d hired them. No signature required to make that a reality; it’s already a reality. That entire law firm is now dedicated to you via the trust, and the trust now belongs to you in toto. In every legal way conceivable, Dave, you own the trust and you own the law firm of de Vérité et de Savoir.”
My breath caught as I grappled with the inference. My wife bequeathed the de la Roche Legacy Trust to me. The legal practice handled no work save managing that trust, tending its business, taking care of its rightful owners. I had inherited the untold wealth of the trust; I had also inherited the organization that saw to its care and feeding.
“Wow,” I finally gasped as it settled into place. “Just … Wow.”
“That about sums it up, my friend,” Lydia responded.