The topic was an inheritance. I toyed briefly with the idea of writing something Darwinian. Then I thought of writing a story set in a world where Lysenkoism actually worked. But I decided that was far too big an idea to deal with in the 1,500 or so words that was my limit. So in the end I settled for the cliché of a will being read and the beneficiary inheriting everything. But I hope I managed to bring some entertainment to the stereotype and to give it a nice twist at the end...
"I dont usually do a formal reading of the will," said Jack Danby. "Its a completely unnecessary and rather melodramatic movie cliché. But your father insisted on it, so I dont really have any choice in the matter."
Donald Atkinson nodded to indicate that he understood. "Dad was like that," he said. "He always did love his melodrama."
They were both sitting in Jacks office. It was a very modern, expensive looking office, all glass and chrome, furnished with uncomfortable Scandinavian furniture that scattered dazzling reflections from the sunshine that poured in through the enormous floor to ceiling windows. Even Jacks desk was made of glass and Donald could see that beneath the desk Jacks left leg was bouncing up and down even though the rest of his body was sitting perfectly still. Clearly he was feeling the tension of the moment.
There was a very sleek computer on Jacks desk. He tapped a few keys on the keyboard and then swivelled the screen round so that Donald could see it. "Take a look at this," he said. "I hope it doesnt upset you too much."
The screen cleared and then Donald saw an image of his father appear. His dad beamed a huge smile. "Well," he said, "if this is being played for you Donald, I suppose I must be dead." He paused for a moment. "Funny," he said reflectively, "I dont feel very dead. But then I wouldnt, would I? Not yet."
"No, dad," said Donald. He knew his father couldnt hear him, but somehow he couldnt help himself.
On the screen, his dad reached out and picked up a mug of something steamy and sipped from it. Probably coffee, thought Donald. His dad had always liked coffee. He drank at least eight large mugs of it every day. Probably that habit was one of the contributing factors to the heart attack that had killed him.
His dad put the mug down and then carried on speaking. "This is my will," he said. "Since Im still alive while Im making this video Id like to call it a living will. But Jack wont let me call it that. Apparently there is a very strict legal definition of that phrase which this recording doesnt match. So its just a will, albeit a rather unorthodox one. But it seems that theres no actual law against it, so here we go.
"Donald, I always promised to remember you in my will and I pride myself on being a man of my word." He rubbed his chin and stared at the ceiling, his face twisted up in an exaggerated parody of a man who was thinking deeply. "Donald," he murmured. "Donald. Now let me see. Donald..." His voice trailed away. He brooded for a couple of seconds then his face brightened. "Ah, yes! Donald!" he said. "I remember Donald. Hes my son. There you are lad. Ive remembered you in my will, just like I promised I would." He began to shake with laughter.
Despite himself, Donald gave a quiet chuckle. He and his father had always shared a rather eccentric sense of humour, and Donald appreciated the joke that had just been played on him. Over on the other side of the desk, he saw Jack Danby relax slightly. Jacks left leg stopped bouncing and he sat back in his chair. Probably hes relieved that I didnt get angry or upset, thought Donald.
On the screen, Donald saw his father calm down from his laughing fit. "Now we get to the serious part," he said. "Dont worry, Jack has all of this written down in a formal legalistic way. His dry as dust, solicitors brain insisted on it. But I prefer to do it this way. Its a lot more fun."
"OK, dad," said Donald, pleased that now they were going to deal with the important stuff. Donalds whole future depended on what came next. He wasnt all that worried though he was fairly certain that he knew what his fathers plans were. But it would be nice to have some confirmation.
"Right," said his father. "In essence its very simple. Everything I have is yours. Your mother walked out on me when you were just a toddler, and I havent spoken to any of my relatives in years. Everybody hates me, so I dont have any friends, and I dont have any pets because I cant stand animals. So by a process of elimination, you are the only person I can leave anything to. Of course, the devil is in the details. Im not at all sure that even I know exactly what I own. Jack is certainly going to earn his money sorting it all out for you. But thats his job, of course. Hes had lots of practice and Im sure hell do it well."
"Thank you," said Donald, pleased that his expectations had been met. Now it was just a matter of dotting is and crossing ts.
"Dont thank me," said his father, and for a moment Donald wondered again if his father could actually hear him.
"Sorry," said Donald. "I wont interrupt again."
Donalds father took another sip of coffee and then, rather wistfully, he said, "You know, I wish I could take it with me when I go. Jacks looking for loopholes, but I doubt that hell find any." The picture slowly faded away and just before it disappeared, Donald saw his father wink and grin at him. Somehow he did not find that reassuring.
"Well," said Donald, "what now?"
Jacks left leg started bouncing beneath his desk again as he said, "Tracing your fathers assets and holdings has been quite a difficult and rather expensive, chore. But I think Ive got them all tracked down now. Unfortunately though, he really did manage to find a way to take most of what he owned with him when he went, just like he said he wanted to at the end of that video. For the last six months of his life he was a rather enthusiastic member of a coffin club and..."
"Whats a coffin club?" interrupted Donald.
"A club that is made up of people who want to build their own coffins," said Jack. "It sounds very morbid, but apparently such clubs are quite the rage these days. Some of the coffins they build are very imaginative. One huge Star Wars fan was cremated in replica of the Millennium Falcon and an enthusiastic bridge player had a coffin disguised as the ace of spades."
Donald chuckled. "Yes," he said. "that does sound like something that dad would have enjoyed. But I dont recall his coffin looking anything but normal at his funeral."
"Oh it looked perfectly normal from the outside," said Jack. "But inside it seems that it was lined with confidential papers, bank statements and share certificates. And of course they all went up in smoke at his cremation. Without that paperwork, transferring legal ownership to you is proving to be very difficult, if not impossible. There are enormous gaps in the paper trail."
"That doesnt sound good," said Donald. He felt quite worried. Jacks left leg was bouncing faster now and Donald couldnt help thinking that he was about to hear some very bad news.
"It isnt," said Jack. "I have managed to get hold of some things though. Ignoring the ins and outs of the legal rigmarole for the moment, heres everything that remains from the liquidation of your fathers estate. Im happy to transfer it over to you now." He reached into the pocket of his jacket and took out a 50 cent coin. He slid it across the table to Donald. "That really is all thats left," he said. "Dont spend it all at once."
Donald picked up the coin and looked at it. It was very shiny, almost as if it had been newly minted. He wondered if Jack had arranged to have it specially polished for the occasion. Donald put the coin in his pocket and stood up to go. He needed to think about this. It had all come as rather a shock.
"Theres one more thing," said Jack. He slid a piece of paper across the desk.
"Whats that?" asked Donald.
"My bill," said Jack, refusing to look Donald in the eye. "The estate cant settle it, so you owe me $8,000." He paused. "And 50 cents," he added.