These stories are 90% fiction.
Luke sat at a small table in a quaint board game cafe in New York City, sipping his tea and tapping his foot impatiently. He had arranged to meet with a potential client, a man named Mr Gofton, who had reached out to him after his second heart attack. Luke had heard that Mr Gofton owned this board game cafe and he found himself curious about the man.
As he sat there waiting, a man with a portly build and thinning hair approached him. "You must be Luke," he said, his voice booming. "I'm Mr Gofton. Thanks for agreeing to meet with me."
Luke stood to shake his hand, taking in the man's appearance. He was in his late forties, with a round face and stubble. He wore a button-down shirt with a dragon print on it tucked into khaki cargo pants, and his red dress shoes were scuffed pretty.
They sat down at the table, and Mr Gofton began to talk immediately. He told Luke his life story, painting himself as the victim of circumstance. "My wife left me after my forth child was born" he said, his eyes downcast. "And my kids stopped talking to me. I don't understand why. I've always tried to be a good father." He continued to talk, listing off names of former friends, family members, and business partners who had wronged him. He spoke of how he had been manipulated and taken advantage of, but always managed to come out on top. And despite all of his hardships, he saw himself as the hero of his own story. "I may have made mistakes," he said with a self-assured smile. "But I've always done what I thought was best. And I won't let anyone bring me down."
Luke listened patiently, ‘’if you don’t interrupt the person your interviewing they may just tell you everything without having to ask a question’’. though he found himself growing more skeptical by the minute. Mr Gofton seemed to place the blame for his problems on everyone but himself, and he exuded an air of arrogance that was hard to ignore.
After a while, Mr Gofton got to the reason for their meeting. "I want to hire you to make sure my funeral goes according to plan," he said. "I've already written my obituary and starting to settle my estate. I just need someone to make sure it all goes smoothly."
Luke raised an eyebrow. "That's an unusual request," he said. "Why do you feel the need to plan your own funeral?"
Mr Gofton takes a deep breath and leans forward, his watery brown eyes locked onto Luke's. "I have no one else," he says, his voice barely above a whisper. "As I have said everyone I have loved or trusted has left me. And I don't want to burden the few acquaintances I have left with this task."
Luke nods sympathetically. "I understand," he says. "Planning a funeral is a difficult and emotional task. It's important to have someone you can trust to make sure everything goes smoothly."
Mr Gofton nods, a single tear trickling down his cheek. "I've written out everything," he continues. "The eulogy, the order of the service, even the music. It's all planned. I just need someone to make sure it goes according to my wishes."
Luke takes a moment to flip through the papers Mr Gofton had just handed him. The order of service is detailed, with specific instructions for each step of the ceremony. The music choices are classic and traditional, reflecting Mr Gofton's love of old-timey ballads and hymns.
"I see," Luke says, looking up from the papers. "And have you considered hiring a funeral planner to coordinate this?"
"I have talked to a few," Mr Gofton says, his voice tinged with frustration. "But they always want to make changes or do things their way. I need someone who will follow my plan to the letter."
Luke nods thoughtfully. "I understand," he says. "Before I can agree to take you on as a client, I'll need to do a background check."Also, can I read the eulogy? I assume I'm reading it at the funeral?"
Mr Gofton looks taken aback. "What, you don't trust me?" he asks, his voice rising.
Luke holds up his hands in a calming gesture. "It's not that," he says. "I just need to be thorough. It's my policy with all my clients. I like to do my due diligence before I take on a client. It's the same as the interview process before you hire someone at this cafe."
Mr Gofton huffs, but eventually relents. "Fine," he says. "Do your background check. But I'm also interviewing you for the job. I want to make sure you're up to the task."
Luke asks. ‘’Do you have any questions for me?’’
Mr Gofton shakes his head with a frown. ‘’Not at this time.’’
Luke nods. "I understand," he says. "If I take you on as a client, I'll do everything in my power to make sure your funeral goes according to your plan." He hands the papers back to Mr Gofton. "Just email me the eulogy, and I'll read it over."
They shake hands, and Luke watches as Mr Gofton walksbto the back of the cafe. He can't shake the feeling that there's more to the man's story than he's letting on. But he pushes those thoughts aside and begins to plan his investigation into Mr Gofton.
Luke pushed open the door to Café Luna, and the rich, comforting scent of freshly brewed coffee enveloped him. The cozy, eclectic spot was bustling with life. Soft jazz music played in the background, and the hum of conversation and clinking dishes filled the air. The walls were lined with bookshelves, filled to the brim with classic literature and new releases. The colorful and mismatched furniture added a charming, bohemian vibe to the space. Luke made his way to the counter and ordered his usual, a warm chai latte and a flaky croissant. He found a cozy armchair in the corner and settled in, the gentle buzz of the café filling him with a sense of comfort and familiarity.
Luke's eyes fell on a figure in the corner, and he recognized Kerry immediately. He looked exactly like Harry Dresden, the wizard detective from the books Luke loved so much. Kerry wore a brown leather jacket that looked like it had seen its fair share of action, and his sharp blue eyes seemed to stare right through Luke. He was sipping on a cup of coffee and had a pile of files and folders scattered across the table in front of him.
As Luke made his way towards Kerry, he took in the rest of the crowd. The cafe was packed with people of all kinds, from hipsters typing away on their laptops to old-timers sipping their coffee and chatting. A group of students sat huddled together, discussing their assignments, while a couple in their thirties sat in a corner booth, gazing into each other's eyes. The low murmur of conversation was punctuated by the clinking of dishes and the hiss of the espresso machine.
Kerry stood up as Luke approached, offering him a firm handshake. "Luke, nice to meet you," he said in a deep, gravelly voice.
"Likewise," Luke replied, taking a seat across from him. "Thanks for meeting me on such short notice."
Kerry waved it off. "No problem, I'm always up for a good mystery. So what can I help you with?"
Luke leaned in, to be heard over the sounds of the cafe. "I've got a case I need help with. A guy named Mr Gofton wants me to run his funeral, but something seems off about him. I need you to find out anything you can on him."
Kerry raised an eyebrow. "Planning a funeral? That's not what I expected. But sure, I can look into it. What's the deal with this guy?"
Luke launched into the story of his first meeting with Mr Gofton at his cafe, detailing his arrogant demeanour, strange request and the eulogy. Kerry listened intently, nodding along as Luke spoke.
After Luke finished recounting the strange encounter with Mr Gofton, Kerry leaned back in his chair and stroked his chin thoughtfully. "Sounds like a real piece of work," he commented, ‘’wait until you read this.’’ Luke says handing Kerry the eulogy.
"Dear friends, family, and acquaintances of Mr Goftons, gather around and bear witness to the life of Mr Gofton, a man who has accomplished great things and overcome great adversity. From a young age, He knew that he was destined for greatness. He has always been a visionary, a trailblazer, and a leader.
Despite the many obstacles that were placed his path, He persevered and achieved success beyond his wildest dreams. He built an empire from nothing, and his legacy will live on long after he has gone. His brilliance, hard work, and his unwavering determination have made him an inspiration to all who knew him.
But let us not forget the people who doubted him, who tried to hold him back, who sought to undermine his greatness. These petty individuals will not be named, but they know who they are. They are the ones who laughed at his ideas, who scoffed at his ambitions, who turned their backs on him when he needed them the most. They are the ones who will forever be remembered as the small-minded, jealous, and foolish individuals who failed to recognize his brilliance.
In closing, I want to thank you all for being a part of his life. I leave you with the knowledge that he has achieved greatness, and that his legacy will endure. Let us all remember the remarkable life of Mr Gofton, and strive to live up to the example that he has set."
Luke leaned back in his chair, watching Kerry's eyes scan the page for a few moments before Kerry's head snapped back up. "Wow," he breathed out in awe. "This guy is really something else."
Luke smiles, If I had not met and talked to him. I would think this is a prank. The eulogy is unreal.
Kerry turned his full attention back to Luke. "I'm curious though, why do you want me to do a background check on him?" he asked, genuinely intrigued.
Luke shrugged, a small smile still playing at his lips. "It's actually just standard procedure for me," he explained. "I like to make sure my clients are not lying to me before I agree to work for them." Gofton here I think I lying to himself mostly though.
Kerry nodded thoughtfully. "Well, I'll see what I can find out. You've got my number, give me a call if you need anything else."
Luke suggests, Look into past friends and family. I will text you some names. I doubt he’s a real criminal though.
‘‘Okay’’ Kerry says.
With that, they shook hands and parted ways. As Luke made his way back through the crowded cafe, he couldn't shake the feeling that he was in for more than he bargained for with Mr Gofton.
As he stepped outside, the sound of the busy street hit him. Cars honked and people chatted, and the smell of exhaust mingled with the crisp autumn air. Luke took a deep breath, feeling energized by the hustle and bustle of the city.
He pulled out his phone and checked his messages, smiling as he saw a text from Kerry. It read, "Hey Luke, Nice to meet you. I will have a report for you in a few days.
Texts Day 1 after meeting Mr Gofton:
Gofton: Hey Luke, it was great meeting you yesterday. I hope you had a good evening. Just wanted to check in and see how things are going with the usless background check. Let me know when you have an update.
Hey Luke, just wanted to check in and see if you've had a chance to look into the job yet. Let me know when you can.
Luke, I really need to hear back from you about this job. It's important and I can't wait around forever.
Seriously, Luke? I haven't heard from you all day. If you're not interested in the job, just say so.
Luke: Mr Gofton I told you in a few days.
Texts Day 2 after meeting Mr Gofton:
Gofton: Hey man, hope everything is alright.
Luke, it's been two days. I need to know if you're in or out.
I can't believe this, Luke. Are you just stringing me along?
Look, Luke, I don't have time for games. Either you're in or you're out. Make a decision.
Luke: Mr Gofton Texting me constantly wont make this go faster. My PI is working on it.
Texts Day 3 after meeting Mr Gofton:
Luke, this is getting frustrating. I need to know if you're going to accept this job or not. I have a deadlines and I can't wait around forever. Please give me an update as soon as possible.
Luke, this is getting ridiculous.
If you don't get back to me ASAP, I'm going to have to assume that you're not interested in the job.
Luke, you're really pissing me off now.
You know what, Luke? I don't have time for this. You're obviously not interested in working with me, so I'll have to find someone else who is. I thought you were the best person for the job, but I guess I was wrong.
Okay, Luke, I've had enough. You've wasted enough of my time and I'm done waiting around for you.
You know what, forget it. I don't want to work with someone who can't even bother to respond to a simple message.
Luke, you're a coward. I thought you were better than this, but I guess I was wrong.
Luke: Okay cool Mr Gofton, have a good life.
Gofton: Sorry I’m under a lot of stress.
Luke: Lot’s of people are. They don’t send abusive texts. My Private Investigator says he will have the report ready in two more days. If you stop texting me I will delete and forget about your past texts.
Gofton: Okay see you in two days.
Luke and Kerry were once again seated at the cozy Cafe Luna, nestled in the heart of downtown New York. The scent of freshly brewed coffee and warm pastries filled the air, enveloping them in a cloud of sweet aroma that made their stomachs grumble in anticipation. The cafe's eclectic decor was a feast for the eyes, with vintage and modern elements seamlessly combined to create a cozy and inviting atmosphere. Luke's eyes roamed over the walls adorned with paintings and photographs from local artists, admiring the talent that surrounded them.
Kerry, dressed in his usual attire of a black leather jacket and jeans, looked rugged yet stylish. His gray t-shirt complemented his rugged exterior, and his piercing blue eyes shone with a fierce determination as he spoke of his findings on Mr Gofton. Luke hung on every word, watching his expressions closely, fascinated by the range of emotions flickering in his eyes.
Despite the cafe's bustling atmosphere, the patrons nearby seemed to sense the seriousness of their conversation and kept their voices low, almost reverential in their silence. The background noise of clinking cups and dishes, mingled with the distant chatter of other patrons, faded into a distant murmur, leaving only the sound of Kerry's voice and the occasional rustle of paper. As Kerry continued his report, Luke sipped his tea lost in thought, pondering the ramifications of the case at hand.
Kerry's investigation into Mr Gofton's scams had uncovered a trail of deceit and betrayal. He had interviewed a former business partner who had lost thousands of dollars to Mr Gofton's schemes, and a family member who had been promised repayment for a loan, only to be ignored and avoided. Kerry had found more victims, including a woman who had invested her life savings in a business venture with Mr Gofton, only to be left with nothing when he failed to follow through on his promises. Another man had invested in a "sure thing" card game Mr Gofton was creating, only to never hear from Mr Gofton again after the transfer. Additionally, a former employee had also come forward with allegations of unpaid wages and mistreatment in the workplace. It was clear that Mr Gofton had a pattern of preying on people, exploiting their trust, and taking advantage of their goodwill. As Kerry recounted these stories, Luke could see the anger and frustration boiling inside him, with the stories all having the same theme: Mr Gofton was a con artist who used his charm and charisma to manipulate those around him.
Kerry leaned forward, his eyes fixed on Luke. "So, now that you've heard everything I've found out about Mr Gofton, what are you going to do with the information?" he asked.
Luke took a deep breath and leaned back in his chair, his brow furrowed in thought. "Honestly, I'm not sure," he replied. "It's a lot to process, but I’m not surprised. I need to think about what my next move should be."
Kerry nodded understandingly. "I get it. This is heavy stuff, and it's not easy to know what to do with it. But I think it's important that we do something. Mr Gofton has been getting away with these scams for too long, and he needs to be held accountable."
Luke nodded in agreement. "Yeah, you're right. I just need some time to figure out what my role in all of this should be." Did you ask any of these people why they never took this to the police?
Kerry with a frown says, Yes I did. Mr Gofton walked the line legal and illegal. All his deals were handshakes and deals between friends.
Luke rolls his eyes. So he broke no laws other then moral.
Luke gratefully says. "Thanks, Kerry. I really appreciate your help in all of this. I'll keep you updated on what I decide to do."
With that, the two men finished their drinks and parted ways, each lost in thought about the revelations Kerry had uncovered about Mr Gofton.
As I dialed Mr Goftons phone number, my stomach churned with unease. I couldn't help but think of all the horrible things this man had done. But despite my reservations, I knew I had to see him. A few rings later, a nurse answered his phone and informed me that Mr Gofton, had suffered another heart attack and a minor stroke this time. I was shocked by the news, knowing that his condition was even more serious.
Without hesitation, I made my way to the hospital to visit him. As I arrived at his room, I was struck by how weak and vulnerable he looked lying in the hospital bed. I tried to push away the anger and frustration I felt towards him and focus on his well-being. The nurse explained that Mr Gofton would be checked out later that day, and that he needed to keep his stress levels down.
Despite my best efforts to avoid the conversation at this time, Mr Gofton brought up the job he had offered me earlier. "So will you work for me?" he asked, still laying in his bed. I couldn't help but feel conflicted - on the one hand, I want justice for his victims, but on the other hand, in his current state it made it hard to make him angry
As we talked, Mr Gofton's face turned red with anger, and he pounded his fists on the bed. "How dare you judge me!" he yelled at Luke. "If you don't want the job, then f*** off!"
Luke remained calm and composed despite Mr Gofton's outburst. I would take you on as a client if you were willing to talk about your real past. Your eulogy is clearly only your delusion.
Mr Gofton's face turned darker red and and his voice gets higher pitched and louder with anger. I’M TELLING YOU THE COMPLETE TRUTH. THEY ALL LEFT ME. I DID NOTHING WRONG.
"Okay Mr Gofton, I would never take you on as a client," Luke said firmly. "People who rip off their friends and family are the worst kind of people."
Mr Gofton continued to pound his hands on the bed and curse at Luke, but Luke was unfazed. He pulled an envelope out of his coat pocket and put it on Mr Gofton side table. "Here are the reports from your ten ex-business partners and friends, as well as some of your family members," he said. All of their names are removed but I’m sure you can guess who they are. "They all tell a similar story of manipulation, abuse, blaming, and playing the victim. One of your past friends even says you still owe him money on the house you're living in, a house he helped you with the down payment for. Maybe you should try to fix some of those relationships before it's too late."
Mr Gofton glared at Luke and the envelope, seething with rage. "It's all lies!" he spat.
Luke shook his head. "I'm sorry, Mr. Gofton, but I cannot in good conscience take you on as a client." "I'm sorry that you're not willing to face the truth, Mr. Gofton," I said. "But I hope that one day you will be able to find peace and make amends for the harm you've caused." With that, I left the hospital room and headed out into the hallway. I could still hear Mr Gofton's angry shouts echoing behind me, but I felt a sense of relief and closure knowing that I made the right decision.
As I walked out of the hospital and into the bright sunshine, I took a deep breath and felt a weight lifted off my shoulders. I knew that there would always be more cases and more clients to take on, but for now, I was content with standing up for what I believed in. The thought of all the people I had helped over the years gave me a sense of purpose and fulfillment that no amount of money or success could ever match.
Graham Baldwin settles into the metal chair across from me outside the local coffee shop. We’ve discussed the process over the phone and ironed out many of the details, but meeting in person seals the deal and is our final method of contact. It’s where I’m provided with letters and compensation for my services. He looks nervous as he sits down, with his eyes darting back and forth between mine and the paper cup of black coffee on the table.
We’re outside, despite the crisp fall air that lingers around us. It isn’t ideal, but it is a suitable middle ground for a public meeting. Safe for myself and those who hire me. Witnesses are around, if necessary, but eavesdroppers remain limited.
He reaches into the inside of his coat, then extends his arms to pass me the thick envelope. His sleeve slips back with his reach, and I can see the fragility of his body. I know Graham is terminally ill and desperate to get his estate in order for when the inevitable strikes. It’s exactly what I will serve out for him by sharing his final words and lasting wishes on his behalf.
- - -
Mr. Baldwin was always a meticulous man. His attention to detail was what made him so successful in his business endeavors. He started his aviation company from the ground up, nearly investing every bit of money he had to create it. His tenacity was a skill he also worked hard to pass down to his children, yet he was only mildly successful. With two sons, and two daughters, the perseverance split itself up. His oldest son, Asher, took on his entrepreneurial spirit from a young age. A fond memory of his was in the early days of the business when he sat on the floor and combed through documents at the end of the year to report all of his income. Asher sat next to him, held the calculator, and typed in the numbers as his dad read them out.
Of course, Asher only played accountant and Graham followed behind to double-check the numbers. But it gave him a great sense of pride to see his son so interested in the operations of the business. It was tenfold when he took Asher to the hangars, only to find him roaming around and asking when it was his turn to help assemble a landing gear. It gave Graham hope that it truly could blossom into a family business in the future.
Sabrina was born three years after Asher and was his polar opposite. Graham couldn’t help but spoil her, especially as his wealth grew from the company. He felt it was his duty to make sure his family wasn’t only set up for success but had the opportunity to indulge. She preferred to cling to her mother, and Graham understood that she would always be a momma’s girl. However, that didn’t stop him from bringing her along to the hangars with him and Asher, despite her protest.
Next came the twins, not long after Sabrina. Graham and his wife Lyra were thrilled to add to the family and twins were quite the surprise. With Lyra being adopted, she had no idea there was a genetic possibility for twins on her side. But, due to complications, Jessica and James were born nine weeks prematurely. The stress of it all struck the foundation of the family. Graham scrambled with the two older kids while trying to tend to his wife and the newborns who were still in the hospital for weeks. Neither of them had much extended family to lean on. At least for anything other than a home-cooked meal or a load of laundry, so the kids had clothes for school. He always looked back on that time as the test of all tests – for himself, his marriage, and his family.
Jessica, James, and their mother recovered well and gained their strength quickly. Lyra and Graham brought the babies home on a chilly morning in February. Leap Day, 1996 – a day they’d never forget not only because of its significance but also because the NICU dressed the babies in frog-themed onesies. Lyra always called Graham a pack rat, but he couldn’t help but savor the tiny baby clothes and keep them in a box of keepsakes for the years to come. It was only when the divorce was finalized that he recovered them.
Lyra filed for divorce when the twins were ten. Graham wished he could’ve said he was surprised, but deep down, he knew it was inevitable. Their marriage was hard despite the picturesque exterior they portrayed. The beautiful Victorian-style home, luxury vehicles, and lavish vacations served as a façade. On the outside, they had it all. But on the inside, it lacked all of the healthy ingredients for a lasting relationship. Graham and Lyra started to live separate lives from one another as a result of the arguments and mistrust. He preferred to stay together for the kids, but Lyra had other plans.
Asher took it the hardest, as older children of the family often do. Graham did his best to ensure he didn’t take on any extra burdens simply because he was the oldest. However, the divorce did bring Asher and his youngest sister, Jessica, closer. In turn, Sabrina and James also became closer. It was interesting for Graham to see the kids’ relationships change due to the family dynamic shifts.
Graham quickly realized that when Lyra had the kids, she often badmouthed him to them. It fostered a deep resentment towards their father in some of the children. Sabrina and James began to pull away from him and preferred to stay with their mother more often. Occasionally, Jessica would follow, as she was the people-pleasure of the bunch.
“I don’t want anyone’s feelings hurt,” She’d say, as she tried to decide whether or not to go to her mother’s house with her siblings. Sometimes it felt that giving the children a choice in their visitation schedule was a bad decision and more stressful than it was supportive. Yet, Lyra still found a way to make it work in her favor.
As the kids grew older, all their relationships fluctuated. The twins had phases where they hardly spoke or clung to one another. There seemed to be no in-between, and Graham always theorized it had to be biological factors at play– they must’ve felt a deep sense of comfort within each other. Something one can only experience through sharing identical genes. Asher prepped for college despite the fact all he wanted to do with his life was help run the family business.
“It’s in my blood, dad.” He’d tell Graham as he nonchalantly thumbed through the pamphlets renowned universities sent to their home, encouraging him to apply.
“I just don’t want you missin’ out on anything better,” Graham would pat his son on the shoulder. He dreamt of the day that Asher could take over the business and make it even bigger and better. Yet it was only a reality he wanted if Asher did.
James hardly visited, and Sabrina stopped coming back home entirely in her teen years. She clung to her mother’s home, and what was left of her relationship with her dad or older brother fizzled away. One Christmas, when she did make an appearance, Graham overheard her telling her boyfriend they only visited to get the cash from the Christmas card. It broke his heart, but he swallowed his pain and pretended he had never heard it. He didn’t want to be such a pushover, but retaliating would only sever any potential of a relationship. Yet, his underlying disdain for Lyra for turning his kids against him would never fade.
Unlike the divorce, the diagnosis did serve as a surprise to Graham. He was devastated and fell into a brief period of denial. Sure, he was no spring chicken, but he’d naively assumed that a terminal diagnosis wasn’t in the cards for him so soon. The only silver lining that came to light was the potential of the tragedy bringing his family closer together. He wondered if the diagnosis would draw Sabrina and James back into his life, even if it was just out of pity. He still craved love from his children. He could be okay with pity.
Getting all the kids in one room seemed to be the hardest part. James and Sabrina narrowly refused, insisting that there was no need. Graham lost his temper at them and nearly spouted out his diagnosis over the phone. Once they finally agreed, he had a glimmer of hope that his children could gather together one day. Perhaps after his passing when things were less complicated.
He paced the living room nervously while all four of his children watched. Asher and Jessica with concern, and Sabrina and James with apathy. Graham slid his hand down the fireplace mantle, desperate to distract himself. He brushed away the collected dust on the surface where the family’s Christmas stocking once hung each year. Now the mantle remained empty, as Asher had moved out on his own and Jessica was a senior in college. A single stocking was too sad to look at.
“It’s pancreatic cancer. Stage three.” The words came out emotionless. “Terminal.”
There was a heavy silence that filled the room. So palpable that Graham felt like he might choke on his next inhale.
He looked past his children at the wall in the distance behind them. Looking them in the eye was too painful. But judging by Asher’s body language in his peripheral vision, the young man was on the verge of crumbling.
“You can ask me anything, kids.” He told them.
He wanted to comfort them, and he wanted to feel their comfort too. He desperately needed to know they would care for him in his dwindling days as his humility and autonomy slipped out of his grip. He needed to know his own flesh and blood could tend to him, despite the utter inconvenience he would soon become in their lives.
Asher broke. A messy, guttural sob fell out of him. Jessica followed, almost as if her brother’s loss of control granted the permission of her own.
Graham’s eyes flickered between them and the other two children. They looked awkward and uncomfortable. But he didn’t judge them in their lack of emotion, as he’d always been a firm believer that grief strikes people differently. They were like their mother in that way, and the other two were like him. More sensitive. Feelers, as he liked to say.
Graham’s health declined rapidly. He’d thought six months was a ticking clock, but by the end of month two, he knew four more were out of the question. He was like an old toy with its batteries running down, seemingly by the hour. But Asher moved back home and cared for him, taking on the mother hen role, which made Graham chuckle even with his spreading pain. Jessica was there, too. Mainly on the weekends after making the commute back home from university. Graham would slip her money to cover the costs. But as his memory faded, he would give her too much at a time, and Jessica would slip it back into his wallet secretly.
Sabrina and James came over sparingly, usually only to sit at the foot of the bed and change the channels on the TV. But Graham was grateful they were there at all. They didn’t talk about his health or anything for that matter. It was superficial. Asher once lost his temper with them when he noticed his dad paying them the way he paid Jessica to make up for her commute. It wasn’t Graham’s fading cognition but Sabrina and James’ opportunistic ways on full display.
Graham cried when he heard his children fighting over his mistake. He demeaned himself for getting confused and couldn’t understand why the money mattered so much. It was paper in his wallet that meant nothing to him anymore. All he cared about was his children. He fell to his knees, sobbing to them that he didn’t want to deal with the finances anymore. Asher worried this day would come and went against his better judgment when it came to handling it. He had left it all alone, fearing that stepping in too soon may make his father feel even more helpless and childlike. But something needed to be done to take the stress off him. And to keep his siblings from weaseling in.
Graham had Asher help him put together all of the documentation and made an appointment with a probate attorney. It helped he was in good graces with the same bank over the years, so he would be in good hands. But as he left home to get everything squared away, he saw Lyra parked in his driveway. She still had that scowl on her face. He hadn’t seen her in over a decade, but her frown lines were more apparent than ever.
She stepped out and attempted to greet him warmly. But Graham could see right through it all.
“The kids told me there are issues with the finances. I think you need someone experienced to handle all of this.”
Graham clenched his teeth so hard that it made his jaw ache.
“I have a professional, Lyra.”
His body was weak, and time was limited. But it was the only way to get everything handled exactly how he wanted.
“Don’t forget I was your wife for all those years. The hard years, Graham.” Lyra said, trying to swindle her way into his assets by playing on the past.
It was all Graham could get out through his exhaustion. His energy during those days were a precious resource he tried to preserve.
He moved by Lyra, avoiding eye contact, and slipped into his pickup truck to head to the bank. There was an itching paranoia that she may follow him there, but he brushed away the fear and settled into his appointment with his trusted accountant and probate officer of the bank. It wasn’t easy, but he sprawled out his documents and laid everything out on the table. Literally and figuratively. He knew exactly what was going to his children, extended family and friends. Just as much as he knew who would be receiving nothing.
- - -
I sat in the safety of my vehicle, dressed in my usual funeral attire. A black dress shirt and blue jeans – enough to blend in slightly, but not enough for anyone to lose track of me either. The pattering raindrops fall from the dark sky and race down my windshield. It’s funny how much weather can dictate the mood of a funeral. Having been to so many and observing the interactions, I see the nuance. Funerals on sunny spring mornings garner more upbeat people, usually. More family members take the podium to speak on behalf of the deceased. Of course, they have tears welling in their eyes still, but I always seem to hear a hint of optimism. There’s more of an emphasis on things like better places and the person smiling down on them all.
But days like today that are dreary and dark bring out exactly that in the attendees. For Mr. Baldwin? I expect to be able the cut the tension with a knife once I’m inside. He gave me the details of his family right away, almost in the format of a warning. Like he thought I might be appalled by the roots of greed that wound tightly through his bloodline? Ha! Little did he know I’d seen it all before, even as far as looking a widow in the eye and calling her out on the theft of her grandchildren’s college funds. That was a degree of greed I’d still yet to fathom.
Anyone outside my line of work was purely naïve to secrets hidden behind closed doors. It’s the hush-hush behaviors that families keep tucked behind their double doored entry ways and white picket fences. Greed, lies, deceit, infidelity… I’d even attended a funeral in which false paternity was proven through the letter I read. It’s far easier to play the role of one big happy family than to confront the cracks in the foundation of it all. Yet death doesn’t seem to mind exposing those cracks all the way down to the bone. No matter how messy and unrelenting it may be.
Taking a deep breath, I step out of the car and avoid as many puddles as I can as I approach the church where the service is being held. I take a seat in one of the lines of pews and begin scanning the room. It’s like a game piecing together the names and faces. I watch the distant relatives and friends and scan for the side-eye glare that shows who is resentful or envious of one another. The phony tones of voices that pass along condolences. Even the cheesy smiles that fade as soon as backs are turned. I don’t need a bullet-pointed list to tell me who the problem is. I can see it firsthand so long as I have a little bit of patience.
As I scan the room, I know who Asher is right away. He’s the young man surrounded by three other young adults. But he’s the most distraught. I see it in his posture and can hear the raspiness of his voice. He’s taking his father’s death the hardest. Next to him, is Sabrina. She doesn’t look happy to be here by any means, but she is not grief-stricken like her older brother. She looks inconvenienced as she twirls the locks of her long blond hair around her manicured finger. How someone looks while standing in a long line at the grocery store.
Behind them are the twins. They have Mr. Baldwin’s hook nose and resemble each other perfectly. Even in their stances, with their arms crossed and their left foot placed on top of the other. They are more frantic while they speak to their mother, and she appears to be reassuring them of something. Lyra is overdressed, with a fur scarf around her neck and a hefty diamond ring on her finger. I can’t help but wonder how much she thinks she’s entitled to from Graham. I can smell the grandiosity emitting from her and can guess she expects millions of dollars. After all, she’s likely much more aware of his level of wealth than her younger children.
I can see the cherry wood casket at the front of the room, but I don’t plan on going to view Mr. Baldwin. Instead, I pay my respects by doing what he’s hired me to do and following every one of his wishes down to the final detail. My actions will make enough of a mark. They are what will aid in his eternal rest.
I take notice Sabrina, Lyra, and the twins move to the pews behind me. They’re incessantly whispering, and then Sabrina casually says, “My inheritance will last me the rest of my life. It’s the only reason I still spoke to dad at all.”
Lyra laughs. James agrees, suggesting what his first few purchases will be, and carries on about how his father was a fool. His twin sister, Jessica, stays quiet. I can’t help but wonder if the greed in her family also repulses her. She’s supposed to be close with Tommy, yet it’s conflicting that she isn’t interacting with him much.
My blood pressure rises.
James chimes in again. “I won’t have to act like Asher anymore to get a quick buck out of him. Thank God.”
Lyra’s laugh is wicked and makes me wince. “That’s right, Tommy was an ass-kisser from the time he was a little boy. But he’ll never admit it.”
How could she say such a thing about her eldest son?
Graham knew two of his children sided with his ex-wife. He explained that he understood and never sought to make his children choose a parent. He even referred to it as cruel to do such a thing. Despite the wreckage of the divorce, he purposefully spoke highly of Lyra to his children to not taint their view of her. However, he knew she practically ran a professional smear campaign behind his back.
I continue listening to the oblivious family members behind me. A smile curls along my lips as I picture their faces every step of the way when I speak. They’ll first be confused about who I am and why I’m speaking. Hopefully they’ll realize I was in front of them as they boasted about the death of Graham. About a foot away from me, I notice an older woman glace at the row behind us a few times. The look on her face says it all. She’s feeling the same way I am, hearing the type of discourse that is going on. I have a deep feeling in my gut that we aren’t the only ones, and many people know of these tendencies without having to hear them in this moment.
Asher is in the front row, with his elbows on his knees. Clearly, the poor man is hanging on by a thread, and it’s very telling that he is in the front row all alone. Where immediate family is supposed to sit. Ahead of him and adjacent to the casket is a makeshift poster with photos of Graham on it and several flower arrangements. I decide to take a stroll towards the front to look at the collage.
Right away, I see a young Graham with his firstborn in his arms, followed by black and white photos of him as a child and teenager. There’s a photo of him sitting on the edge of a bridge with a fishing rod in his grip, grinning from ear to ear with three of his pals. I find myself smiling at the nostalgia of it all. Then, I hear Asher mumbling something to someone. I turn to see Jessica sitting next to him with somber eyes.
The siblings are quiet, but Jessica’s hand winds around her older brother’s back in comforting circles. I’m at ease witnessing them coming together and showing the contrast of the other family members. However, I don’t look for too long and move alone to blend in with the crowd. I know some individuals may be skeptical of me, but it helps that Graham was a popular man. There are likely many prior colleagues who may attend the funeral to show their respect. That makes it far easier to blend into his funeral than ones who lead quiet lives.
I sit in the pew again as I see the preacher approaching the podium by the casket. He opens with a prayer, and I bow my head to blend in with the croud. Then, I’m interrupted by the snickering of Sabrina and James behind me.
Normally, I’m the first to step up to the microphone to deliver my speech when the crowd is asked to share their thoughts. But it’s not always the case, as I often take the lead and butt in as someone else is called up. It’s not necessarily to be rude, but I have a job to do, and I’ve learned tiptoeing any more than needed is an easy way to get cast to the side or be left speaking to a dwindling crowd. It’s a nightmare and makes my message far less effective.
The preacher finishes his speech after touching on the details of Mr. Baldwin’s life and all the good he brought into the world. He’s described as a successful businessman with a big heart that he tended to wear on his sleeve. The snickering and complaining that is going on behind me are nagging at me. They’re even discussing the estimated time the inheritance will need to clear the bank.
My stomach twists into a knot. I need to get away from it and serve the necessary justice to these people. I silently hope I’m not the only one sick of their attitudes and that many other people who were near and dear to Mr. Baldwin notice that Asher and Jessica are the only ones in the front row.
I rise to my feet and clear my throat. It’s quiet, yet only a few people glance in my direction. I tap my silver dollar thumb ring on the pew, and the tinging sound catches the attention of nearly everyone in the room. With all eyes on me, I approach the podium. My large stature is intimidating, as I sit at a towering 6’4” with broad shoulders. My thin frame makes me look even taller, serving as another benefit. So solemnly would any disgruntled family members feel the need to approach me. I was not only the confessor but the intimidator.
I stand at the podium, giving the crowd a moment to look at me before I begin to speak. In the front row, Asher’s tired eyes watch me with curiosity, and Jessica’s mirror them. My line of vision narrows in towards the far right side of the room, where Lyra, James, and Sabrina still sit. The prolonged silence makes them eventually look up at me. Had I fallen right into my speech, they may not have noticed at all.
I get straight to business and pull out the envelope with the prepared letter. I know they don’t expect me to jump into this sort of thing right away, but that’s part of the shock factor that comes with this situation and what I’m hired to carry out. I begin to inform the crowd of a few things they already know – Graham’s success in the airline industry, his unrelenting dedication to his family, and the fortune he leaves behind.
“It’s imperative to Graham that this inheritance is in the right hands,” I say and try to pry my scour off of the three in the back. But it’s impossible. I glare into their eyes, seeing only emptiness behind them. They don't have a conscience or empathy, so my words don’t weigh on them as they would on compassionate people. There is no guilt or remorse for their treatment of Graham.
I continue. “A large portion of the funds will be donated to Harper Children’s Hospital.”
It was no surprise when Graham explained his reasoning to me for his choice. He was eternally grateful for the care his wife and children received that saved their lives.
I notice that Sabrina yawns, and I nearly snicker out loud at her dismissal. How exciting her life must be to be so bored during a funeral!
“I have a few things to share with the direct family,” I announce. I pull the stack of envelopes from my pocket and see Asher’s name on top. I only have to reach a few feet ahead to give it to him. I know he will be satisfied with his letter, as Graham gave him exclusive rights to the airline company. Not just a portion of ownership but the entire business was to fall into his hands.
I flip through the envelopes for Jessica's name and immediately pass her the envelope. She is cautious as she pulls it out of my grip and won’t look at the paper. Her eyes are locked on mine. Hesitant but curious. I remain emotionless, despite wanting to flash them each a sympathetic smile but I keep it hidden. It’s not my place to intervene any more than what is requested of me. I’m just the messenger.
There’s a bit of chatter going on in the crowd, as expected. What I’ve delivered to them is far from ordinary in terms of funeral proceedings, so I take no offense to it. The three in the back see me coming for them, and they stare with confusion. I don’t believe they are the slightest bit prepared for the rude awakening inside each of their envelopes. If they’re looking at me with gratitude or as the newfound source of a promising inheritance, they will soon be proven entirely wrong. Their assumptions are quite a stretch from reality.
They take the letters from my grip, and I can feel their emotions in how they pull them. James is quick, indicating his nervousness. Sabrina pulls hard, which solidifies her irritability even in though she thinks this has to do with her fortune. And finally, Lyra is a mix of the two. She seems to be more intrigued with who I am and why I’m speaking on Graham’s behalf than she is about the letter's contents.
It’s evident the preacher is confused by my actions, too. He looks like he’s ready to step in and intervene or at least call up someone else to speak. But, as our eyes meet, he knows I’m not finished yet. So he backs off.
I still have the original letter in my grip, so I run my thumb down the thick crease that runs halfway through the paper and delicately place it on the top of the coffin. I have an audience trying to hypothesize the method to my assumed madness, but only the family members who received letters will be able to fully understand.
I turn to exit the church in a confident stride, but then a gasp catches the attention of everyone. It’s from Lyra.
“What is this about?! You are a fraud?” Her pitchy voice hurdles accusations my way, and she adjusts her gaudy fur scarf that’s come slightly loose from her neck.
Each envelope holds a letter that informs the family member of what they will receive from Graham’s estate and how to obtain it. Asher received the business and a lump sum of money. Jessica received the family mansion, vehicles, and another sum of cash. But the others? There is nothing listed out for them. The balance to be inherited sits at whopping zero dollars and zero cents. The letters close's with a handwritten signature from Graham C. Baldwin himself, followed by a date and stamp of approval by a notary. Case closed.
“This isn’t what my dad would’ve wanted!” Sabrina joins her mother, and then James stands but stays quiet.
It’s a paradox to hear them refute his wishes, as I heard the words fall directly from his mouth. Sabrina, Lyra, and James were to receive nothing.
“I can assure you it’s exactly what his dying wishes were.” I say coldly and continue to walk out of the building.
The surrounding chatter grows louder, and the preacher attempts to calm everyone by calling out, “Ladies and gentlemen, please!”
However, it doesn’t tame the theatrics.
“You won’t get away with this!” James finally yells over the commotion. I wonder if it is a stunt to show his alliance with his mother and sister.
I keep moving forward, leaving all of the chaos to implode inside the walls of the church. Everything is set in stone and distributed precisely how Mr. Baldwin wished. I don’t mind doing the dirty work for him, as the results were well deserved. I saw it and heard it for myself by the ways in which his family members conducted themselves. They lack any semblance of respect for the man who was supposed to continue being their source of money.
I have no hesitation as I light the match and close the door behind me, leaving it all behind to implode amongst itself while I walk away unscathed.