By Mitchell Graham
Tom Doherty Associates Copyright © 2009 The Literacy Ladder Foundation, LLC
All rights reserved.
The telephone startled me when it rang. I was in the process of rereading a student's answer to my evidence exam and it still made no sense. I tossed the paper down and pressed the intercom button.
"Professor Delaney, there's a police officer and another gentleman here to see you," my secretary said.
"Yes, sir," Maria continued. "They'd like to know if you have a moment. I explained we're in the middle of exams week and that you're very busy."
The underlying message was that neither had an appointment. Subtlety and Maria do not often appear in the same sentence together. She's a good secretary, very good as a matter of fact, but she tends to be overprotective, at least where I'm concerned. One of her talents is deflecting unannounced visitors, which she was trying to do now. My lioness at the gate.
Dropping by without an appointment isn't kosher in Maria's view. Somehow it offends her sense of propriety. This is all the more true when exams roll around and our faculty is under pressure to get their grades in on time. The last thing we'd want is to delay dumping another batch of lawyers on the world.
I could have asked whoever was outside to come back later, but being a former cop, I tend to make allowances. There's no law that says I have to, but the fraternity is a small one and I'm not that far removed from it.
"No problem," I replied. "I'll be right out."
A number of colleagues have jumped on me for doing this. In their view it's more dignified to have your secretary show people in, as opposed to a professor going out to get them. It's a needless pretense, but to each his own.
The police officer and his companion were sitting side by side on our reception room couch when I came through the door. They both stood up at the same time. I recognized them immediately.
Frank O'Connor shook my hand and following it with a hug. So did his brother, Nick. Twenty years earlier, Frank had been my father's partner — that is, until a drunk driver on the Cross Bronx Expressway ended their relationship. The driver crossed the centerline and slammed into my dad's car, killing him.
I hadn't seen much of the O'Connors over the past year. Every now and then we would run into each other, but our relationship wasn't what you'd call close anymore. From the street clothes and the chest holster peeking out from under his suit jacket, I guessed that Frank still carried a detective's shield. Nick, the man in uniform, held the rank of deputy chief with the department and presided over Manhattan South.
"Well, this is an unexpected surprise. What's up, fellas?"
"We just stopped by to talk if you have a minute," Frank said.
I didn't, but I told them it was no problem.
I noted their expressions were uncharacteristically somber, indicating the visit was something more than just social. At the same time I also noticed that Frank hadn't shaved. He looked about a half day beyond a five o'clock shadow, which was unusual from what I remembered of the man.
"Maria ... this is Frank and Nick O'Connor. Frank and my dad were partners."
"Oh, pleased to meet you," Maria said, warming a little. "You should have told me you knew Professor Delaney."
"Sorry," Frank said. "Pleased to meet you, too, ma'am."
Nick responded in a similar manner. Since everyone was pleased to meet each other, I motioned for them to follow me into my office.
"How about some coffee?" I asked before we left the reception area.
"Sure, Johnny, if it wouldn't be too much trouble," Frank said.
Nick passed. Maria was out of her chair in a flash and beat me to the pot before I could reach it. "I'll bring it in, Professor," she said. "How do you take it, Officer?"
"A little milk and sugar, please."
"She probably saved your life," I told Frank. "I'm not known for my coffee skills around here."
By professorial standards, my office isn't large. This is because I'm relatively new to John Jay's faculty, having only taught at the law college for the past eight years. We have an unwritten rule that says the longer you stay, the bigger your office. It's pretty much the same in most places: you pay your dues and move up the pecking order. My room is about twelve feet square and contains a desk and two wooden chairs for guests. I also have a leather couch, which was unusable at the moment since it was piled high with ungraded exam papers. I pointed Frank and Nick to the chairs.
Opposite the couch is a bookshelf lined with copies of the United States Code and the New York State Statutes. If you look closely, you'll also see a number of texts on evidence and forensic studies, the subjects I teach.
I sat on the front edge of my desk rather than behind it, and we made small talk until Maria showed up with the coffee. After handing Frank his cup, she gave me a knowing sort of look and said she would hold my calls. Apparently I wasn't the only one blessed with intuition.
"So, how can I help you?" I asked when the door closed.
Frank took a deep breath and let it out. "John, Sarah was killed in a camping accident last week."
My stomach dropped several inches at the words. Sarah was Frank's daughter and had been in my evidence class the preceding year. She was a bright, decent kid with a bubbly personality. When the term ended, she had transferred to Emory University's law school in Atlanta.
"Jesus Christ, Frank. I'm so sorry. How did it happen?"
"She, uh ..."
Frank's voice faltered and he looked out the window. His brother placed a consoling hand on his back and finished the sentence for him.
"Sarah and some friends were camping at a place called Cloudland Canyon. It's somewhere in north Georgia. The sheriff's department told us that she was out walking at night and went over a cliff."
I was taken aback by the news and shook my head in disbelief. What do you say in a situation like that? What does anyone say? A lawyer's stock-in-trade are his words and I searched for the right ones, but all I could manage was to repeat how sorry I was. It wasn't much, but it was true. I'd always liked Sarah.
"Look, if there's anything I can do ..."
"Yeah," Frank said. His eyes were red-rimmed when he turned back to me. "Lucille would have come too," he explained, "but she's still pretty broken up. You understand."
"Sure, sure," I said quickly. "She wouldn't be human if she wasn't." Lucille was Frank's wife. "The last I heard, Sarah got some sort of scholarship, isn't that right?"
It was small talk and I was just trying to relieve the awkwardness of the moment.
Frank nodded. He was a big man in his late fifties, still hard and fit, the old school pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps type.
"It's called the Hoch-Halpern Endowment. Sarah applied for it the end of last term. We wanted her to stay in New York of course, but law school tuition can get pretty steep. I guess you know that."
"I meant what I said, Frank. If there's anything I can do for you or the family, just ask."
The brothers looked at each other and I saw a silent communication pass between them.
"Johnny, we haven't had a lot of contact with lawyers over the years," Nick said. "Mike Franklin at the Forty-third suggested we give you a call. He said you'd know what to do as far as the legal stuff is concerned. We don't have a clue where to start. Sarah was a real fan of yours. It was always Professor Delaney this and Professor Delaney that. She ... she was so excited about studying law."
Like his brother, Nick broke off what he was saying and stared down at his feet until he composed himself. I could see they were both having a rough time and my heart went out to them. The reason for their visit was now obvious. It wasn't that I was close to the O'Connors. I wasn't. After I retired from the force and went over to the dark side, as they say, we'd only seen each other sporadically. The word retired is being used tongue in cheek here. Truth is, my retirement was hastened by three bullets I took to the chest, but that's another story. The bottom line is that cops stick with cops. It's pretty much like having an extended family.
"No problem," I heard myself say. "I'll be happy to look into it, though you need to understand I'm not an expert in this area of the law. We might need to retain an estate attorney if it's over my head. You said Sarah died in Georgia?"
"Right," Frank said. "Does that make a difference?"
"It could, particularly if she established residence there. I'll check and find out. Do either of you know if she had a will?"
Frank shrugged. "I'm not sure. Isn't that something all law students do?"
"Not quite." I smiled. "It's a fifty-fifty shot at best. Maybe not even that good. A lot depends on whether she did or didn't. I have a friend who practices law in Atlanta. Is it all right if I give her a call and get some advice on the best way to proceed?"
"No problem," Frank said. "We'll put the whole thing in your hands. Just keep us informed." He paused for a moment and looked as if he were searching for the right words. "Listen Johnny, I don't have a lot of money, but if you tell me what this'll cost, I'll write out a check."
I waved him off when he took out his checkbook. Unwritten rule one: You don't charge partners when they ask for help. Unwritten rule two: Rule one applies to your father's partners.
"We can talk about that later. Right now, I don't even know if I can help. Like I said, this isn't my area of expertise. If the situation's good I'll tell you and if it's bad I'll tell you. Either way you'll have the truth, okay?"
"Okay," Frank replied.
I moved a pile of test papers on my desk aside and grabbed a yellow legal pad. "I'd better take down some basic information."
I asked the brothers to provide me with Sarah's social security number, copies of her birth certificate, and her driver's license.
To be honest, I wasn't happy about having the problem dumped in my lap. I'm not proud to say that. It was a headache I didn't need just then, plus I was out of my depth. As a general rule, I don't jump into a situation unless I know what I'm letting myself in for. But I'd made the offer and we had history together. After twenty minutes I exhausted most of what I remembered regarding wills and estates, which wasn't all that extensive. Good-byes were said and I promised to get in touch with them as soon as I had more information.
When they were gone, my thoughts turned to Sarah O'Connor. She had been a standout in our school — a girl with brains, looks, and a decent personality. I remembered how hard she had worked in my class, never once playing the old-friend-of-the-family card. I respected her for that, and the A she made was strictly on her own. For her to die so young and so senselessly was a shock.
I sat back in my chair and rubbed my face with my hands, then picked up the phone and punched a button on the intercom. I have one of those twenty-button sets. Somewhere along the line, the insert that listed the numbers for the other teachers in my department had disappeared from the base unit and maintenance had never gotten around to replacing it. I held my breath as the phone rang.
"Yes?" a voice answered.
"Irwin, it's John. Do you have a minute?"
"Of course. What can I do for you?"
"I need to see you about a problem. Is now a good time?"
Irwin Zeller is a slightly built man with a head of curly brown hair. He had recently turned fifty and he was six years my senior. He had been teaching law at John Jay for the past two decades. The owlish appearance he projected was accentuated by a pair of thick glasses and a tendency to blink when he was considering a problem. Several years earlier, when my predecessor unexpectedly died of a heart attack, Irwin was the one who recommended me for the teaching position I now hold.
His office was more opulent than mine. A pair of oriental rugs divided the room into a work area and a visitor's area. A burgundy leather couch with rolled arms sat along the left wall and looked dignified against the wood paneling.
"It's open," Irwin called out when I knocked.
I came in and we shook hands.
"Am I catching you at a bad time?"
"Not at all. I'm just working on an appellate brief for Maybery, Halter, and Troutman, but it's not due until later this week. What's the problem?"
My eyes traveled to a pile of papers stacked on an old-fashioned rolltop desk, roughly twice the size of mine. Irwin's window faces the school's quadrangle. Mine faces a brick wall.
I took a few minutes to bring my friend up to speed on the situation with Sarah O'Connor. While I was speaking, Irwin got up and walked over to a bookcase with a glass enclosure, removed a copy of our school's yearbook, and began flipping through it. He located the part that contained photographs of last year's freshman class and ran his finger down the page until he came to Sarah's picture.
"Awful," he said, shaking his head. "Just awful. I don't think she was in any of my classes. She was certainly an attractive girl."
He turned the book around so I could see. Sarah's large brown eyes stared back at me. It was the kind of face the camera loved, as photographers say.
I nodded my agreement. "Her family's pretty broken up."
Irwin shook his head again in sympathy. "What a shame. So ... I'm guessing they've asked you to probate her will?"
"Assuming she has one. The problem is, I've never done a will probate before. That's why I'm here. I need to see what I've let myself in for."
"It's all pretty boilerplate. I've got everything you'll need."
Irwin went to a filing cabinet at the corner of the room and retrieved three eight-by-ten manila envelopes.
"This is to probate a will with assets under five thousand dollars," he said, handing me the first envelope. "You'll find all the forms there."
I hefted it a couple of times and looked at him.
"Each one has a set of instructions," he continued. "I don't know how much money the girl had, but I can't imagine a law student's estate being very large."
He handed me the second envelope.
"On the chance that it's over five thousand dollars, you'll use these forms. They're for standard estates. This last package contains an application for Letters of Administration, if she died without a will."
"Pretty impressive, Irwin. I have trouble finding my car keys."
"Part of the advantage of doing this for twenty years," he said with a smile. "I'll be tied up on this brief until Thursday. If you get bogged down, call me and I'll try to guide you through the maze."
"I will. Looks like I've got my homework for the evening."
"It's not that hard, John. Why don't you stop by for dinner and we'll spend a little time going through everything? Charlotte's cooking a pot roast and she always makes more than we can eat."
Irwin was a good man, but I'd already imposed enough; plus there was still that pile of test papers waiting for me back in my office.
"Thanks, I'll take a rain check. If I don't get my exams in by Monday, Babs Ramsey will have my head on a platter. Now I have this to deal with," I said, indicating the envelopes he had just given me.
"Well, it's nice of you to help," he said, patting me on the arm. "Not to add to your workload, but here's something else you might want to glance over."
Irwin pulled a paperbound book off one of his shelves and handed it to me.
"I put this together two years ago, for one of the Bar's continuing education seminars. The law hasn't changed. It will take you through the steps one by one."
"Probate for Dummies," I said, pretending to read the title.
Irwin smiled and adjusted his glasses. "The first thing you should do is inventory the girl's possessions and secure them."
I glanced at the book again. It was about three inches thick. The spine was held together by a plastic fastener.
"Thanks, buddy. I'll give you a call after I get lost."
"Unlikely. You're much too methodical a fellow, John. I wish more of our colleagues were."
With a little help from Maria, I scrounged up a cardboard box and piled my exams into it. Irwin's book went on top along with the three packages he had given me. My agenda for the weekend was now set, so I said good-bye and headed for the teacher's parking lot on Twelfth Avenue. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Dead Docket by Mitchell Graham. Copyright © 2009 The Literacy Ladder Foundation, LLC. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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