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Gina Harkness watched the preacher sprinkle what looked to her like gravel over the coffin of her dear friend Heddy Lloyd. "A wonderful, loving and God-fearing woman," he said. Common words from a minister, but they fit Heddy. At least the first two words did. Gina had no idea how God-fearing Heddy had been, but the old woman had certainly been kind and loving to Gina. The preacher said, "Amen," and Gina rose slowly, softly said goodbye to her friend and walked slowly toward the door of the funeral home. It didn't seem proper to stride away as she longed to do. She'd found the solemn, almost dreary, atmosphere inside the parlor depressing. Certainly, Heddy would have detested it.
Halfway to the door, an older manthe only other human present when the preacher said the last words over Heddy's remainsjoined her and walked with her to the door. "How do you happen to know Heddy?" he asked her. She didn't question his right to ask her, for she knew he found it odd that a young black woman should be the old white woman's only other mourner.
"I met her in the reading room of the public library about six years ago. I discovered that the library was her second home. I saw her whenever I went there. She told me she was a widow and that she had no children. She wanted to be friends, and I liked her, so we saw a lot of each other."
"She had no close friends, mainly because she wanted her friends to be like her, generous, tolerant and liberal. My name is Miles Strags. I was her lawyer."
"Gina Harkness. Glad to meet you, Mr. Strags. For years, I went to the movies, dinner, the theater and concerts with Heddy, saw her two or three times a week, called her just about every day, and visited her daily during her final days in the hospital, but I didn't know she had a lawyer. She didn't talk much about herself except to say jokingly that she'd outlived everybody close to her, that she didn't reminisce and couldn't stand complainers. I loved her deeply."
"I expect a lot of people would have cared deeply for Heddy if she would have let them get to know her," he said.
"I'm glad you came," Gina said as they walked outside. "I was feeling very much alone in there until I saw you."
"I'm executor of Heddy's estate, Miss Harkness." He handed Gina his card. "Would you please come to my office tomorrow morning for the reading of the will?"
"The the will? She had a will? Uh, okay Goodbye, Mr. Strags."
"See you tomorrow," he said, and she didn't miss his bemused expression as he walked away.
Estate? What was Heddy doing with an estate, and why would she have a will? The woman had dressed as if she bought all of her clothes from a thrift-store bargain bin.
Gina took a deep breath and headed back to work. It perplexed her that Heddy could have left a will and she began to doubt the veracity of Miles Strags's words. Perhaps he attended funerals in order to trap lone women.As soon as she sat down at her desk at the prestigious Hilliard and Noyes accounting firm, she opened her computer and located his Web site where she found enough information about him to convince her that the man was indeed an attorney.
The following morning at exactly nine-thirty, as agreed, a very curious Gina walked into Miles Strags's office and sat down.
"I see you're punctual," he said. "Good. This won't take long."
Gina looked around for other beneficiaries, and saw none. "Isn't anybody else coming?" she asked him.
"We're all here," he told her in an officious manner that her boss sometimes adopted and which she hated. He read:
"To Gina Harkness, my best and only friend, I leave all my worldly goods, including the building in which I lived, stocks, bonds, bank accounts, the furnishings of my apartment, jewelry and whatever I own that I've forgotten to mention here."
When Gina gasped, he said, "There's more." He read on:
"If Gina accepts this bequest, for the first three years, she must live in the building that I owned and which she inherits, though not necessarily in my apartment, and she must have a car and chauffeur, participate in uplifting social functions and devote herself to the service of others. I am sure that Gina will find a way to help the neediest, for she is naturally a kind and giving person. Separate and apart from my bequest to Gina Harkness, I bequeath to my attorney, Miles Strags, a life pension from a trust that I have established for him. Heddy Lloyd.
"Well, that's it," Miles said. "You've just inherited about forty-three million dollars in addition to a building in the eight hundred block of Park Avenue. I don't know what it's worth." He handed her a portfolio and several keys. "I'm here to assist you in any way I can."
"What happens if I decide not to do those things and forget about all this?"
"Oh, you won't entertain that idea for long. She wanted you to live as a wealthy woman should," the lawyer said smugly.
"But why did she want me to live in that building?"
He walked over to the window and looked down on Lexington Avenue. "Heddy wasn't happy living there after her husband died. While he lived, the tenants shunned her, but they couldn't move against her because she and her husband owned the building. I guess you know her husband was African American. Made his money in shipping. He invested wisely, mostly in real estate, and died a very rich man. Her family disinherited her, and her neighbors never forgave her for marrying a black man. The codicil to her will specifies that if she outlives you, her wealth goes to support homeless and abused women and children."
Gina shifted in her chair, feeling that a weight had come to rest on her shoulders. "You haven't told me why she wanted me to live in that building."
When he shrugged, she detected an air of impatience. "They're intolerant, and she wanted to teach them a lesson. They love their apartments, and they won't be able to force you to move." He threw his pen up and caught it, as if he thought the conversation frivolous. "I once asked her why she wanted you to be uncomfortable there, but she never gave me an answer. Doesn't make sense to me, but those are the terms of the will."
Gina stared at him, trying to size him up. "What gives you the idea that I'll be uncomfortable? Not on your life! Which one of these keys is the key to Heddy's apartment?"
"They're all labeled," he said with raised eyebrows.
"Remember that you must live as a wealthy woman for the first three years," he added.
Gina remained seated and smiled inwardly when she noticed Miles staring at her swinging leg with what appeared to be a frown. The man didn't like the thought of her with all that money. Too bad. She stood, slung her shoulder bag over her shoulder, walked toward the door and then reversed her tracks.
"Why for the first three years only?"
"I suppose she figured that's more than enough time for you to get used to being rich. I suspect that once bitten, the disease will stick with you." His plump fingers caressed his chin. giving the impression that he was deliberating about something. "You know where I am, and I'm here to assist you in whatever way you need me. It's all taken care of."
She walked into her apartment half a block from Broadway and 125th Street, closed the door, put the chain on it and dropped her body into the nearest chair. It was true. She was now a very wealthy woman. She opened the large manila envelope, looked through its contents and saw among the stock certificates and other papers a letter addressed to her in Heddy's handwriting.
My dear Gina,
By now you are probably in shock. I loved you dearly, for you were the only person to befriend me in the nineteen years after my husband's death. Most people thought me weird, laughable and treated me that way. But not you. Miles is a pompous ass; don't let him upset you. He's white, a man and a lawyer, and that seems to be all he needs from life. And I want you to teach my neighbors that all human beings are equal. You can do that just by being yourself. I lived for ninety-some years, and no matter what happens, I shall die happy.
Gina folded the letter and returned it to the envelope whose contents testified to her new status as a rich woman. She rested her elbows on her thighs, cupped her chin with both hands and closed her eyes. It occurred to her to give prayerful thanks, but as she did so, tears rolled down her cheeks. She'd been reasonably happywell, at least contentearning forty-three thousand dollars a year, saving ten percent of it for her old age and living in a modest apartment. Now, she had a bundle of money and the responsibility that went with it.
What on earth was Gina thinking? She reached for the telephone and dialed her aunt Elsa. "I hope you're sitting down, Auntie," she said.
"I'm not, so wait till I get a chair." She imagined that her aunt was somewhere near her sewing machine. Elsa Bowen's wizardry as a designer-cum-seamstress had provided Gina and her aunt with a pleasant enough life, even if they hadn't been able to move more than three blocks from the projects in D.C.
Gina told her aunt first about Heddy and Heddy's death. "But that's not really why I called you, Auntie. I just learned that Heddy wasn't poor. She was very rich, and she left everything to me."
"What? Child, you go 'way from here," Elsa said in awe.
"It's true. I just left the lawyer's office, and he turned over everything to me. Auntie, she owned an apartment building on Park Avenue and had a lot of money. You can stop sewing, and you can"
"Now, you wait a minute, Gina. I know you mean well, but I sew because I love it. Anyhow, I don't know anybody named Heddy."
"Well, Auntie, I hope you'll at least let me buy you a nice house on Sixteenth Street. I can't live on Park Avenue like the will says I have to do if you're living next to the slums. As soon as I get things organized, you can find a house you like and you can keep on sewing."
Elsa's laugh rang out loud and clear over the wires. "God bless you child. You be careful now. If you act the fool, you could be broke in less than a year."
"Don't worry, Auntie. You're the only person I'm telling about this money. I'm just taking care of it for Heddy. 'Bye for now."
"Well, I'd better get started. I suspect Miles would give anything to deprive me of this blessing," Gina said to herself. She phoned the Daily News and placed ads for a chauffeur, wrote a letter of resignation from her job, mailed it and took a taxi to the building on Park Avenue that, according to Heddy's will, belonged to Gina Harkness. One look at Heddy's mammoth three-bedroom apartment, and Gina threw up her hands. She definitely would not live in that cheerless place, even if it did overlook some of the most expensive real estate in the world. She phoned Miles.
"I have no use for most of this stuff. I'll get somebody to catalog it and put it on e-Bay for sale," she said.
"You can't do that, Gina," he said. "No woman in your position would consider such a thing. She would choose what she wants to keep, and give the rest to a charity. A charitable organization will go there and collect whatever you don't want."
"Thanks, Miles. I suppose you've counseled a lot of heirs about the disposition of unwanted items. What charity do you suggest?"
The lawyer offered a couple of suggestions and she thanked him, hung up and called Harlem Children's Zone. With considerable difficulty, she dismissed her suspicion that Miles enjoyed letting her know he thought she was out of her class. Still, she needed Miles.And, until she got a firm footing in her new life, she would call upon him. She didn't know the value of Heddy's belongings and couldn't decide what to keep and what to give away, so she asked Miles to help her.
Immediately, she realized that she could and should have engaged an expert, for Miles delighted in providing her with advice that she didn't need and that didn't interest her in the least. Furthermore, she suspected that his knowledge was less broad than he led her to think.
Even so, she stopped by Miles's office one Tuesday morning at the end of March to show him her lease for the Park Avenue apartment, evidence that she had fulfilled that term of the will.
"So you have chosen an apartment for yourself," Miles said, aware that she had closed Heddy's apartment and had the managing agent list it for rent.
She told him she had and enjoyed letting him know that she had engaged a decorator without any advice or assistance from him. She had begun to suspect that not only her status but her five foot nine inch height, that placed her well above him when she wore three-inch heels irritated Miles. The man was a shade under five-eight. Gina suspected that her height wasn't the only thing that irritated Miles. He probably wished that Heddy had left her money to almost anybody, as long as the person was white.
"What's the proper salary for a chauffeur?" she asked him.
"Hmm. I'd say around forty grand," he said.
Gina had interviewed several men for the job, but none of them suited her. Heck, she didn't even need a car in New York, much less a chauffeur, but she was determined to abide by the terms of the will.
"Haven't you found a chauffeur yet?" Miles asked her one afternoon when she visited his office to get a paper notarized.
"You'll soon be moving into that apartment, and you want to make a good impression.You'll need that driver," he said.
"I don't need any such thing." She flung the words at him, angry that he thought she needed the trappings of wealth to meet the expectations of her narrow-minded neighbors. "Incidentally, I fired my decorator, and I'm going to furnish my apartment according to my own taste, so it'll be a while before I move in. That decorator's taste would send me to an asylum."
His left eyebrow lifted slowly and remained up. "Gina, a woman in your position does not run from store to store looking for furniture and vases."
"I don't give a damn," she said in exasperation. "Maybe women in my position don't have my level of competence. By the way, I've rented office space on Madison Avenue, and the name on the door reads, Heddy Lloyd Foundation For Homeless And Abused Children And Women, Inc." She handed him a card that identified her as president of the charity.
"Well," he said through pursed lips, "you don't seem to need me."
She refused to dispute him and remained silent. Gina didn't enjoy the trip from her apartment on Broadway at 125th Street to her office on Madison Avenue at Thirty-eighth Street. It was either a long bus ride that included a transfer, or she could take the subway plus two buses. "My Lord," she said to herself one morning as she walked to the subway in a heavy downpour, "I can afford to take a taxi to and from my office. What have I been thinking?"
Before the end of the day, however, the taxi was a moot point. At 5:00 p.m. her destiny walked into her office. One look at the mantall, smartly dressed and drop-dead handsomeand her heart turned somersaults.
"I'm Justin Whitehead," he said, offering to shake hands.
"You advertised for a chauffeur, and I want the job."
Gina simply stared at him.