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Sarah Anderson left her office at nine-thirty on a Tuesday morning in June for her ten o'clock appointment with Stanley Perlman. She hurried out of the building at One Market Plaza, stepped off the curb, and hailed a cab. It occurred to her, as it always did, that one of these days when she met with him, it would really be for the last time. He always said it was. She had begun to expect him to live forever, despite his protests, and in spite of the realities of time. Her law firm had handled his affairs for more than half a century. She had been his estate and tax attorney for the past three years. At thirty-eight, Sarah had been a partner of the firm for the past two years, and had inherited Stanley as a client when his previous attorney died.
Stanley had outlived them all. He was ninety-eight years old. It was hard to believe sometimes. His mind was as sharp as it had ever been, he read voraciously, and he was well aware of every nuance and change in the current tax laws. He was a challenging and entertaining client. Stanley Perlman had been a genius in business all his life. The only thing that had changed over the years was that his body had betrayed him, but never once his mind. He was bedridden now, and had been for nearly seven years. Five nurses attended to him, three regularly in eight-hour shifts, two as relief. He was comfortable, most of the time, and hadn't left his house in years. Sarah had always liked and admired him, although others thought he was irascible and cantankerous. She thought he was a remarkable man. She gave the cabdriver Stanley's Scott Street address. They made their way through the downtown traffic in San Francisco's financial district, and headed west uptown, toward Pacific Heights, where he had lived in the same house for seventy-six years.
The sun was shining brightly as they climbed Nob Hill up California Street, and she knew it might be otherwise when they got uptown. The fog often sat heavily on the residential part of the city, even when it was warm and sunny downtown. Tourists were happily hanging off the cable car, smiling as they looked around. Sarah was bringing Stanley some papers to sign, nothing extraordinary. He was always making minor additions and adjustments to his will. He had been prepared to die for all the years she had known him, and long before. But in spite of that, whenever he seemed to take a turn for the worse, or suffered from a brief illness, he always rallied and hung on, much to his chagrin. He had told her only that morning, when she called to confirm her appointment with him, that he had been feeling poorly for the last few weeks, and it wouldn't be long.
"Stop threatening me, Stanley," she had said, putting the last of the papers for him in her briefcase. "You're going to outlive us all."
She was sad for him at times, although there was nothing depressing about him, and he rarely felt sorry for himself. He still barked orders at his nurses, read The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal daily, as well as the local papers, loved pastrami sandwiches and hamburgers, and spoke with fascinating accuracy and historical detail about his years growing up on the Lower East Side of New York. He had come to San Francisco at sixteen, in 1924. He had been remarkably clever at finding jobs, making deals, working for the right people, seizing opportunities, and saving money. He had bought property, always in unusual circumstances, sometimes preying on others' misfortunes, he readily admitted, and making trades, and using whatever credit was available to him. He had managed to make money while others were losing it during the Depression. He was the epitome of a self-made man.
He liked to say that he had bought the house he lived in for "pennies" in 1930. And considerably later, he had been among the first to build shopping malls in Southern California. Most of his early money had been made in real estate development, trading one building for another, sometimes buying land no one else wanted, and biding his time to either sell it later or build office buildings or shopping centers on it. He had had the same intuitive knack later on, for investing in oil wells. The fortune he had amassed was literally staggering by now. Stanley had been a genius in business, but had done little else in his life. He had no children, had never married, had no contact with anyone but attorneys and nurses. There was no one who cared about Stanley Perlman, except his young attorney, Sarah Anderson, and no one who would miss him when he died, except the nurses he employed. The nineteen heirs listed in the will that Sarah was once again updating for him (this time to include a series of oil wells he had just purchased in Orange County, after selling off several others, once again at the right time) were great-nieces and -nephews he had never met or corresponded with, and two elderly cousins who were nearly as old as he was, and whom he said he hadn't seen since the late forties but felt some vague attachment to. In truth, he was attached to no one, and made no bones about it. He had had one mission throughout his lifetime, and one only, and that had been making money. He had achieved his goal. He said he had been in love with two women in his younger days, but had never offered to marry either and had lost contact with both of them when they gave up on him and married other men, more than sixty years ago.
The only thing he said he regretted was not having children. He thought of Sarah as the grandchild he had never had, but might have, if he had taken the time to get married. She was the kind of granddaughter he would have liked to have. She was smart, funny, interesting, quick, beautiful, and good at what she did. Sometimes, when she brought papers to him, he loved to sit and look at her and talk to her for hours. He even held her hand, something he never did with his nurses. They got on his nerves and annoyed him, patronized him, and fussed over him in ways he hated. Sarah never did. She sat there looking young and beautiful, while speaking to him of the things that interested him. She always knew her stuff about new tax laws. He loved the fact that she came up with new ideas about how to save him money. He had been wary of her at first, because of her youth, and then progressively came to trust her, in the course of her visits to his small musty room in the attic of the house on Scott Street. She came up the back stairs, carrying her briefcase, entered his room discreetly, sat on a chair next to his bed, and they talked until she could see he was exhausted. Each time she came to see him, she feared it would be the last time. And then he would call her with some new idea, some new plan that had occurred to him, something he wanted to buy, sell, acquire, or dispose of. And whatever he touched always increased his fortune. Even at ninety-eight, Stanley Perlman had a Midas touch when it came to money. And best of all, despite the vast difference in their ages, over the years she'd worked with him, Sarah and Stanley had become friends.
Sarah glanced out the window of the cab as they passed Grace Cathedral, at the top of Nob Hill, and sat back against the seat, thinking about him. She wondered if he really was sick, and if it might be the last time. He had had pneumonia twice the previous spring and each time, miraculously, survived it. Maybe now he wouldn't. His nurses were diligent in their care of him, but sooner or later, at his age, something was going to get him. It was inevitable, although Sarah dreaded it. She knew she'd miss him terribly when he was gone.
Her long dark hair was pulled neatly back, her eyes were big and almost cornflower blue. He had commented on them the first time he saw her, and asked if she wore colored contact lenses. She had laughed at the question and assured him she didn't. Her usually creamy skin was tan this time, after several weekends in Lake Tahoe. She liked to hike and swim, and ride a mountain bike. Weekends away were always a relief after the long hours she spent in her office. Her partnership in the law firm had been well earned. She had graduated from Stanford law school, magna cum laude, and was a native San Franciscan. She had lived here all her life, except for the four years she spent as an undergraduate at Harvard. Her credentials and hard work had impressed Stanley and her partners. Stanley had grilled her extensively when they met, and had commented that she looked more like a model. She was tall, thin, athletic looking, and had long legs that he always silently admired. She was wearing a neat navy blue suit, which was the kind of thing she always wore when she visited him. The only jewelry she wore was a pair of small diamond earrings that had been a Christmas gift from Stanley. He had ordered them by phone for her himself from Neiman Marcus. He was not usually generous, he preferred to give his nurses money on holidays, but he had a soft spot for Sarah, just as she had for him. She had given him several cashmere throws to keep him warm. His house always seemed cold and damp. He scolded the nurses soundly whenever they put the heat on. Stanley preferred to use a blanket than be what he thought of as careless with his money.
Sarah had always been intrigued by the fact that he had never occupied the main part of the house, only the old servants' rooms in the attic. He said he had bought the place as an investment, had always meant to sell it, and never had. He had kept the house more out of laziness than any deep affection for it. It was a large, beautiful, once-luxurious home that had been built in the twenties. Stanley had told her that the family that had built it had fallen on hard times after the Crash of '29, and he had bought it in 1930. He had moved into one of the old maids' rooms then, with an old brass bed, a chest of drawers the original owners had abandoned there, and a chair whose springs had died so long ago that sitting on it was like resting on concrete. The brass bed had been replaced by a hospital bed a decade before. There was an old photograph of the fire after the earthquake on the wall, and not a single photograph of a person anywhere in his room. There had been no people in his life, only investments, and attorneys. There was nothing personal anywhere in the house. The furniture had all been sold separately at auction by the original owners, also for nearly nothing. And Stanley had never bothered to furnish it when he moved in. He had told her that the house had been stripped bare before he got it. The rooms were large and once elegant, there were curtains hanging in shreds at some of the windows. Others were boarded up, so the curious couldn't look in. And although she'd never seen it, Sarah had been told there was a ballroom. She had never walked around the house, but came in straight from the service door, up the back stairs, to his attic bedroom. Her only purpose in coming here was to see Stanley. She had no reason to tour the house, except that she knew that one day, more than likely, after he was gone, she would have to sell it. All of his heirs were in Florida, New York, or the Midwest, and none of them would have an interest in owning an enormous white elephant of a house in California. No matter how beautiful it had once been, none of them would have any use for it, just as Stanley hadn't. It was hard to believe he had lived in it for seventy-six years and neither furnished it nor moved from the attic. But that was Stanley. Eccentric perhaps, unassuming, unpretentious, and a devoted and respected client. Sarah Anderson was his only friend. The rest of the world had forgotten he existed. And whatever friends he had once had, he had long since outlived them.
The cab stopped at the address on Scott Street that Sarah had given the driver. She paid the fare, picked up her briefcase, got out of the cab, and rang the back doorbell. As she had expected, it was noticeably colder and foggy out here, and she shivered in her light jacket. She was wearing a thin white sweater under the dark blue suit, and looked businesslike, as she always did, when the nurse opened the door and smiled when she saw her. It took them forever to come downstairs from the attic. There were four floors and a basement, Sarah knew, and the elderly nurses who tended to him moved slowly. The one who opened the door to Sarah was relatively new, but she had seen Sarah before.
"Mr. Perlman is expecting you," she said politely, as she stood aside to let Sarah in, and closed the door behind her.
They only used the service door, as it was more convenient to the back staircase which led up to the attic. The front door hadn't been touched for years, and was kept locked and bolted. The lights in the main part of the house were never turned on. The only lights that had shone in the house for years were those in the attic. They cooked in a small kitchen on the same floor that had once served as a pantry. The main kitchen, a piece of history now, was in the basement. It had old-fashioned iceboxes and a meat locker. In the old days the iceman had come, and brought in huge chunks of ice. The stove was a relic from the twenties, and Stanley hadn't worked it since at least the forties. It was a kitchen that had been meant to be run by a flock of cooks and servants, overseen by a housekeeper and butler. It had nothing to do with Stanley's way of life. For years, he had come home with sandwiches and take-out food from diners and simple restaurants. He never cooked for himself, and went out every morning for breakfast in previous years before he as bedridden. The house was a place where he slept in the spartan brass bed, showered and shaved in the morning, and then went downtown to the office he had, to make more money. He rarely came home before ten o'clock at night. Sometimes as late as midnight. He had no reason to rush home.
From the Hardcover edition.