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Snead was two steps behind Mr. Phelan, and thought for a second that he might catch him. The shock of seeing the old man not only rise and walk but also practically sprint to the door froze Snead. Mr. Phelan hadn't moved that fast in years.
Snead reached the railing just in time to scream in horror, then watched helplessly as Mr. Phelan fell silently, twisting and flailing and growing smaller and smaller until he struck the ground. Snead clenched the railing and stared in disbelief, then he began to cry.
Josh Stafford arrived on the terrace a step behind Snead, and witnessed most of the fall. It happened so quickly, at least the jump; the fall itself seemed to last for an hour. A man weighing a hundred and fifty pounds will drop three hundred feet in less than five seconds, but Stafford later told people the old man floated for an eternity, like a feather whirling in the wind.
Tip Durban got to the railing just behind Stafford, and saw only the body's impact on the brick patio between the front entrance and a circular drive. For some reason Durban held the envelope, which he had absently picked up during the rush to catch old Troy. It felt a lot heavier as he stood in the frigid air, looking down at a scene from a horror film, watching the first onlookers move up to the casualty.
Troy Phelan's descent did not reach the level of high drama he had dreamed of. Instead of drifting to the earth like an angel, a perfect swan dive with the silk robe trailing behind, and landing in death before his terror-stricken families, who he'd imagined would be leaving the building at just the right moment, his fall was witnessed only by a lowly payroll clerk, hustling through the parking lot after a very long lunch in a bar. The clerk heard a voice, looked up at the top floor, and watched in horror as a pale naked body tumbled and flapped with what appeared to be a bedsheet gathered at the neck. It landed on its back, on brick, with the dull thud one would expect from such an impact.
The clerk ran to the spot just as a security guard noticed something wrong and bolted from his perch near the front entrance of Phelan Tower. Neither the clerk nor the guard had ever met Mr. Troy Phelan, so neither knew at first upon whose remains they were gazing. The body was bleeding, barefoot, twisted, and naked, and exposed with a sheet bunched at the arms. And it was quite dead.
Another thirty seconds, and Troy would have had his wish. Because they were stationed in a room on the fifth floor, Tira and Ramble and Dr. Theishen and their entourage of lawyers were the first to leave the building. And, therefore, the first to happen upon the suicide. Tira screamed, not from pain nor love nor loss, but from the sheer shock of seeing old Troy splattered on the brick. It was a wretched piercing scream that was heard clearly by Snead, Stafford, and Durban, fourteen floors up.
Ramble thought the scene was rather cool. A child of TV and an addict of video games, he found the gore a magnet. He moved away from his shrieking mother and knelt beside his dead father. The security guard placed a firm hand on his shoulder.
"That's Troy Phelan," one of the lawyers said as he hovered above the corpse.
"You don't say," said the guard.
"Wow," said the clerk.
More people ran from the building.
Janie, Geena, and Cody, with their shrink Dr. Flowe and their lawyers, were next. But there were no screams, no breakdowns. They stuck together in a tight bunch, well away from Tira and her group, and gawked like everyone else at poor Troy.
Radios crackled as another guard arrived and took control of the scene. He called for an ambulance.
"What good will that do?" asked the payroll clerk, who, by virtue of being the first on the scene, assumed a more important role in the aftermath.
"You want to take him away in your car?" asked the guard.
Ramble watched the blood fill in the mortar cracks and run in perfect angles down a gentle slope, toward a frozen fountain and a flagpole nearby.
In the atrium, a packed elevator stopped and opened and Lillian and the first family and their entourage emerged. Because TJ and Rex had once been allowed offices in the building, they had parked in the rear. The entire group turned left for an exit, then someone near the front of the building yelled, "Mr. Phelan's jumped!" They switched directions and raced through the front door, onto the brick patio near the fountain, where they found him.
They wouldn't have to wait for the tumor after all.
It took Joshua Stafford a minute or so to recover from the shock and start hinking like a lawyer again. He waited until the third and last family was visible below, then asked Snead and Durban to step inside.
The camera was still on. Snead faced it, raised his right hand, and swore to tell the truth, then, fighting tears, explained what he had just witnessed. Stafford opened the envelope and held the yellow sheets of paper close enough for the camera to see.
"Yes, I saw him sign that," Snead said. "Just seconds ago."
"And is that his signature?" Stafford asked.
"Yes, yes it is."
"Did he declare this to be his last will and testament?"
"He called it his testament."
Stafford withdrew the papers before Snead could read them. He repeated the same testimony with Durban, then placed himself before the camera and gave his version of events. The camera was turned off, and the three of them rode to the ground to pay their respects to Mr. Phelan. The elevator was packed with Phelan employees, stunned but anxious to have a rare and last glimpse of the old man. The building was emptying. Snead's quiet sobs were muffled in a corner.
Guards had backed the crowd away, leaving Troy alone in his puddle. A siren was approaching. Someone took photographs to memorialize the image of his death, then a black blanket was placed over his body.
For the families, slight twinges of grief soon overcame the shock of death. They stood with their heads low, their eyes staring sadly at the blanket, organizing their thoughts for the issues to come. It was impossible to look at Troy and not think about the money. Grief for an estranged relative, even a father, cannot stand in the way of a half a billion dollars.
For the employees, shock gave way to confusion. Troy was rumored to live up there above them, but very few had ever seen him. He was eccentric, crazy, sick--the rumors covered everything. He didn't like people. There were important vice presidents in the building who saw him once a year. If the company ran so well without him, surely their jobs were secure.
For the psychiatrists--Zadel, Flowe, and Theishen--the moment was filled with tension. You declare a man to be of sound mind, and minutes later he jumps to his death. Yet even a crazy man can have a lucid interval--that's the legal term they repeated to themselves as they shivered in the crowd. Crazy as a bat, but one clear, lucid interval in the midst of the madness, and a person can execute a valid will. They would stand firm with their opinions. Thank God everything was on tape. Old Troy was sharp. And lucid.
And for the lawyers, the shock passed quickly and there was no grief. They stood grim-faced next to their clients and watched the pitiful sight. The fees would be enormous.
An ambulance drove onto the bricks and stopped near Troy. Stafford walked under the barricade and whispered something to the guards.
Troy was quickly loaded onto a stretcher and taken away.
Troy Phelan had moved his corporate headquarters to northern Virginia twenty-two years earlier to escape taxation in New York. He spent forty million on his Tower and grounds, money he saved many times over by being domiciled in Virginia.
He met Joshua Stafford, a rising D.C. lawyer, in the midst of a nasty lawsuit that Troy lost and Stafford won. Troy admired his style and tenacity, and so he hired him. In the past decade, Stafford had doubled the size of his firm and become rich with the money he earned fighting Troy's battles.
In the last years of his life, no one had been closer to Mr. Phelan than Josh Stafford. He and Durban returned to the conference room on the fourteenth floor and locked the door. Snead was sent away with instructions to lie down.
With the camera running, Stafford opened the envelope and removed the three sheets of yellow paper. The first sheet was a letter to him from Troy. He spoke to the camera: "This letter is dated today, Monday, December 9, 1996. It is handwritten, addressed to me, from Troy Phelan. It has five paragraphs. I will read it in full:
"'Dear Josh: I am dead now. These are my instructions, and I want you to follow them closely. Use litigation if you have to, but I want my wishes carried out.
"'First, I want a quick autopsy, for reasons that will become important later.
"'Second, there will be no funeral, no service of any type. I want to be cremated, with my ashes scattered from the air over my ranch in Wyoming.
"'Third, I want my will kept confidential until January 15, 1997. The law does not require you to immediately produce it. Sit on it for a month.
"'So long. Troy.'"
Stafford slowly placed the first sheet on the table, and carefully picked up the second. He studied it for a moment, then said for the camera, "This is a one-page document purporting to be the last testament of Troy L. Phelan. I will read it in its entirety:
"'The last testament of Troy L. Phelan. I, Troy L. Phelan, being of sound and disposing mind and memory, do hereby expressly revoke all former wills and codicils executed by me, and dispose of my estate as follows:
"'To my children, Troy Phelan, Jr., Rex Phelan, Libbigail Jeter, Mary Ross Jackman, Geena Strong, and Ramble Phelan, I give each a sum of money necessary to pay off all of the debts of each as of today. Any debts incurred after today will not be covered by this gift. If any of these children attempt to contest this will, then this gift shall be nullified as to that child.
"'To my ex-wives, Lillian, Janie, and Tira, I give nothing. They were adequately provided for in the divorces.
"'The remainder of my estate I give to my daughter Rachel Lane, born on November 2, 1954, at Catholic Hospital in New Orleans, Louisiana, to a woman named Evelyn Cunningham, now deceased.'"
Stafford had never heard of these people. He had to catch his breath before plowing ahead.
"'I appoint my trusted lawyer, Joshua Stafford, as executor of this will, and grant unto him broad discretionary powers in its administration.
"'This document is intended to be a holographic will. Every word has been written by my hand, and I hereby sign it.
"'Signed, December 9, 1996, three P.M., by Troy L. Phelan.'"
Stafford placed it on the table and blinked his eyes at the camera. He needed a walk around the building, perhaps a blast of frigid air, but he pressed on. He picked up the third sheet, and said, "This is a one-paragraph note addressed to me again. I will read it: "Josh: Rachel Lane is a World Tribes missionary on the Brazil-Bolivia border. She works with a remote Indian tribe in a region known as the Pantanal. The nearest town is Corumbá. I couldn't find her. I've had no contact with her in the last twenty years. Signed, Troy Phelan.'"
Durban turned the camera off, and paced around the table twice as Stafford read the document again and again.
"Did you know he had an illegitimate daughter?"
Stafford was staring absently at a wall. "No. I drafted eleven wills for Troy, and he never mentioned her."
"I guess we shouldn't be surprised."
Stafford had declared many times that he had become incapable of being surprised by Troy Phelan. In business and in private, the man was whimsical and chaotic. Stafford had made millions running behind his client, putting out fires.
But he was, in fact, stunned. He had just witnessed a rather dramatic suicide, during which a man confined to a wheelchair suddenly sprang forth and ran. Now he was holding a valid will that, in a few hasty paragraphs, transferred one of the world's great fortunes to an unknown heiress, without the slightest hint of estate planning. The inheritance taxes would be brutal.
"I need a drink, Tip," he said.
"It's a bit early."
They walked next door to Mr. Phelan's office, and found everything unlocked. The current secretary and everybody else who worked on the fourteenth floor were still on the ground.
They locked the door behind themselves, and hurriedly went through the desk drawers and file cabinets. Troy had expected them to. He would never have left his private spaces unlocked. He knew Josh would step in immediately. In the center drawer of his desk, they found a contract with a crematorium in Alexandria, dated five weeks earlier. Under it was a file on World Tribes Missions.
They gathered what they could carry, then found Snead and made him lock the office. "What's in the testament, that last one?" he asked. He was pale and his eyes were swollen. Mr. Phelan couldn't just die like that without leaving him something, some means to survive on. He'd been a loyal servant for thirty years.
"Can't say," Stafford said. "I'll be back tomorrow to inventory everything. Do not allow anyone in."
"Of course not," Snead whispered, then began weeping again.
Stafford and Durban spent half an hour with a cop on a routine call. They showed him where Troy went over the railing, gave him the names of witnesses, described with no detail the last letter and last will. It was a suicide, plain and simple. They promised a copy of the autopsy report, and the cop closed the case before he left the building.
They caught up with the corpse at the medical examiner's office, and made arrangements for the autopsy.
"Why an autopsy?" Durban asked in a whisper as they waited for paperwork.
"To prove there were no drugs, no alcohol. Nothing to impair his judgment. He thought of everything."
It was almost six before they made it to a bar in the Willard Hotel, near the White House, two blocks from their office. And it was only after a stiff drink that Stafford managed his first smile. "He thought of everything, didn't he?"
"He's a very cruel man," Durban said, deep in thought. The shock was wearing off, but the reality was settling in.
"He was, you mean."
"No. He's still here. Troy's still calling the shots."
"Can you imagine the money those fools will spend in the next month?"
"It seems a crime not to tell them."
"We can't. We have our orders."
For lawyers whose clients seldom spoke to each other, the meeting was a rare moment of cooperation. The largest ego in the room belonged to Hark Gettys, a brawling litigator who'd represented Rex Phelan for a number of years. Hark had insisted on the meeting not long after he returned to his office on Massachusetts Avenue. He had actually whispered an idea to the attorneys for TJ and Libbigail as they watched the old man being loaded into the ambulance.
It was such a good idea that the other lawyers couldn't argue. They arrived, along with Flowe, Zadel, and Theishen, at Gettys' office after five. A court reporter and two video cameras were waiting.
For obvious reasons, the suicide made them nervous. Each psychiatrist was taken separately, and quizzed at length about his observations of Mr. Phelan just before he jumped.
There was not a scintilla of doubt among the three that Mr. Phelan knew precisely what he was doing, that he was of sound mind, and had more than sufficient testamentary capacity. You don't have to be insane to commit suicide, they emphasized carefully.
When the lawyers, all thirteen of them, had extracted every opinion possible, Gettys broke up the meeting. It was almost 8 P.M.
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