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The pivotal moment of the negotiation had arrived, the point in the dialogue when pen was poised over contract. Nick Merchant studied his latest clients and felt his pulse drum at his temples. They were simple people, probably possessing no learning beyond the ninth grade, if that. They sat across from him -- Emma McClure in her faded floral dress and house slippers, and her son, a greasy, yellow-toothed biker named J.P. They huddled on their worn living room couch looking like two expectant parents. Nick expected their reaction to his forthcoming disclosure to be on a par with being told they held the winning lottery ticket.
"Do you have any further questions, Mrs. McClure?"
"I can't think of any."
Nick leaned over the table and pointed to the blank line that read Client. J.P. looked over his mother's shoulder.
"Sign it, Momma."
"He wants you to sign it."
"I told you to hush, boy!" she hissed. "Don't you be hanging over me like a vulture when I'm tryin' to think."
Nick searched his mental data bank for the few properly placed words that would sway Emma McClure to give her autograph. Twelve thousand dollars hovered like the horseflies buzzing in the stagnant air of the McClure shack. He leaned forward and tried to speak soothingly. "You seem a bit unsure, Mrs. McClure. Is something unclear?"
"Well, it's just that . . . well, things like this don't usually happen around here."
"I understand," said Nick, with a smile. "I know this all seems a little strange. Do you have a copy of the yellow pages by chance? I'd like to show you something which may reassure you."
J.P. rose from the couch at his mother's prompting and returned with the phone book. Nick took it and flipped through it till he came to the heading Private Investigators.
"Here we are -- Merchant and Associates. Our firm is a completely legitimate, family-owned business. We've been licensed by the state of California as private investigators for the last twelve years now. Our reputation in the field is excellent. If you'd like to check into us, you can call the local Better Business Bureau. I'm sure they would be happy to tell you all about us. I encourage you to do that if it will ease your mind."
"He's bein' honest, Momma," begged J.P., his voice almost frantic.
"You pipe down!" she snapped. She turned to Nick. "I don't think I'll be needing to call 'em. I believe I can trust you, Mr. Merchant. You say your family owns this business?"
Nick shifted in his chair a bit. He didn't want to lie to the old woman, but he felt it was best to shield her from the complete truth. "My father started the company, ma'am. He retired four years ago."
Emma looked over at her son. "I suppose a family-owned business couldn't be all bad, huh, J.P.?"
"Sure," replied J.P., happy to agree.
Nick nodded earnestly. "Ma'am, I promise you -- there's nothing to be worried about. I wouldn't come into your home and lie to you. I guarantee you'll be very happy once you sign." He directed her gaze to the line requiring her endorsement.
Mrs. McClure frowned. Her life had never been complicated by important matters such as this, but Nick Merchant had a boyish, honest face, and even though she hadn't been brave enough to admit to him that she didn't really understand half the things he had explained to her that past half hour, she did feel that she could trust him. She gave J.P. one last uncertain look and, seeing nothing but encouragement on his face, scrawled her signature across the line. She handed Nick the contract and his pen and sighed.
Nick glanced over the signature and felt his saliva glands finally start working again. "Thank you, Mrs. McClure, and congratulations. This is a happy day for the two of you." He placed the contract into the folds of his portfolio. "I'd like to give you the details on your inheritance now."
"I'd appreciate that."
"The money is coming from your uncle, Andrew Thomas Galloway." He paused, gauging her reaction.
"My goodness," she stammered. "I . . . I don't--"
"My research indicates that you probably never even met him."
"You know, I never did, but my mother mentioned him a few times when she was alive. They had some sort of a feud goin'. Hadn't spoken to each other since the sixties."
Nick frowned sympathetically. Company research indicated that Andrew Galloway had not spoken to Emma McClure's mother since 1958. His research had uncovered more than dates, though. Andrew Galloway was actually a borderline psychotic with an unnatural attraction to young boys. But there was no need to bring out the darker side of his findings.
"Your uncle had been living up north in Placerville. He died about six weeks ago."
"And he remembered me in his will?"
"Actually he died without a will. When an individual dies without a will in California, the laws of inheritance are based on genealogy. Bloodlines. You're his closest living relative, so you get the entire proceeds of his estate."
"How much?" asked J.P., his entire body tensed.
"Brace yourselves, okay?" said Nick, breaking into a smile now.
"There was slightly more than sixty-three thousand dollars in his bank accounts. That's the entire value of the estate. Congratulations."
Mother and son remained motionless, and Nick could read no reaction until J.P.'s yellow grin spread across his face like a hairline fracture in glass.
"Sweet Jesus," said Emma, fanning herself with a magazine.
"It's all yours now, folks."
"Sixty-three thousand!" shouted J.P., rising to his feet.
Nick focused on Emma McClure. He was more concerned with the heir's reaction.
"I can't believe this," she muttered, her head in her hands.
"I'm happy to say it's true, ma'am. Let me tell you how it'll work: My attorney will arrange a court hearing where we'll ask the court to release your uncle's money. Once they okay our petition, it'll take about five or six weeks for my attorney to receive the checks from the county and send you your portion."
"And then you'll mail me the money?"
"I'll deliver it to you personally. The county will mail my attorney two checks -- one for your portion, the other for my company fee. As soon as my attorney gets the checks, I intend to drive back down here and hand you your portion myself."
"I appreciate that."
Nick reached into his coat pocket. "I want you to have my card, also my attorney's card, and a copy of the contract you've signed. Be sure to keep that in a safe place." He closed and latched his briefcase. "If you have no more questions, I'll need to be on my way, but please feel free to call me anytime at my office if you feel the need. My number's right there on the card."
She smiled at him, misty-eyed. "This is a godsend -- a godsend, Mr. Merchant. Do you know how long I've wanted to patch the roof here? I . . . I just can't . . ."
The words were lost. She stood and took a step toward him, her arms extended. Nick blushed a bit as she gave him a quick hug.
"I'm happy to bring you the news," he said, smiling. "I'm sure you'll put the money to good use."
"Oh, we will, won't we, J.P.?" she replied, dabbing at her eyes. J.P. beamed.
"Thank you again, ma'am. Remember -- any questions, you call me." She nodded and Nick said goodbye.