icon caret-left icon caret-right instagram pinterest linkedin facebook twitter goodreads question-circle facebook circle twitter circle linkedin circle instagram circle goodreads circle pinterest circle

Contest of Wills

Chapter One

“Most of the time, what you see doesn’t matter. It’s what you don’t see that’s important.” Jimmy Hanigan said this without looking at me, his eyes roving over a small yellow house just down the block from where we were parked. “You take our guy here, for example. Mr. Dillon. Friday he walks into court pulling an oxygen tank behind him and sucking on the thing like it was filled with milk chocolate. I thought Walter was going to go nuts.”

Walter Daley, owner and senior counsel of Daley & Associates law firm in Tallahassee, was our boss. He didn’t handle too many cases himself anymore, so I assumed he’d been sitting in the back of the courtroom with Jimmy when all this occurred. My name’s Frank Cole, by the way, but you’ll hear plenty about me later in the story.

“We’d never seen the guy trundling a SCUBA tank before then, so you know it’s a hoax. Probably hoping to play on the jury’s sympathies.” I knew no such thing, having signed on as Jimmy Hanigan’s assistant at Daley & Associates only two months earlier. At first I’d stuck to what I do best, which is Internet background checks and retrieval of court documents, but Jimmy believed in on-the-job training. He’d taken me on a wide variety of firm assignments, from depositions to neighborhood door-knocking, and I’d already learned a lot under his tutelage.

I was now sitting behind the wheel of a pickup truck that belonged to one of Jimmy’s many friends. He liked to switch vehicles during surveillance jobs like this one, and so we would probably be using this rig only once.

I looked away from the yellow house, and was struck once again by the youth of my new mentor in the PI business. Jimmy Hanigan was twenty-seven, which made him four years my junior, but he’d been working various jobs in the investigations business for close to ten years.

His hair was jet black, and his brown eyes were so dark that they might just as well have been black too. He stood a shade under six feet, which made him my height, and his trim physique hid what I already knew was impressive physical strength. I’d seen him pin an uncooperative informant to the wall of an alley one time, and had felt no concern about the struggling man getting away. This morning he was wearing a white collared shirt untucked over a set of blue jeans, and a pair of calf-high black boots that he wore more often than not.

“But hoax or no, the jury saw it, and so now we have to prove Mr. Dillon’s playing a game. Like I said, most of the time it’s not what you see that helps you discredit something like this—it’s what you don’t see. I made some calls over the weekend, and I learned that anybody working that hard on that size oxygen tank is going to have to get it refilled within a couple of days.”

“So we’re going to sit here until we see him take the thing for a fill-up?” I’d been employed on the periphery of the PI business for over a year by then, and had developed the habit of questioning much of what was said to me. Off the top of my head I could see three or four ways we could be thwarted in this quest. Additionally, I’d once sat with Jimmy in the back of a small van for an entire day and night, and didn’t really want to try it again.

“That’s not what I’m saying.” His forehead wrinkled momentarily, but he still didn’t look at me. I thought for a moment that the rising Florida sun had caused him to squint like that, but then saw that he’d simply found my question silly. “That was just one example. Here’s another: Someone with a breathing problem like that should be receiving regular medical attention. So if we don’t see him go to a clinic, or get a visit from some home health care outfit, it all helps us prove his little breathing apparatus is a prop.”

“And exactly what does that do in court?” Jimmy knew a lot about the law, and more than once I’d found him discussing nuanced legal points with Walter.

“It’s not so much a court thing, actually. If we can gather enough evidence that Mr. Dillon’s a fake, Walter will let the other side know we can make their guy look like a fool. They’ll have to respond to that, because our next step will be in court. We’ll wait until Mr. Dillon’s on the stand, ask him who his doctor is, how often he visits, that kind of thing. Once the answers are on record, we’ll shoot them down one by one.

“After that it can get really embarrassing for the other side, particularly if it’s a no-nonsense judge.” He finally looked at me, but only for an instant. “Walter’s on very good terms with a lot of the robes in the Panhandle, so the other side can expect real trouble if Walter dimes them.”

I was about to ask how long we were expected to watch Mr. Dillon when something caused Jimmy to lean closer to the windshield. I looked down the street again, and then glanced at the photo sitting between us on the truck’s bench seat. Jimmy had snapped that picture at the end of court the previous week, and I now recognized Mr. Dillon as he came out his front door.

It was a quiet neighborhood, but Monday was getting started and so there were people out and about. Some were going to work, some were walking dogs, and a couple, like our friend from the oxygen tank story, seemed to be getting ready to go for a jog. The Mr. Dillon before us was a thin middle-aged man, dressed in running shorts and a sweatshirt, and we watched in silent amazement as he went through a long series of stretching exercises. No oxygen bottle, or assistance of any other kind, was in sight.

I spoke slowly, as if stupid. “So you were saying we wouldn’t actually see what we needed, and that it was what we didn’t see—” I never finished that barb, as Jimmy began hissing orders over his shoulder while searching the truck’s floor for the appropriate tools.

“We need to get shots of this.” He handed me a camera, knowing that I’d been trained in its use by my girlfriend, a photography instructor at a local community college. “Scrunch down and rest the lens on the side mirror so he doesn’t see what you’re doing. Try not to zoom in too much. We need to show he’s outside his house.”

Both of the truck’s windows were open in the early morning heat, and I soon had a nice shot of Mr. Dillon doing an impressive side stretch right in front of his doorstep. The camera was digital, and I confirmed that I had captured the moment just as Hanigan came up with a camcorder and the day’s newspaper.

“Okay, here’s what we’ll do. He’ll run off in a bit, and we’ll follow him nice and slow. There’s a park near here, popular place for the runners, and if we’re lucky he’ll do a few laps.”
We stayed well back, which was easy because Mr. Dillon took off at a very respectable clip. Jimmy got some footage of him speeding down the street until, as predicted, he hopped onto the running trail at a local park. The path went around a small pond before being obscured for a distance by some trees, and close to a dozen people were already jogging in the new morning’s sun.

Jimmy directed me to a parking space with a good vantage point, and we let Mr. Dillon go by once so that we could select the proper public bench. I held the camcorder low in the window, panning it left and right to show our surroundings while waiting for our quarry to return. I had to admire Mr. Dillon’s grace when he came back around and passed a man seated on one of the park’s benches. The man had one black boot crossed over the other, and his face was obscured by the front page of the local paper.

“Well that was quick, I’ll say that.” Jimmy commented as he hopped back in and took the camera from me. He watched the replay, nodding his head in approval, and then handed it back. I looked into the viewer, and soon saw Mr. Dillon running past a very legible shot of that day’s paper.

“Went jogging three days after appearing in court wheeling an oh-two tank.” I looked over at Jimmy. “Not very smart, is he?”

“Most of ‘em aren’t. I’ve seen disability frauds working secret jobs, shot footage of guys with supposedly bad backs tossing cinder blocks into dump trucks.” Hanigan took the camcorder from me and began seating it in its case. “You gotta love the dumb ones, though. They give us more time to work on the smart ones.”
We decided to shoot a little more film of Mr. Dillon as he jogged home, and then Hanigan said we should head for the barn.

That was his little way of saying we were going back to the law office, but it was by no means a surprising turn of phrase. Hannigan had been raised in nearby Tallahassee, but he could switch from a full-on Southern accent to an unidentifiable monotone in the middle of a sentence. He could do the same thing mentally, too, sounding like a college professor one moment and then coming across as a country bumpkin the next. His ability to adapt to just about any given situation came in handy when we were going door-to-door, but I sometimes wondered if I knew the real Jimmy Hanigan at all.

We grabbed a celebratory breakfast on the way, and pulled into the parking lot of Daley & Associates around midmorning. A waist-high hedge ran around the white building, which looked more like a large private home than a law office. It fit well with the surrounding neighborhood, which consisted of middle-class houses and fenced-in back yards. It was early fall in the Panhandle, which meant it was rapidly getting hot outside.

We went up a cement walkway to a black-painted front door that sported a large brass knocker. The knocker was circular, and its base was formed by two hands holding a heart wearing a crown. Walter Daley was proud of his Irish ancestry, and the hands-and-crowned-heart symbol was known as the Claddagh among the children of the Emerald Isle. I had found it a welcoming symbol long before Walter told me that was one of its meanings.

We passed inside, entering a large reception area bustling with the new day’s activity. The interior of Daley & Associates was painted in light colors, with an emphasis on white, yellow, and tan. The floors were hardwood and covered with rugs, potted plants guarded the walls, and the whole effect left me wondering if I’d walked into a law office or some rich man’s club.

The clothing gave it away, however, as Jimmy and I were the only ones in casual dress. Lawyers and paralegals wearing business suits could be seen in the long main hallway behind the foyer, and we exchanged good-mornings with two of the receptionists as we passed on through.

Hanigan was not on good terms with some of the more senior lawyers in the building, and I had not yet summoned the nerve to ask why. He usually made a point of ignoring them, and I assumed he was simply making it clear that he answered to one boss, Walter. The flip side of that dynamic was interesting, though; Hanigan seemed on excellent terms with every novice, paralegal, and gopher in the place.

He was also friendly with Emil Tabor, the office manager, and I considered this to be a major point in his favor. I’d had a crackerjack office manager in the company I’d briefly owned in another life, and believed that only a fool would alienate the individual who keeps the whole place running. We passed Emil in the long, white-paneled corridor which led to Walter’s office, but Tabor was busy upbraiding one of the firm’s star litigators and didn’t seem to notice us.

“I don’t care how many cases you’ve won this year, Bernie—although I do know it isn’t as many as you’ve been saying. My staff has to be able to program its workload, and you can’t bring your notes to the typists at three in the afternoon and expect them to be ready the next day.”

“Listen, Emil, I’m not going to argue with you about this.” Bernie Kaplan was the fastest horse in Walter’s stable, but he had an ego that rankled much of the staff. I looked back briefly to see the chubby, dark-haired attorney wagging a finger at the thin, unconcerned office manager, and wondered what made Bernie think he stood a snowball’s chance of winning the argument.

Hanigan knocked on Walter Daley’s door even though it stood open. Walter’s office occupied a back corner of the building’s ground floor, and its main feature was a wall of large windows. These looked out on the picnic area out back which many Daley & Associates employees used for their lunch breaks. A big part of Walter’s self-image rested in his ability to provide for others, and the lunch area was just one more indication of his role as father figure and tribal chieftain.

“Jimmy. Frank. Come on in.” Walter was seated behind an enormous carved desk, and he finished reading a typed page of something while we took seats in front of him. His office was a cross between a study and a Gaelic museum, as the walls were covered with the Daley family’s coat of arms, maps of Ireland from Roman times to the modern era, and paintings of Irish farmers and fishermen plying their trades. The rugs on the floor looked like medieval tapestries, and the room’s white walls were interrupted at regular intervals by rich brown paneling.

Daley put the paper down and settled back in his chair. He was a short man, but his shoulders were impressively broad. He almost always wore a vested suit to work, and the wheat-colored fabric of that day’s outfit wrapped around his barrel chest like armor. His dark hair was shot through with gray, but his face showed very few wrinkles.

“You’ll like this one.” Jimmy began, and Walter smiled expectantly. The lilt of Irish laughter was never far from our employer’s light blue eyes, and Hanigan seemed to have a knack for entertaining him. “Mr. Dillon went jogging this morning, without his oxygen tank, and Frank caught it all on tape. I looked it over, and it’s all you’ll need if you want to make an issue of this.”

Walter’s lips pressed against each other as if he were trying not to laugh, and he shook his head in disbelief. “What an idiot. It was crazy of him to bring that thing into court to begin with, but he must be ten different kinds of stupid to then go and pull a stunt like this.”

“That’s what we said.”

“I can imagine.” Walter shook his head once or twice more, and then leaned forward to put his arms on the desk. The sleeves of his white shirt were rolled almost to his elbows, forming creaseless strips which rested in exactly the same spot on both forearms. “Listen. We’ve got a new one, and I want you to drop everything else until you’ve got this taken care of.”

I pulled out a small notebook and pencil while Jimmy slid forward on his chair. I’d never heard Walter start an assignment that way before, and I guessed Jimmy hadn’t either.

“We drew up a will for an ailing client a couple of months ago, and unfortunately he died last week. He had a heart attack in his sleep, but the will was in his possession and is now missing—” Hanigan gave a small whistle at this “—so we need to find out what happened to it. Hopefully it’s just misplaced, but if it can’t be found the estate is going to be divided in a fashion that is not in accordance with our client’s wishes.”

Jimmy looked at me and spoke. “Under Florida law, if the will can’t be found, the assumption is that the testator destroyed it, with the intention of invalidating it.”

“Testator?” I asked, never ceasing to be amazed at Jimmy Hanigan’s legal repertoire.

“The individual making out the will. So if this will is gone, the estate is divvied up as if the dead man hadn’t made a will at all.”

“That’s right.” Walter nodded approvingly at his lead investigator before turning to me. “The dead man in question was a very wealthy local named Chester Pratt. He was a widower up until two years ago, when he re-married. He has a daughter and a son from the previous marriage, and he’d left the bulk of his money to the daughter in the will prepared by this office.”

“Isn’t that unusual? What’s his wife expected to live on?” I posed this question while scribbling madly.

“The second wife and the son were well taken care of in the missing will. The wife got the house, everything in it, and roughly a million dollars. The son got just under a million. Furthermore, the daughter has been administering Chet Pratt’s charitable giving for years. She’s the business brains in the family now that Chet is gone.

“At the time we created the will, Chet wanted to put his daughter in the driver’s seat. His estate is currently valued at roughly forty million dollars, so he felt he was positioning her to continue running the charity, and also to help out the second wife or the son as she saw fit.

“Unfortunately, that’s not the way the estate is cut up if the will can’t be found. In that case the second wife gets roughly half, and the two children split the rest. Not exactly what Chet Pratt had in mind when he told me his last wishes.”

I stopped writing for a moment. “Aren’t there copies of the will somewhere?”

“Sure. We’ve got our own, but under most circumstances they can’t be submitted in probate. It’s the original, or nothing.”

“You said this will was only two months old. The man dies in his sleep, and then his new will goes missing. That sounds a little suspicious.” Hanigan had a fine feel for the dark side of things.

“That’s what the police think. The autopsy proved it was a heart attack, but the blood tests haven’t come back yet. Right now they believe he died from a prescription drug interaction.”

That one got by me, and even Hanigan screwed up his face for a moment before asking the big question. “But if they don’t have the test results, what makes them suspect something that specific?”

“This is where it gets a little confusing. Chet had a close call a year and a half ago. He wasn’t a well man, and so he was taking medication for his heart and a couple of other things. The drugs interacted unexpectedly, and he had a mild attack. They saved him at the hospital, and so of course they changed his drug regimen. He was still taking the same heart pills, but they took him off the other medication that caused his close call.

“The night he died he was reading in his study late at night, after his wife had gone to bed. It seems he nodded off down there, and then had the heart attack that killed him. Belinda—his second wife—found him in the morning. She tried her best to revive him, but he was already gone.

“When the daughter, Kerry, called me with the bad news I told her to get control of the will. It was kept in Chet’s safe, but when she looked it wasn’t there. So they started searching the study. That’s when they found a baggy containing some of the old medication, the pills that almost killed him, in his desk drawer.”

Walter took a breath before continuing. “Nothing’s certain, but it seems that Chet kept some of those pills when Belinda thought she’d thrown them all away. His quality of life wasn’t anything to write home about, and it’s possible that he killed himself. That’s why the police think they already know what the toxicology report will say.”

The three of us let that one sit for a while, mostly because it so clearly affected Walter. It was hard to tell if he and Pratt had been close friends, but Walter had a habit of emotionally adopting people and frequently extended that to clients.

“So you’d like us to see if we can locate the will.” Jimmy offered after a time.

“That, or at least come up with a timeframe for when it vanished. Try to determine when it was last seen. Who knows? Maybe he did destroy the thing. He originally wanted Belinda to get his entire estate, but she wanted most of it to go to the kids. She made him get the new will, basically to keep from being called a gold-digger, but I don’t think Chet was happy about it.

“He was like that—a little headstrong. Initially Belinda wanted to sign a pre-nup, but Chet wouldn’t hear of it. We drew up a will for him when they first got married, leaving her most of his estate, but apparently he didn’t tell her about it at the time. When she found out, she made him get the new one.” Walter shook his head. “At any rate, I’d like you to try and fill in some of the blanks here. Find out if the will was always kept in the safe, who had access to it, and if anybody can recall Chet making any comments about going back on the thing.

“Belinda is as interested in resolving this as I am, so she’s waiting for you at their house. The daughter, Kerry Pratt-Graham, will be there too. Be tactful, but get the answers.”

We both rose to leave, but I stopped at the door. “Walter?”

“Yes, Frank?”

“Who’s the client on this one? We’re talking to the widow and the daughter, and probably the son later on. Who’s the client?”

“Chester Pratt, Frank. The man who told us how he wanted his estate divided after his death. That’s our client.”