Six Years Earlier
Ben uncrossed his legs and hunched forward. Wobbly knees trembled under the mahogany desk as he fought to suppress his plaguing nausea.
“Do you have any specific instructions on how I should handle the matter?” said Ira Rattenbury, an estate attorney Ben had known for years. His mellow voice echoed off the thin, panel-covered walls in his discrete office hibernating in the corner of Brandywine’s downtown historic square.
“I hoped you might have a solution. This was a difficult decision.” Ben lifted his head from a determined stare at the envelopes he’d dropped on the desk. Uncertain how to broach a troublesome topic, he removed and cleaned wire-framed spectacles and replaced them on his pale and furrowed face, shuddering at the reflection of graying hair at his temples.
“Altering your last will and testament is an eradication of long-held confidences in prior decisions. Do the envelopes contain a change to the estate’s division among your heirs?” Ira shuffled through the paperwork strewn across his desk, his lips forming a thin smile.
“No.” Ben inhaled the scent of the sandalwood candle Ira’s secretary lit outside the frosted glass office door, its pungent burn reaching his unprepared nose.
Ira’s face crinkled. “Did you acquire new assets we need to account for?”
“Nothing since we spoke last year.” Ben’s hands pressed atop the leather organizer, tapping an unknown rhythm incapable of soothing the erratic hesitation in his voice.
“I want to do anything I can to help. Maybe you should tell me to whom the envelopes belong. Quite a fine and delicate parchment, early twentieth century. I’m assuming the contents are of significance.”
“Yes, the stationery was a gift from my wife years ago. I apologize. I do not mean to be unclear. Regret terrorizes even the strongest of men…” Ben flinched while peering out the window upon a mother pushing a baby carriage along the main street, unsettled by the grinding whirr of traffic passing by a few feet away. Someone, other than him, needed to know what he had done that night in the hospital.
Ben knew it was time to confess his sin, especially since watching so many people ripped from existence around him. His oldest friend had recently died of a heart attack on the golf course, mid-swing in front of him, as they finished under par on the last hole. The image of the five-iron and golf ball gliding through the air, both landing several feet away on the dewy grass, as his friend fell to the ground, still haunted Ben. Fear of his own mortality had been cultivated that day.
Ira pushed back his leather seat a few feet, stood and adjusted the pocket on his linen coat. He watched the wince form on Ben’s face when hearing the chair’s heavy legs scrape across the wooden floor. “I understand your difficulty. If this contains material of a sensitive nature, I assure you, I will personally handle the matter. No one else in my office will know of our conversation.”
“Yes, I insist only you administer my estate go-forward.” Ben’s long fingers waded into the bowl of coins on the desk. “You have a promising future ahead of you, Mr. Rattenbury.”
Ira nodded. “I value our relationship, Ben, if I may. After all these years, we should dispense with the formalities.” He handed Ben a glass of aged brandy from the thick crystal decanter sitting on his marble sideboard. The intoxicating smell lingered before descending upon the rest of the tiny office.
Ben accepted the tumbler with tense, whitened knuckles on both hands, and swallowed a healthy pour. The warm liquor soothed him as he pushed the chair further back from the desk. “Yes, please call me Ben.” He stood and walked toward the arched window, focused on the narrow floor-to-ceiling-corner bookshelf. He traced his fingers across the crackled spines of the law books, and his taut body creaked from the unexpected pressure as he rested against the splintered ledge. “I knew the day would come when I needed an ally I could trust, someone removed from my family who would not… hold an obligation to… reveal my indiscretion to them.”
Ira nodded, swallowed the remains of his drink and sat in his chair. “Tell me what’s troubling you, Ben.”
“My father passed away this year, as did Olivia’s mother last month. I’ve inherited responsibility for this family as its new head.” As he paused between thoughts, Ben listened to the wind’s hollow interruption whipping through the covered porch outside the glass panes. “I need to face the consequences of a decision made many years ago. Perhaps in the future, I will want to tell them myself, but for now my family will better handle the news if I am already dead and buried.”
Ben began to share his story with Ira, who offered solutions and options only when Ben seemed unable to summon the proper words. “I will do my best to handle this exactly as you wish.”
By the end of their conversation, Ben grew confident he’d chosen the right man to administer his final wishes. “I appreciate your discretion in this matter. But in addition to delivering these envelopes upon my death, I have one more task which requires your assistance.”
Ben removed from his coat pocket a piece of paper containing a name, and thrust it towards Ira. His dogging remorse and pain percolated within each visible tremor.
Ira studied the translucent parchment. “Who is Rowena Hector?” There was a dutiful concern in his voice that pled with Ben for a deeper explanation.
Ben turned away from Ira, unwilling to let him see the salty drops materialize in his eyes. “You must learn everything you can concerning Rowena upon my death, and not beforehand. I expect Olivia will ask for guidance based upon what I revealed in the letters. Please convey this decision tortured me for years… and that I struggled with choosing the coward’s way out.”
Forward to Chapter 1