Here’s a short-short that appeared in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. My friend, lawyer, and fellow writer Gary Delafield told me a true story about a colleague of his: an elderly client came into the lawyer’s office almost every week, wanting to change her will as different children and grandchildren fell in and out of failure. The lawyer, exasperated, finally suggested the solution in this story. He was only joking, but the client left in a huff and got a new lawyer. Real life is like that. But this is fiction, folks.
Gary wasn’t interested in writing the story, but I thought it was a great setup for a short-short. I wrote it in a night. The whole point of this kind of story, I thought, was to end exactly on the punch line
An Equitable Distribution
by Daryl Gregory
It was my idea, so I guess in some way I’m to blame. But come on: it was a joke. I never thought she’d take me seriously, and no one could have guessed what it would lead to, or what would happen to that beautiful mansion.
Is it my fault Mrs. Freugstaff’s family was a pack of raving psychos?
Every time one of them offended or embarrassed Mrs. Freugstaff—and this was not a rare occurrence—she came in to change her will. In the two years since I’d been suckered into taking her on as a client, I’d added dozens of amendments and revisions. Her grandson William, the congressman, would be indicted, so she’d decide that he shouldn’t have the teak grandfather clock after all, and she’d revise the will to transfer it to William’s sister Judith. And then Judith would date a drug kingpin or appear on a day-time talk show, and Mrs. Freugstaff would take away the clock and the china and the silver and give some of it back to William and some of it to her nephew Frankie. Then Frankie would miss his parole hearing…you get the picture.
I tried to be patient. I did. But when she showed up that Friday with another copy of the will marked up and annotated like the battle plan to D-Day, I lost it. I leaned across the table, both hands gripping my pen so I wouldn’t strangle her.
“Mrs. Freugstaff,” I said slowly. “How about this: why don’t you give one room in your house to each relative. Then, when you want to change your mind about who should get what, you could just move it to another room.”
I don’t know what I expected her to do. Maybe slap me. Maybe stomp out and find another lawyer (hope against hope).
Instead, she blinked twice, and said in a dead-serious voice, “I like that. I like that quite a bit.”
Okay, maybe as her attorney I shouldn’t have drawn up the papers for such a queer deal. But once Mrs. Freugstaff latched onto the idea, she wouldn’t let go. And it was my idea.
It was pretty simple. William got the library. Judith got the dining room. Each one of her relatives got a room, down to each of the twelve bathrooms, the pool cabana, and the gardener’s shed. Even Frankie, then out of favor with Mrs. Freugstaff for assaulting his appeal judge, got his own piece of the pie.
And after the initial paperwork, Mrs. Freugstaff didn’t darken my door again.
Though I think I made life miserable for the boys at PackRite Moving. More than once I’d be driving past the Freugstaff place on my way home and see their truck out front. I think the old woman worked them like mules. She was all alone in the house, after all, and some people need projects.
Mrs. Freugstaff was happy, and I was happy.
Until she died.
When I got the news, I had the usual moment of surprise, and the not-so-usual moment of guilt (I always feel vaguely responsible when someone I dislike dies, as if I made it happen through voodoo). And then my stomach knotted. What had I gotten myself into? I was going to have to inventory the house and note the location of each item, then preside over the whole strange distribution process.
On my way home that night I drove by the Freugstaff mansion. It was a big place, sprawled on its hill like a black condor, the windows dark. The inventory would take me forever.
Then I saw a light bobbing behind one of the windows. I braked hard, and backed up. My first thought, of course, was burglars. Then a nastier possibility occurred to me. The knot in my stomach twisted a little tighter.
I jogged to the front door and tried the knob; it was unlocked. I slowly pushed it open. From across the dark room, I heard grunting, then a curse.
I found the light switch against the wall, and flipped on the lights. A middle-aged woman spun to face me. Behind her, a wing-backed leather armchair was suspended in the door frame, jammed sideways.
“Who are you?” she demanded.
“I’m the lawyer,” I said. “Who are you?”
“I’m the niece. Frieda.”
I pointed to the chair. “What are you doing with that?”
“It belongs,” she said petulantly, “in the laundry room.”
A woman screamed from upstairs.
“Put that chair back where it came from,” I said, then ran up the steps, taking them two at a time.
The woman screamed again, and a man screamed back. Lights went on in a room down the hall. It was the library. An orange-haired woman in leopard-skin pants was pitching books at a red-bearded, balding man, who was fending off the hardbacks with a silver tea tray and a flashlight. I recognized him as Rep. William Freugstaff (R-Illinois).
“That was in my room!” the woman yelled, and lunged for the tray. William stumbled back, silverware falling out of his pockets.
“What’s going on here?” I said in my best authority-figure voice.
The two of them crashed onto the floor. “Get—her—off of me!” William grunted.
A teenage boy with a microwave in his arms stepped into the room, froze for a moment, and backed out.
William raised an eyebrow.
“I think that’s Eunice’s boy,” the woman supplied. “Teddy.”
“Wait a minute!” I said. “Do you smell gas?”
We all looked, for some reason, at the ceiling.
“Everybody out!” I yelled. “Now!” I didn’t wait for them to follow. I practically jumped down the flight of stairs and hit the front door at a run. In less than a minute, a score of Fruegstaff descendents stumbled into the yard after me.
“Somebody call the fire department,” I said. “Go to one of the neighbors!”
“As long as there’s not a spark or something,” said the red-haired woman. “—it should be—”
The explosion was deafening. I fell to the ground, covering my head. Debris rained down: wood, bricks, cookware, ceramic figurines. A toaster landed inches from my face.
In a few minutes, we picked ourselves up and looked around. No one seemed seriously hurt. The yard looked like a battle field. The mansion was a flaming ruin.
A figure walked towards us out of the smoke.
“Frankie!” William said. “You’re out of jail?”
Frankie planted his foot on an overturned toilet, and lit a cigarette with a shiny gold lighter. “Everything in this yard,” he said, “is mine.”