Finnegan Welling was an imposing figure for a lawyer. Fiftyish, just enough touches of silver in his full head of chestnut hair, crinkles around his eyes that marked him as a man who either smiled often or squinted into the sun a lot, a prominent nose that appeared to have been broken more than once. Full lips for a white man, too, bisected over on the left side by a scar from what, a knife fight? A chainsaw accident? Five nine or so, with shoulders far too wide for his height, tapering down to a waist in an almost perfect cartoon super-something form.
“I’m sorry I was out of state when Mrs. Trace was killed,” he said, and ruined the image. His voice was high, scratchy, irritating, sort of a cross between Mike Tyson and Donald Duck in one of his trademark rages. “I hope my partners were able to handle matters to your satisfaction?”
Hunh. No phony condolences, no routine questions about the fancy shoulder brace and sling I was wearing, no raised eyebrow at Jack Hill’s presence. Right to the point. Despite cringing inwardly at a voice that compared unfavorably with fingernails on a blackboard, I could maybe learn to respect this guy. Like him? Probably not. But Jennifer had picked him to spearhead the defense of her will against her three greedy, worthless descendants, so….
“Ryan and Sonny have been very helpful, yes. As I’m sure you know from the files, they’ve already filed probate and beaten back several of the opposition’s attempts to overturn Jennifer’s will in its entirety.”
“Of course.” He nodded slowly. I suspected this man did everything slowly and carefully…until he didn’t. There was too much power penned up there, too much explosion waiting to happen. “To their minds, this is a sizeable estate, its value well in excess of thirty million dollars.”
“Depending on the market value of the bucking stock,” Jack put in mildly. “That’s a rather volatile component.”
Welling did raise an eyebrow then, probably at Hill having the nerve to interrupt the conversation between Montana’s toughest attorney–according to one online blogger, anyway–and the stated sole heir to the estate. “Yes,” he admitted, “depending on the value of the livestock.”
“Do the Trace kids have a real shot at overturning the will? Especially the part where Jennifer disowns them entirely, that is?”
“Oh, absolutely. They all have very fine attorneys, I might add, which surprises me a bit. Might you have any insight into that?”
Did I ever…but how much to tell Welling? “I’m not sure I know exactly why, but from some things Jennifer told us over the last few years, we–Jack and I–got the impression billionaire Theodore Kraznick might have taken a particular dislike to either the Trace ranch or to Rodeo Iron. Or maybe to both. If that’s true, he might have decided to finance their legal efforts.”
“Ah.” He grimaced subtly but unmistakeably, a bare twitch of the lips. “Slumlord Kraznick, is it?”
“You know him?” I’m pretty sure my surprise showed.
“I’ve never met the man, no, but we have, you might say…crossed swords a time or two. In court. The results of our battles to date have been…mixed. Win some, lose some. Which is not what you want to hear.”
He was right about that. “If Kraznick is involved, it could get worse.”
“What do you mean, Mr. Jackson?”
Mister, is it? “I mean, there are rumors out there that this particular billionaire is not above using extortion, possibly even murder, to get his way. I’m not saying it’s true, you understand, but a relatively rural probate judge in the relatively small town of Deer Lodge would not want to get on Kraznick’s bad side if he knew what was good for him.”
“No,” Welling screeched mildly, “I don’t suppose he would.”
“Which,” I pointed out, “could mean the judge turning against us and siding with the disinherited offspring in a sudden fit of magically discovered integrity. So to speak.”
“Yes. I suspect that’s exactly what will happen.”
“What?” I sat back in my chair, stunned. Not because I cared about getting rich at the cost of losing one of the best friends I ever had, but–“What the Hell!”
The lawyer raised his hands in placation. Hands, I noticed, that could probably crush rocks when they weren’t busy placating or writing legalese. “It’s simple,” he said. “Or rather, excuse me, it’s anything but simple. It’s a classic Trace move. Sam Trace was a cagey fellow, but no more than a flickering campfire against a blazing sun when it came to his widow’s brilliance. Please, look these over and tell me what you think. Jennifer assured me it would take you no more than a few minutes to figure it out.” He picked up a thick folder from the table and handed it over.
Not knowing what else to do, I opened the folder and began reading. He was right; I pretty much had the picture in three minutes and change. I closed the folder, glanced at Jack–who sat at ease, waiting to see which way the chips were going to fall–and told Welling quietly, “You forged my signature.”
“Not me,” he replied without batting an eye. “There are far better forgers than me out there.”
The Wizard had been quiet long enough. “Somebody want to clue me in?”
“Jack….” I barely knew where to start. “According to these papers, Jennifer Trace sold the entire ranch to me five years ago, lock stock and barrel, and I set up a Sub S corporation, Treemin Ranch Inc., to handle it.”
“What?!” It took a lot to shake the old Protector. Obviously, this counted as a lot.
“So…what about tax returns?”
“Forged and filed.”
“Paid in full.”
“But she would have had the money you supposedly paid her, right? We were talking about valuing the ranch and everything on it at thirty million….”
“Eleven five. In reality, the worth of the bucking stock counted for nearly two thirds of the ranch’s value, especially with that High Feathers ox winning Bucking Bull of the Year. But that didn’t happen until two years ago, long after I, uh, owned the critter. Basically, she wrote off the horses and the cattle, both, as being worth no more than pleasure saddle stock and commercial beef.”
“Son. Of. A. Bitch. Welling, how likely is Tree go prison for a couple of million years for all of this?”
For the first time since he’d joined us in the conference room, the wide shouldered lawyer grinned ear to ear, the expression of a happy shark. “Not likely at all, Mr. Hill. May I explain?”
“Oh, please do.” Jack spoke for both of us without a trace of sarcasm. Enquiring minds really did want to know.
“First of all, you mentioned the money Jennifer received for selling her ranch. Eleven million, five hundred dollars. Sadly, money meant little to her after the death of her husband. Over a period of three years, she managed to lose nearly all of that marvelous income to casinos in Nevada, mostly in Las Vegas, Loughlin, and Mesquite. Oh, and a bit in Reno. Documented all of this in her diary. Of course, there would have to be bank records to substantiate such large amounts of money moving into and then out of her various accounts, but for Jennifer, that was not a problem. You never knew her in the old days, but by the time she was twenty, she could kite checks with the best of them and make it look good to everybody. Or at least, that’s what I was told. She never lost the touch, and even in this day of high tech and fast check clearance, she made the art of the float look completely proper.”
Jennifer had been a master at conning banks? Okay, I could maybe see that, but…”Finnegan, all the opposition would have to do would be subpoena those bank records. The kiting couldn’t possibly stand up under scrutiny.”
“Normally, no.” He grinned again, even wider this time if that were possible. “But one of those accounts is yours, see?”
Okay. That was definitely over the top. “Holy shit,” I breathed. “Jennifer, Jennifer, Jennifer.”
“You believe it won’t hold up, Mr. Jackson?”
“I’m–yeah, I have my doubts. I don’t see how–I don’t even see how she opened up an account without my being there, never mind the rest of it.”
The lawyer actually chuckled. “O ye of little faith. That woman–and I use the term with the highest respect, not the way Clinton said it when referring to Monica Lewinsky–that woman was, to put it mildly, a freaking genius. Sam Trace was a hard working cowboy, a rodeo expert with an eye for a bull or a bronc, but Jennifer was the financial wizard behind the scenes. What she put together is no house of cards; it will hold up. Yes, she gambled in a way; if she had died too early, before disposing of the millions she, ahem, received from you…that would have been a problem. But she did not. By the time she passed, she had years of, um, non-ownership of the ranch, merely retaining the right to live in the house and, er, manage your ranch for you for a while.”
“What about the ranch hands?” Jack was rubbing his chin, a sure sign he was thinking deeply. Which was better than I was doing; I couldn’t think at all.
“Oh, she told them.”
“What?!” My eyelids were blinking rapidly of their own accord, producing a strobe light effect.
“Certainly. As I understand it, she mentioned to them just once that she had sold out to you but that you had retained her services as ranch manager.”
“I’ll be damned.” That did explain the extra measure of deference I’d been receiving from the working cowboys. Come to think of it, a few of them had even called me boss a time or two. I’d never thought a thing of it.
Seeing my dysfunction, Jack decided to take over. Which was a good thing; I wasn’t sure my brain could form any words. “So…you’re no ordinary lawyer.”
“Certainly not. I’d be offended if you thought I was.” Welling lifted his glass of water with lemon, took down a fair swallow, and set it back down on the table before continuing. “I’ve known Jennifer Trace since before she was Jennifer Trace. When I was fifteen, which would have made her thirty-five or so, I had the damnedest crush on that woman you can possibly imagine. I did not, however, have any idea that she’d followed my career since my graduation from high school. When she came to me with the need for some, um, shall we say, creative legal work, I would have given her the moon. She inspired certain men that way.”
Yeah. I’d noticed that. It was a good thing we’d managed to pass her death off as being due to an ordinary rattlesnake bite. Had this man known the full truth….
“Anyway, I presume you gentlemen would be interested in knowing how I see this playing out?”
We both nodded. Duh.
“First, the will. Our firm will fight her children’s attempt to overturn it. We’ll fight it tooth and nail, and if Theodore Kraznick is involved, the battle will be that much the sweeter. But in the end, especially if he is involved, we will most likely lose. It’s not a done deal, you understand, but yes, the judge can be reached by a man with unlimited funds and a complete lack of conscience. The biggest question there is how long it will take for us to lose in court. I wouldn’t be surprised if we can drag it out for a year or more, but however long it takes, the important thing is for us to have done our best.”
“And then?” I prompted, finally getting intrigued.
“Then, once the children are deemed the true heirs and only then, the truth will come out. Oh lack and alas, there be but a mere few thousand dollars left in her estate! Oh woe, how could such a thing be? Kraznick’s law hacks–we’ll assume this is Kraznick powered; I’ll have more fun that way–they’ll go after everything they can. We’ll battle them again, every single step of the way, fang and claw and bloody mess on the courtroom floors. Each set of documents they obtain will give them reason to hope they’ve found the smoking gun that will bring them victory–and then, when those documents pass muster and cannot be impugned, their spirits will once again plummet down through the basement floor and into the very halls of Hades.”
“You,” Jack observed with a smile, “are having way too much fun.”
“It’s only fun when it’s me who has stacked the deck, Mr. Hill. In this case, however, I might agree with you. There is a bit of evil glee involved here.”
A thought occurred to me. “Can I sell off the bucking stock? I mean, like right now, while all this estate stuff is dragging out in court?”
“Absolutely. You do own the animals, after all. I would suggest only one thing.”
“Stick to rodeo people when you sell.”
“Well, yeah! Who else is going to be interested in buying the toughest bucking bull since Bodacious? Sheesh!”
“No, Mr. Jackson. I am not attempting to insult your intelligence. What I’m getting at is the nature of our opponents. Jennifer’s children never showed the slightest interest in rodeo; they wanted no part of it. Nor does Theodord Kraznick have any leanings toward the sport. If you make sure your contacts or even major advertisements for the sale of the animals are placed in only rodeo oriented publications or on rodeo oriented websites, it’s highly doubtful anyone on the other side will even realize the ranch lands are empty until the herds are long gone. And if you would like to know some, um, creative ways to secure the payments for those animals from prying eyes, well….”
“There’s a thought.”
Jack had finished his chin rubbing. “Welling, is there any way Kraznick’s lawyers can try to say the contract–the one where Tree bought the ranch…which I do hope is a far cry from buying the farm…is there any way they can try to say Jennifer didn’t sign it of, you know, her own free will?”
“Not a chance. That one, especially, is rock solid.”
“She didn’t have just one, or even three, witnesses to her signature. She demanded no less than seven, which she got, and every one of them works for me. Yes,” he held up a hand, forestalling the obvious next question, “those seven are tough enough to resist intimidation efforts, should Kraznick’s bully boys come calling.”
I could see Jack deciding we didn’t need to go any more deeply into the details, at least not today. “Do I get a copy of my,” I emphasized the words, “purchase contract?”
“Not just a copy. That file is yours. It’s the original, with all original signatures. I suggest you keep it in a very safe place, as I will keep this similarly.” The crookedest attorney west of the Mississsippi–but our crook, thank you very much–help up a brown leather journal. “This is Jennifer Trace’s diary. It covers the necessary years, from her decision to sell the ranch until well after the last of the money was gone. We may not need it, but if necessary, it will turn up at just the right time, clear evidence in her own hand that it happened just the way we’re saying it happened.”
Outside, I asked Jack to drive. It was my Pontiac, but I didn’t trust myself behind the wheel. I could drive okay with one hand, but not with my head spinning as well.
“Fred’s Café? Grab a steak before we head home?”
“Sure. Why not?” I had no appetite, but I probably would by the time the meat was on the table. “Jack?”
“Can you imagine doing what she did? I mean, setting things up in such detail, writing daily notes in that journal for years, just to provide a paper trail in case it was ever needed?”
“Absolutely.” He shrugged. “Sounds like something she would do.”
“But…keeping that secret for so long…okay, the lawyer knew, but…not sure I could have done what she did.”
“You’re not a mother.”
“Jennifer loved you like her own son, Tree. Not her blood offspring, none of whom are worth the powder to blow ’em to Hell, but the son she and Sam should’ve had. Never mind that you’re black.”
“I–yeah, I guess I knew that.”
“Can you see Judi doing something like that? For Willow or Aspen, I mean?”
For our daughters? Well…yes, that did put things into perspective. I could see my wife sacrificing everything to make sure our girls were taken care of. “Yeah. Yeah, I can see…she would, wouldn’t she? If it seemed best.”
“Damn betcha.” He laughed aloud.
“What’s so funny?”
“Kraznick. Old Lord Heartbite himself. He had to figure he could cut you down to size if he could take Jennifer out. Without the ranch, what’s Rodeo Iron? A half dozen buildings, a few franchises scattered around the western states, but very little land. If he’d come in and bought up the Trace acreage, given her bratty kids a lump sum payment, he would have had some real options. Subdivide the ranch and sell twenty acre parcels to eager homeowners, for example, making sure everyone who moved in was one of his Biters. It might have taken him a year or two, even three, but eventually he’d have had your operation pretty much surrounded, and there wouldn’t have been a damned thing you could do about it.”
“That’s right,” I replied, remembering. My eidetic memory–as much curse as it was blessing–kicked in, replaying Jennifer’s dying words. “Jen knew. She said as much, and then she said they’ve got a surprise coming.”
“And they sure as Hell do,” Hill chortled. “They sure as Hell do.”