Luke’s Last Page
by Lark Lucente
part 1 of 2
Luke first noticed her sitting in the back of the empty chapel during his grandfather’s funeral. Later at the graveside service, the woman distanced herself on the edge of the quiet woods and stared over at him as he stood behind the single chair overlooking the coffin. As the minister murmured the final prayer, he watched her vanish into the trees.
At dusk, Luke sat in the dining nook of his small apartment, but ate nothing. A soft rain began to fall, and he envisioned it seeping into the black, churned earth around the gravesite. He thought about his grandfather’s absent friends and former business associates. He thought about the unknown woman in the cemetery and wondered long into the night.
The next morning, his secretary told him that Adam Spaulding, his grandfather’s attorney and life long friend needed to see him as soon as possible. He decided to walk the five blocks, hoping to shake off yesterday’s somberness. Blasts of winter air energized him as he edged his way along the crowded sidewalk. Around him the city pulsated impatience. Horns blared; buses vibrated at stop lights. When he dashed into the traffic to cross the street, he saw her again.
She stood at the back of the bus and stared at him through the dirt-smeared glass. She didn’t move. She could have been anyone, cloaked in the city’s grime. After a few seconds the bus ground out its departure. Exhaust fumes swirled around Luke and tickled his throat as he watched the bus inch away from him.
Three times. Three sightings. In the pew. By the woods. On the bus. He’d felt like this once before. That sinking feeling of being caught off guard while sitting in a hospital waiting room and looking up to see the surgeon come pushing through the doors, much too early.
Adam was waiting and hated small talk. He conducted meetings with efficient swiftness. Personal conversations came later, if at all. Yet upon entering, Luke found him with his back to the door as he sat gazing out over the city. Sunlight came glaring through the plate glass windows, sending metallic flashes across the room and into his eyes. He felt disoriented.
Without turning around, Adam spoke as if in the middle of conversation. “Do you ever look out at the skyline, Luke?”
“Maybe at first I did. I guess I take it for granted.”
“Twenty years in this office, twenty-three floors high, and I never looked. Not during the day, anyway. Until now.”
Luke squinted into the brightness. Mirrored glass from the towering building across the street reflected distorted steel images transforming the structure into a corporate funhouse. Windows turned into silvery contours spilling into each other.
“If we look closely, we might see ourselves altered in one of those reflections.” Adam motioned him closer. “But up here at night, it’s serene. Blue-black softness and glimmer.”
He made no attempt to discuss business. An untouched cup of coffee sat on the edge of his desk cluttered with folders, phone messages and mail. Adam placed his hand on the window and tapped out irregular beats made louder by the stillness. When he turned around, Luke saw a man fatigued by sadness. His eyes narrowed and he spoke almost in a whisper. “I didn’t even know that William had died.”
“But you were told. Your secretary even left a message that...”
“I never sent you a message.”
“The hospital was supposed to contact you.”
Adam shook his head. He turned away and continued to move his head back and forth in denial.
“Adam, please believe me. I thought you knew. A night nurse from the emergency room in Connecticut called and said that he never regained consciousness; he died of heart failure. She told me that the hospital had standing instructions to notify you also.”
“No one from the hospital called me. I read it in today’s paper. It seems I missed the private funeral. Announced after the fact, no less. I’m the executor. Luke, your grandfather prepaid funeral arrangements years ago. The funeral parlor listed wasn’t his chosen one.”
His grandfather had outsmarted everyone. The press, his friends, business associates, and long forgotten acquaintances that didn’t really care, but wanted only to be seen. He’d made his fortune early, lived unpretentiously, and avoided the limelight whenever possible. In death he had done just that.
“He never could stand publicity. Adam, maybe he just went through the motions of planning a traditional funeral because that’s what you expected of him. After my parents’ accident, he said funerals were barbaric.”
“How did you know to call Jensen’s Funeral home?”
“I didn’t. They were already there. A representative said everything had been taken care of. They acted very quickly. In fact, the body had been released to them shortly before I arrived.”
Adam sprang up and came at Luke in frustration. Years of confident control melted as he pounded out questions. ”Funeral parlor representatives don’t just appear. Hospitals don’t just release bodies. Didn’t that strike you as odd? And what about that other call? Who wanted you to think that I knew? Didn’t you wonder why I didn’t call you myself?” He raised his hand as if to slam the desk, then caught himself and gripped Luke’s shoulder instead. “He was my best friend.” Breathing deeply, he fell back into his chair.
Luke kept his emotions in check and tried to push back an increasing sense of apprehension. “I didn’t even stop to think about how they knew to come. I was told that it was prearranged by my grandfather, and he had requested cremation, followed by a private funeral that only I was to attend. His urn was to be put into a coffin and buried in the family plot. Adam, it was the middle of the night; I was still a bit stunned.”
“The hospital not calling me and the release of the body is a major screw-up. But something else is going on and has been for a while.”
“He seemed fine when I ran into him at the airport last month. We had lunch. I was leaving to attend a conference, and he told me he was meeting a client coming in on a later flight.”
“He wasn’t seeing any client of ours. Six months ago, he handed over his case load to me and another partner. Said he needed a break. Despite our age, I just wasn’t expecting it.” Looking at Luke, he suddenly realized, “He didn’t tell you.”
Luke stared at Adam silhouetted against the urban radiance streaming behind him. He struggled to see his face. “Why would he keep something like that from me?”
“He never explained his reason for leaving. I haven’t seen him since the day he walked away, although he did call from time to time. He was always vague though. He led me to believe that he was off traveling whenever he got the urge. I should have called you, but I just assumed that you knew and would keep me informed if there was anything I needed to know. “
“I should have paid more attention to him.” Tension tightened his neck and a soreness set into his stomach. He tried to recall their lunch conversation. Instead all he remembered was his boasting about his presentation. He hadn’t given his grandfather much of a chance to talk about himself.
“Maybe he dismissed me after he left. A clean break, right down to the funeral.” Adam stood up, put his hands in his pockets and walked slowly back and forth as if trying to calm himself. “I think I could accept all of this more easily had I known why he left so abruptly. And he kept this from you. You were his only family.”
Luke had no answers. He tried to imagine what Adam must be feeling. For a moment they stood side by side, each conscious of what could not be explained.
Seconds later, Adam smiled. “You’re a rich man Luke. William did see to that.”
“That hasn’t sunk in yet.” Their talk was about to end. He thought about the woman again. He knew that he should be going back to work. Back down the elevator, back to the street. Back to where she could see him. Should he tell Adam? What if he did? What good would it do? He’d had enough of a shock today. What was he going to say? That a young, mysterious woman had crossed his path three times in twenty-four hours? He was making too much of it.
“I’ll handle all estate matters and that incident with the funeral parlor needs checking into. Let me deal with that. Did you recognize the doctor’s name on the death certificate?”
Luke gave Adam a blank stare. The fact that he could be so careless troubled him. “I didn’t ask for a death certificate.”
Adam looked at him like a parent disappointed in a child. “I’ll take care of that. One other thing, you might want to check on the country house this weekend. The staff is still on the payroll. Decisions need to be made. We’ll talk soon.” He pushed his chair closer to the window and swiveled into the white light.
Luke left him to his thoughts, his questions, and his grief. As he went through the busy outer offices, down the elevator, and out the revolving door, he sensed the isolation felt in crowds, that disjointed sensation of being on the fringe of everything but in the center of nothing.
A whirl of questions blocked out the city’s racket. Who really called? Who wrote the obituary? Had his grandfather had heart trouble before? Why did he want me to think he was still working? Who the hell was that woman? Five blocks of questions.
He felt the abrupt grasp of a hand pulling him back, just as he heard the screech of brakes. He looked up to see an elderly man gripping the steering wheel as he leaned into the stop. Alarm, then relief flashed across the driver’s face. The young man at Luke’s side relaxed his grip, then rested his hand on his back. “You’re okay, man.”
His chest burned as he tried to catch his breath. He watched the man who had stopped him slip away into the crowd. The walk signal blinked at him, commanding him to move. One crosswalk away from this office.
As he stepped off of the curb, he saw her. She stood by the building’s entrance, waiting for him. The light changed, forcing him to hurry across to her. As he stood face to face with her, she seemed nothing like the mysterious figure that had unnerved him.
She looked to be in her mid-twenties, a few years younger than he, attractive, yet unsure of herself. Up close, she seemed to be the nervous one.
While she wore a beautifully tailored black wool coat, her shoes were scuffed, and she kept fiddling with the frayed strap of her shoulder bag. She stood waiting, as if expecting him to speak the first word.
Finally, she said softly, “Mr. Billings. I, I need to talk to you. I’ve just gone about it in the wrong way. I’m sorry.” She removed the bag from her shoulder and held it with both hands at her waist.
He resisted the urge to fire questions at her, afraid that he would intimidate her. Instead he said, “You know my name.”
She nodded. “Your grandfather told me. He showed me a photo, gave me your phone number and mentioned that you are an architect. But he only told me what he felt was necessary.”
“Yet you knew about his funeral when no one else did.” He realized how accusing he sounded and changed his tone. “Come inside, there’s a coffee shop off of the lobby, Miss...”
She seemed to relax a bit. “Miss James. Anna James.”
Too early for the lunch crowd, they had the place to themselves. He motioned her over to the back booth in hopes that he would not be interrupted by anyone from his office. As she slipped her coat from her shoulders, he noticed her tasteful gray suit, silk pink blouse and pearl necklace. Why would she put so much care into her outfit and yet still wear those shoes and carry that worn bag? He was no authority on fashion, yet he couldn’t help but notice.
She clasped her hands together and pressed them on the table in front of her. Once seated in the quiet setting, she let down her guard and began talking more freely. “I know it seems like I’m following you.”
“You have to admit, it was a bit strange seeing you on that bus.”
“Actually I was taking the bus in hopes that I might finally speak with you at your office. I went to the back as it was so crowded. You just appeared out of nowhere. I didn’t expect to run into you like that.”
“What about the funeral and the cemetery. You could have approached me then.” He was pushing again.
“Both times I lost my nerve. I realized I’d be intruding.”
“Intruding?” He felt his patience draining. “Miss James, just this morning I found out that my grandfather changed his funeral plans, at least I think he did. His best friend wasn’t told, yet someone pretending to be his secretary called to send his regrets. No one came to his funeral, except you, someone I don’t even know, who appeared out of nowhere — wasn’t that how you described me? Until I actually made real contact with you, you were beginning to make me a bit edgy to say the least.”
She raised her voice, “I’m Lily’s niece.”
“Lily... my grandfather’s housekeeper in Connecticut?”
She nodded. “About a year and a half ago, I spent two weeks with her. Your grandfather was always so kind to her and let family visit. Lily introduced me to him. Later he found out that I had taken a few paralegal courses, but had to put future classes on hold for lack of funds. Not only did he offer to pay for me to finish the courses, but from time to time, when his case load got heavy, I assisted him with research.
“This went on for about a year, and then six months ago he stopped asking me for legal assistance. At first I thought the firm had hired someone else, but he assured me that this was not the case.”
The waitress came to pour the coffee. Anna paused, then said hesitantly, “That’s when everything changed. He still wanted me to help him, but I was never comfortable with what he asked me to do.”
“After he left the firm?”
“He never mentioned that. He just asked me to be on call; I guess that’s how you’d describe it. That’s when he gave me your phone number and told me where you worked. I knew of you. There were photos at the house.”
“I’m not following you at all.”
“For the past six months, every Thursday evening, he would call and say, “It’s about to begin.” I would then wait for another call from him. Sometimes I’d hear from him within the hour. Other times, the call would come well into the night. It was always the same. ‘Thank you Miss James, my work is done. Sleep well.’ If I did not hear from him by the next morning, I was to call you and tell you to go out to the country house.”
Never had his grandfather broken the law. Unlike other lawyers, if he felt uncomfortable about a client, he would not take the case. If he didn’t believe in a corporation’s practice, he would decline representation as well. He couldn’t imagine that he had gotten himself into anything shady.
Anna James knew what he was thinking. “He insisted that he was doing nothing illegal.”
“Why did he go through you, why not just call me himself, or even Lily?”
“Whatever he was up to, it must have involved risk. Perhaps he thought I would not question him or get involved emotionally. Yet I did worry. He didn’t call last Thursday. “
He never regained consciousness. “And you didn’t contact me?” He watched her face stiffen.
“He never called me at all. My instructions were clear. I assumed he had changed his pattern that night, hence there would have been no need to contact you.”
“But when the worry factor kicks in, you think it’s okay to dart in and out of a funeral, pull a vanishing act into the woods and then take a chance that I would be in my office so you could finally talk to me? Why the hell didn’t you just call? How did you even know about the funeral?”
She looked at him as if waiting for some sign that he would not think too harshly of her. “I work for a florist now. That’s how I found out. I took the call that came in from Jensen’s. I wasn’t able to find a paralegal job right away. I needed the money and couldn’t afford the commute.” She lowered her gaze and picked up the coffee cup, but then set it back down again without taking a drink.
“So you showed up...”
“I showed up because I wanted you to know that whatever he was involved with might shed some light on his death.”
Luke realized that she was only trying to help. “I had hoped that Lily or the caretaker would know something. I haven’t been able to reach them.”
Copyright © 2008 by Lark Lucente