Thursday, May 31, 2012

Chapter 2, 11: Estate Planning

It may not surprise the reader to learn that I'm not very good at describing wedding dresses. Oh, the challenges we present ourselves with.

“How’s your shoulder?” Henry Wong spoke easily, considering that he was climbing straight up am icy scree-and-bunchgrass slope just this side of vertical.

Chris pulled at a fencepost to his left, testing his newly healed shoulder and the fence line at the same time. The post was solid. “As good as new. I never knew you could do that with qi.”

Henry sounded skeptical. “You were studying Eight Spirit Kung Fu and you never heard of Chinese traditional healing?”

Now Chris felt stupid. The truth was that he had tuned Master Lee out when he talked about that sort of stuff. Or, no, he felt more than stupid. He felt angry. “It’s stupid mumbo jumbo! My teacher went to Emergency when my Dad broke his leg, not some Chin-- some doofus. You can’t cure cancer with needles!”

The two of them continued climbing, carefully testing their footing each step, looking for animal sign on the ground and checking three fence posts more before Henry finally answered. “No, you can’t. Qi manipulation works with life, not against it, and cancer is life, just of a selfish kind. There was nothing you could do for your mother, Chris.

“I wasn’t talking about my Mom!” But Chris knew that he was lying. Henry must have known, too, because he didn’t reply for a long moment, while Chris gulped the cold, dry air and searched for calm.

“And even if you could, no-one is asking it of a sixteen-year-old. I only learned these things . . . last year.”

The long pause reminded Chris that he was talking with a time traveller (another time traveller, crazy as the idea still seemed to him), and another question. “Rose is trying to change her past, isn’t she?”

“And erase herself from existence. That’s a pretty hard trade to make, even for the sake of the entire future. I’m not sure that it’s worth it, and it certainly wouldn’t be for anything less.”

“Why do you keep bringing my Mom up?”

“I didn’t, Chris. You did. Now focus for a minute. What just happened to us?”

Chris was only too glad to think about anything other than his Mom dying. “The Empress of a Billion Dimensions or timelines or parallel universes or whatever sent special forces to steal a biology experiment out of a UPS truck.”

“Coming from?”



“That it was made there.”


“The Osoyoos Experimental Station.”

“Or somewhere else. There’s a community college in town, for example. But I agree that the Experimental Station is the way to bet. What do you think the “biology experiment” is?”

“The Apocalypse Plague.”

“Probably took a year longer to synthesise here than in Rose’s timeline. Too bad there’s so many mad scientists working out of the Station, or we’d be able to march right down there and close this case before we have to head back to the Bay."

“You mean that you’re not going to close the case?” Chris’ stomach lurched. The grownups were leaving it in his lap again, just like when –but he avoided that thought.

Henry sounded a little sad. “No, the Slug is up to something in San Francisco, and we need all hands on deck there. It’s just the way things are. There are more threats out there as there are people to take them on. At least this one seems straightforward. Find the scientist working on a war plague at the Station, and shut that lab down. Maybe there’ll even turn out to be a cure.”

By now the slope had levelled out and they were walking through a pine forest. As Henry finished, they stepped down on the road that connected the Benches to McKinney Ranch. The gate was closed, and the padlock on it was new and shiny. The cowboys were taking good care, Chris could see.

 “Now we’ll go down the west fenceline,” Henry said. Chris was a little disappointed. He still wanted to see the graveyard at the Second Bench, but only a little. He still wasn’t sure what he wanted to find there. From comments people had dropped, he knew that his father was now an undead lich, but that didn’t tell Chris when or how Dad had died, and who even knew whether that information would be on his headstone in the graveyard? If he even had a gravestone. And even if it did, and it was there, it would probably be in Chinese, and Chris’s Chinese was terrible. He reached into his pocket, to the pencil and etching paper that Charlotte had given him after giving up on teaching him how to use a camera phone. It looked like he wouldn’t need it today.

It took almost another hour to descend to the gate and then climb back up to the First Bench. Not surprisingly, everyone was waiting for them. It was cold, and their phone batteries were running out, and even the couples were getting a little less lovey-dovey. Not that Chris didn’t think that it served them right for being so disgustingly into each other. Stupid kids. Why couldn’t he have a girlfriend? Chris reached into his pocket and touched the sprig of mountain ash that he’d picked on the way up, with the three winter-withered berries that the birds hadn’t touched still on it. One berry picked, two berries picked; he was looking forward to the third.

“So warm," Charlotte said, as she settled into the Land Rover’s heated seats. They were first in, settling on the left hand side, so that they could get out quickly at Cherry Grove. “Did you get it?”

“Get what?” Rose innocently asked, as she slid in next to Charlotte. Charlotte turned to her friend, doing whatever it was that girls did when they wanted privacy from their friends.

“No,” Chris said. “We went up and down the fencelines. You know that.”

“Oh.” Charlotte was disappointed. “So what are you wearing to the Cricket Social, Rose?” Charlotte asked. Chris tuned the rest of the conversation out, staring out the window as the Land Rover lurched down the hillside and out onto the gravelled National Forest Road beyond. Say that he did take some kind of future medicine back to his Mom with a time machine. What would happen then?

Three miles down the Forest Road, the Land Rover took the turnoff to Cherry Grove, cutting down the slope into the wide meadow that sloped to Genesee Creek, with the wild chokecherry grove at the bottom, and the rambling old brown-and-white Victorian house in the middle. It was, of course, completely changed in all the expectedly unexpected ways, right down to the satellite dishes on the high, gabelled roof. That didn’t make Chris’ stomach feel any easier, as it turned again. A battered old pickup in Forestry Service surplus green and a white city car, a Cadillac, but with the lack of personal character that screamed “rental,” were the only vehicles in the drive. The first, Chris knew, would be his uncle’s beater. The other was equally familiar in pattern, if not detail. A lawyer was here.

Henry turned in the driver’s seat as Chris and Charlotte got out. “Are we going to see you guys at lunch?”

Chris shrugged. “I don’t know. Depends on my aunt and uncle.”

“Well, we’ll keep you some seats.”

Chris stepped up on the porch and unlatched and opened the screen door so that Charlotte could knock on the polished wood. One, two, three: “Shave and a haircut –two bits!” Uncle Jason used to love that.

The door opened immediately, as it always did. Uncle Jason or Aunt Sandra, or sometimes Grandpa Henry or even Uncle Jason’s parents, Springett and Evelyn, would be waiting for them by the time they reached the door. It had always made Jason feel welcome. Back when they were allowed to come to Cherry Grove.

Uncle Jason smiled and reached wide around Jason’s broad shoulders to wrap them up in a hug, just like he always had. “It’s good to have you two back at Cherry Grove! Sandra, it’s lunchtime!”

“Oh, but we’re expected at the Golden Dynasty,” Charlotte said.

“Nonsense! Your cousins have had you for weeks. We haven’t seen you in years!” Uncle Jason led them through the kitchen and into the dining room, where there were fresh scones piled on a table, and plates of sliced cheese and pickles. There would be soup in a minute, Jason remembered, thick and savoury. He was a little surprised, but grateful, that there was no sign of the lawyer. Uncle Jason’s lawyers were always smart and nice and funny. But aside from always making Jason feel guilty about laughing at lawyer jokes, that was irrelevant right now. He was just far gladder than he had ever thought he would be to see his aunt and his uncle again.

After the last scone had scooped up the last bit of homemade strawberry jam, and a bowl of Oroville Dairy Cooperative ice cream with chokecherry syrup, after the tea and the fresh donuts, it was finally time for business. Apparently, the reason that the lawyer had come this time was to talk to Chris and Charlotte. 

Uncle Jason led them up to his office in the north tower of the house, on the spiral staircase right below Grandpa Henry’s apartment, with its private staircase. On the landing, the painting of their Aunt Elizabeth in her wedding dress was still hanging. Jason remembered how sad it had made his grandfather to see it, and how he’d always been sharp and angry when people had suggested that it be taken down. “Let the ghosts walk!” He had shouted.

Chris and Charlotte walked into the office. It had changed, too, of course. The piles of books were still there, and the long table, piled high with maps, and the folding corkboard with its equally old photographs, but the manual typewriter at its desk was replaced by a computer on a rather larger desk, now arranged around a server and a printer rather than file drawers. But that wasn’t what was so overwhelmingly shocking. Nor was it the slim, middle-aged Black man with the expensive new haircut, wearing fashionably oblong glasses and a tweed jacket over a sweater vest who sat at the one corner of the table not take up by maps, his laptop in front of him and two cushioned chairs drawn up for them. No, it was the mannequin at the north end of the room, where it caught the full light of the winter sun through the south window, dressed in a white gown. Chris stared at it, trying to understand the emotions it raised in him.

The Black man spoke first. “Chris, Charlotte. So odd that we had to come all this way from Philadelphia to finally meet. I’m Ben Washington.”

“Tyrell’s dad?” Chris asked. And now that he thought about it, the similarities were obvious.

“Who better to deal with the wills and estates of superheroes and time travellers than a time traveller’s nephew?” Mr. Washington asked. At Mr. Washington’s side, an older Blackberry blared the Benny Hill saxophone theme. “Just a second. I’m afraid that I have to take this. After all, it’s your business.” Ben Washington punched something on his phone, and a speaker on their uncle’s desk snapped into life with an electronic click and began to spit words in an overly forceful, energetic way that somehow made Chris’ short hairs crawl, like there was something wrong down there. 

Fortunately, Chris had been in the Twenty-First Century long enough to know that he was listening to a crackhead, not some eldritch horror masked as human.

“Ben! Did you get the fax I sent you?”

“Yes, I did. Councillor, can this wait? I’m with some very old clients right now.”

“You’re just going to ignore this?”

“It’s a routine report from the Land Registry Office, Councillor. They’ll be closed until the New Year, even if there were anything urgent about it.”

“Nothing urgent! Look at it!”

“At what?”

“The three parcels that are being held up!”

“That’s certainly a problem for the Town of Osoyoos, Councillor, but not an unanticipated one. Those are 99 year leases that we’re trying to sell for redevelopment. After a hundred years, you should be glad that there’s only issues with a quarter of them.”

“A quarter? A quarter? It’s half the acreage!”

“Because most of it is a big orchard. Surrounding a community college campus and a research station, I might add. I told you that between having the Crown as a leaseholder and the Agricultural Land Reserve Act, we were unlikely to be able to redevelop that land as a mall.”

“What about the other two? I mean, come on! An Indian graveyard and an ecological reserve?”

“My information is that there’s no Indian graveyard on the Keremeos land. That’s the Band trying to stop your developer friends, who turn out to be planning to build a casino right next to their resort. Not very neighbourly of Mu Holdings, I must say. As for paving a unique pre-glacial ecosystem to build another duty free store, again, I can only say that we warned you.”

“Pre-whatchamacallit? Chinese Bar is just a Goddamn slough!”

“A slough in a hollow that at least two glaciations missed. There’s species in there that you can’t find anywhere else north of California, Councillor. That’s the kind of thing that the Ecological Reserve system was set up to protect.”

“Species of what? Frogs?”

“They’re all God’s creatures, Councillor. Can’t we just be happy that 9 of the twelve projects are proceeding? This is very good news for the town of Osoyoos.”

“And your clients.”

“And my clients.”

“This isn’t finished, Washington!” The speaker clicked.

“Chris, Charlotte. Do you watch much TV?”

“No, sir.”

“Good. A focus on more constructive past-times is definitely one of the virtues of your generation. It does, however, make it hard for me to wave my hand in the direction of lawyer shows on TV and warn you that lawyering is not nearly as glamorous as people like David Kelly make it look. You might get to fly off on a private jet, but it just means meeting with some idiotic politician when you could be spending Christmas Eve with your family.”

“What was all that about, sir?”

“There was quite the little fruit boom north of the border after 1910, and your great-grandfather signed some 99 year leases with speculators. Then the war came, and it all collapsed, and the leases have been pretty quiet.”

Mr Washington shook his head regretfully. “Now, however, we have to act on the very firm instructions of your grandfather. Chris, Charlotte, you’re going to be able to go to any college you want. Unfortunately, Henry failed to foresee how quickly tuition would rise, or how low interest rates would fall. So instead of rolling over the leases, we’ve been selling land to build up your trust fund. And, unfortunately, the City of Osoyoos has put this idiot in charge of getting it rezoned for development. I’ll spare you the tedious details, except to say that the developers that he’s fronting appear to be rather ruthless fellows, and, strangely enough, the problem deals are falling apart. It’s enough to make the Councillor think that someone is plotting against him.”

Mr. Washington smiled slightly. “So we’re selling some land. As I’m sure that you know, the Dawsons and the Wongs are descended from two sisters, and your parents reunited the families, so all of this is pretty important to your future as part-heirs to both estates. I’m very sorry to be selling off the leases, but they represent less than a fifth of the original Hudson’s Bay land grant, and a third of local Wong/Dawson land holdings. Although, frankly, I think that this a good time to be taking a breather from the Canadian real estate market, I understand that there are sentimental issues in play.”

Charlotte said, concerned. “You’re not selling off the Benches or Cherry Grove, are you?”

“No, it is nothing like that. Well, that is not strictly accurate. The Benches go to Jenny Wong as an inalienable trusteeship, per Mohawk law, so there's change there. However, you two are inheriting Cherry Grove as joint property. the Kharagtiday didn't leave any weird codicils on this land, and sale always makes probate easier. Hopefully, though, we have years yet before that happens, and my son will be handling the account. Most especially, I hope that we can put it off until the housing market has recovered.”

“Wait,” Chris said. “We’re inheriting Cherry Grove? What about Springett?”

“Springett is happy with the beach house. It’s far more valuable real estate, it’s closer to town, and he’s raised a family there.”

Again, Chris felt his short hairs crawl. Springett Dawson had been five the last time Chris had seen him, in 1969. What kind of 47-year old loser hadn’t raised a family? Chris didn’t even want to think about someone so pathetic.

“So why are we here, Mr. Washington?” Charlotte sounded positively businesslike.

“Well, to sign various papers, for one thing. But mainly because of this,” Mr Washington said, reaching under the table to lift a long, narrow parcel up onto its surface, “And this,” he said as he put the parcel down, gesturing at the mannequin on the north end of the room. “You recognise the dress?”

“No,” Chris said.

“It’s Aunt Elizabeth’s wedding dress from the painting, isn’t it?” Charlotte said.

“I believe so.”

“Can I touch it?”

“Go ahead. Chris, you may unwrap this.”

Chris began to unwrap the parcel. The outer layer was thick, greaseproof butcher’s paper; but, within, it was oiled rags. Chris was beginning to suspect what it was as he came to some ancient twine and began puzzling out a strange, many-looped knot. Charlotte, he was distantly aware, had jumped up and run to the mannequin.

“The embroidery is incredible. It’s all silk, isn’t it? Oh! Except the bonnet, of course. The veil detaches, doesn’t it? Are those real pearls on the bosom and the sleeves?” Chris heard Charlotte distantly, far more distantly than the length of the room, because he had finally opened the parcel to see the ancient sword within, with its carefully-worked, rippling white metal blade and the characters etched on the blade in some elaborate version of Old Chinese.

“Where? What? Is this a family heirloom?”

“To a point. The sword is made in the Warring Kingdoms style out of a metal not seen on the surface of the Earth since Atlantis sank, and your family doesn’t go that far back, to put it mildly. Charlotte, the pearls are real. Everything about that gown is real. And it’s yours.”

“Mine? What about my cousins?”

“I am only repeating what is in your grandfather’s will. “The gown goes to Charlotte, and the Blue Sword goes to Chris.”

“The sword is white, though,” Chris pointed out.

“It has blue highlights in the metal,” Mr. Washington pointed out.

“I guess…” Chris said, dubiously.

“But why are you giving these to us now, Mr. Washington?”

“It has been foretold that they have to go to Philadelphia now.” Mr. Washington sounded uncomfortable about that.

“Foretold? Are you for reals?” Charlotte snorted.

“Please. I’m not allowed to say any more. Now we’d better get a move on if we are going to pack up that gown and get you down to Genesee before your cousins are done.”

Charlotte laughed. “Okay, now I know you’re fibbing, Mr. Washington. Those guys won’t leave the Golden Dynasty ‘till Miss Bryce chases them out.”

“Fair enough. The truth is that I want to be with my family to open presents, and unlike some people, I have to fly home.”
“The sword and the gown?” Chris asked.

“Go with you. I’m not kidding about events being foretold. You’ll need that sword before the sun sets in Philadelphia.”

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