The Last Chance Matinee
Peter J. Wheeler sat at the shiny Honduran mahogany desk in his high-rise paneled law office in Center City Philadelphia rehearsing what he would say to the beneficiaries of his best friend’s will once they arrived. There’d be no easy or pleasant way to get through the next few hours, and if he hadn’t loved the deceased like a brother, he would’ve killed Fritz Hudson with his own two hands for putting him in this position. Over the years, Pete had been called upon to clean up a good number of messes on Fritz’s behalf, but this . . . this was . . .
Cowardly. There was no way around it. Fritz was an out-and-out coward. He’d gone ahead and died and left his old buddy Pete to do his dirty work. Not that Pete didn’t owe Fritz—he’d be the last person to deny that—but still. Weren’t there limits to repaying a debt?
“Mr. Wheeler, Ms. Monroe and Miss Hudson have arrived,” Marjorie, the firm’s receptionist, announced through the intercom.
Send them away. Far, far away . . .
“Send them in.”
Pete stood and adjusted his cuffs for something to do with his hands, mentally preparing for the reading of the will—and the breaking of the news.
The door opened and Fritz’s daughters, Allie and Des, walked in, smiling and offering hugs and kisses on the cheek. It wasn’t a secret that their father’s estate was quite substantial, and Pete had no doubt the two women were already mentally spending their shares.
“Allie, Des. Great to see you girls,” he said, before reminding himself of the somber reason for their presence. He cleared his throat and assumed a solemn expression. “Again, my condolences to you both.”
“And to you as well.” Des gave his hand a squeeze. “Since you were closer to Dad than either of us, I suppose you’ll miss him more than anyone else.”
“I’d give anything to have him here with us today.” So I could wring his neck the way I should have when he was alive. Or at the very least, if he were here today, he could do his own dirty work.
“I’m sure.” Allie looked around the office. “New décor? I like it.”
“Thanks. All that leather and those prints of English hunting dogs were starting to get to me.” He smiled to himself.
Six months ago, Fritz had stood in the middle of Pete’s office with his hands on his hips. “Don’t you think it’s time for all that tired old ‘tally ho!’ stuff to go, Pete? I’m pretty sure that style went out in the nineties.”
I should’ve tied him to a chair right then and there, dialed the phone, handed it to him, and not let him up until he’d come clean with his kids. All his kids.
“Allie, how’s Nikki doing? The new school working out for her?”
Pete offered a chair to the tall, slender blonde, who seemed a bit on edge.
“She’s doing just fine, thank you.”
“Oh, I’m great.” The sarcasm in Allie’s voice was unmistakable. “Except that the TV show I was working on was canceled and I’m going to have to sell my house because I can’t afford the upkeep and my half of Nikki’s private school tuition. Other than that, I’m just swell.”
“I’m sorry things aren’t better for you right now. But you have a lot of directing credits, right?”
“Assistant directing,” she corrected.
“Still, you have a recognizable name. I’m sure someone will call.” He tried to be encouraging, but could see by her expression that she wasn’t buying it.
“Well, once Dad’s estate is settled, you’ll be able to turn things around.” Des, who was three years younger and four inches shorter than her sister, hadn’t waited for a chair to be offered before she sat. “That’s what this is all about, right, Uncle Pete?”
“Ahhh . . . well . . . yes, but . . .” he stammered. No rehearsal would have been adequate to prepare him for what was ahead this morning.
It was then that Allie pointed to the third chair in front of the desk.
She frowned. “Is someone joining us?”
Before Pete could respond, Marjorie tapped on the door, then opened it. “Mr. Wheeler . . .”
“Ah . . . yes.” He walked around the desk as a petite woman with curly light auburn hair entered the office. “Cara. Come in, please.” He embraced her as he had the others. “Have a seat.”
With puzzled expressions, Allie and Des turned to face the newcomer.
“Allie. Des. This is Cara McCann.” He took a deep breath and prepared for the shit storm that was about to occur. “Your half sister.” He turned to Cara. “Cara, meet Allegra Monroe and Desdemona Hudson. Your half sisters.”
The silence that followed could not have been more intense. The three women stared first at Pete, then at each other for what seemed to be an eternity.
Finally, Allie cleared her throat, and with a death stare aimed at Pete, said, “What the hell, Uncle Pete?”
“The hell is that your father lived a double life. On the West Coast, he had Nora and the two of you,” he said, addressing Allie and Des. Turning to Cara, he added, “And on the East Coast . . .”
“He had Susa and me,” Cara said quietly, her face white, her hands clasped tightly in her lap, and her eyes on him. “Obviously, that’s the short version. Surely there’s more.”
“The long version isn’t much different. It’s just a matter of filling in the blanks.”
“Then I suggest you do that.” Des folded her arms across her chest, an I’m waiting expression on her face.
“This is why he didn’t want a service or a memorial of any kind,” Cara said. “He wanted a quick cremation so we wouldn’t meet at his graveside.”
“Sad but true. When he realized how close he was to the end, he added a codicil to his will that he’d be cremated immediately and that you would not be notified until after the cremation.”
“Start from the beginning,” Allie said, still glaring. “And maybe at some point you could toss in an explanation of why Dad kept this secret to himself.”
Pete sighed deeply. “If I told him once, I told him a thousand times that this was a stupid way to live. That he needed to come clean, to tell Nora that he was going to go through with the divorce. That he’d met someone who made him happy.” He glanced at Cara, his voice softening. “Your mother made your father very happy, Cara.”
“So you’re saying he didn’t love our mother and she made him miserable?” Allie snapped.
“Well, of course she did.” Des turned to her sister. “We both know that. Come to think of it, she made both of us pretty miserable, too. How long can you love someone who makes you feel sad, inadequate, and unloved all the time?”
“That’s our mother you’re talking about, Des. The woman who gave birth to us.”
“And regretted that she did. Let’s face it. Mom liked the idea of children way more than she ever liked actually having children. When she could whip us out in front of a camera to smooth out her image after she’d been on a bender, we served a purpose. Other than that, she really didn’t have much use for either of us.”
Before Allie could respond, Cara leaned forward and said, “Wait . . . back up. I think I may have missed something. Go back to the part where you told Dad he had to tell . . . the other woman he was going through with the divorce.”
“Careful, missy.” Allie trained a lethal glance in Cara’s direction. “That ‘other woman’ is our mother. And since she and Dad were never divorced, I believe it’s your mother who’s ‘the other woman.’?”
“Is that true, Uncle Pete? Was Dad still married to their mother when he married mine?” Cara’s stare ate right through him, and he knew that one of the moments he’d dreaded most was upon him.
He walked around his desk to sit on the right corner opposite Cara’s chair. “Well, technically . . . yes.”
“What does that mean? Either he was divorced or he wasn’t when he and Susa were married.” Cara’s eyes bored into Pete’s. “Was my father divorced from his first wife when he married my mother?”
“Did my mother know that?”
“I . . . I can’t say for sure . . .” Pete mumbled. God, how he hated Fritz at that moment.
Unexpectedly, Cara laughed. “Of course you can. You knew everything about him.”
“I think he meant to tell her, in the beginning. But he fell so hard for Susa that as time went on, it became harder and harder to tell her. He wanted to make her happy, wanted to marry her.” He shrugged. “So he did.”
“How could he have married her mother when he was still married to ours?” Des asked. “Don’t you have to apply for a license? Aren’t there some sort of checks or something?”
Pete shrugged. “I honestly don’t know how he got around all that. He just showed up one morning with a bottle of champagne in one hand and two glasses in the other. Asked me to drink a toast to his new bride.” Pete paused. If he closed his eyes, he could still see the light in Fritz’s eyes. There was no doubt that he’d been happier than Pete had ever seen him, and definitely head over heels in love.
“And you said . . . ?” Allie gestured for Pete to get on with it.
“I don’t remember exactly what I said, but I’m sure it was something to the effect of . . . well, to quote you, Allie, ‘What the hell?’?”
“Did you ask him about Mom? Did you ask him when
he had filed for a divorce?” Des asked pointedly. “Though I would suspect that as his lawyer, you should’ve had a hand in that.”
“I did ask, and he hemmed and hawed, the way he did when he didn’t want to talk about something.” He glanced at each woman before adding, “I think you all know what I mean.”
The three women nodded.
“So what you’re saying is that he was a bigamist.” Cara was on the verge of tears. “How could he have done something like that to my mother?”
“Your mother?” Allie snorted. “What about our mother?”
“Did Mom know, Uncle Pete?” Des asked quietly.
“As far as I’m aware, he never told her.”
“Probably because they rarely spoke to each other.” Allie leaned back in her chair. “So can we cut to the chase? What does this all mean in terms of Dad’s will?”
“We find out that Dad had another wife and child and all you can think about is how this news is going to impact your inheritance?” Des asked.
“Of course it’s going to have an impact, assuming that Dad’s named her in his will,” Allie replied. “And I’m assuming he did, or she wouldn’t be here and there’d have been no need for this big revelation. Which, frankly, I couldn’t care less about. So Dad had a mistress and they had a kid together and—”
“She wasn’t his mistress,” Cara snapped, whirling to face Allie.
“Where I come from, if a woman cohabitates with a married man—”
“She didn’t know he was married. She couldn’t have known. She never would have . . .” Cara stood. “She wouldn’t have . . .”
She choked back tears. “You didn’t know my mother. You don’t know who or what she was.”
Allie stared out the window behind Pete’s desk. “Oh, I have a pretty good idea of what she was.”
“Allie, stop,” Des exclaimed. “Don’t go there.”
“Why not? What would you call her? She was sleeping with another woman’s husband and had a child with him.”
“Drop it, Allie,” Pete said simply. More gently, he said, “Cara, sit down. There’s more you all need to know.”
All three women turned to him as if on cue.
“Wait, don’t tell me,” Allie said dramatically. “There’s a third woman out there. . . .”
Would it surprise him if there were? Pete pushed the thought from his head, returned to his chair, and took a deep breath. “Let me start by saying the three of you are the beneficiaries of Fritz’s will, with one—”
Allie interrupted. “Equal beneficiaries? Her too?”
“Yes. Equal.” He rested his forearms on the desk. “It’s a three-way split, and that is ironclad. I know because I wrote your father’s will. So get over it.”
When Allie opened her mouth—apparently not ready to let it go—Des said, “Oh, for crying out loud. Dad was pretty well-off, Al. He’d been a well-known entertainment agent and manager in Hollywood for years. One-third of his investments alone would keep even you in Jimmy Choos for a long, long time.” She glanced at Pete. “Right, Uncle Pete?”
He nodded. “Yes. Your father left a large estate. The sum you’re each going to inherit will be significant. Assuming that you meet the rest of the conditions.”
“What conditions?” Cara asked warily.
Now came the hard part. Pete cleared his throat again and
launched into the part of the disclosure that he’d rehearsed over and over.
“Your father loved all of you very much. I know he didn’t always go out of his way to show it.” He directed these remarks to Allie and Des.
“That’s an understatement,” grumbled Allie. “If you call an occasional phone call proof of how much he loved us.” She tossed a dagger at Cara. “Of course, now we know why he was so preoccupied.”
Cara started to protest, but Pete raised a hand. “Trust me, there will be plenty of time to snipe at each other later.”
“That sounds ominous,” Des said.
Pete continued on with his speech. “As I said, your father loved you all. He wanted more than anything for you to know and love each other.”
“Which is why he kept her a secret.” Allie pointed in Cara’s direction.
“He didn’t tell me about you, either,” Cara countered.
“Ladies. Please.” Pete placed a hand on the top of his head, a habit once intended to smooth back his hair, which was now pretty much gone.
“If it was so important to him that we know each other, why didn’t he tell us himself?” Cara asked.
“Because at his core, he was a coward.” There. He’d said it. “He just couldn’t face you. I think he believed it didn’t matter so much because Nora was gone. Cara, after Susa died, he couldn’t face you with the truth. So he let it go and was convinced that the right time would present itself. As you know, it never did.”
“So what comes next?” Des asked softly.
“Your father wanted you all to share in not only his wealth, but in his life.”
“A little late on that score,” Allie scoffed.
“Something he came to very much regret at the end, believe me. He became obsessed with wanting you to know each other. Which is why he left a challenge for the three of you. If you’re successful, you inherit his entire estate. If you fail, you get nothing.”
The pronouncement was met with silence and blank stares.
Finally, Allie said, “Please tell us you’re kidding.”
“I assure you, I’m not. Nor was this my idea, by the way,” Pete told them. “Believe me. I did everything I could to talk him out of this. But he’d gotten it into his head that this was the way to—”
“What kind of challenge?” Cara blurted.
“Something along the lines of the twelve labors of Hercules would be my guess.” Allie folded her arms over her chest.
“Close, Allie. He wants the three of you to restore an old theater in his hometown. Together.”
“Say that again?”
“Restore a theater? Had he lost his mind?”
Pete let the three of them vent for several minutes.
“If you’ve finished with your rantings, I’d like to continue.” He glanced from Allie to Des to Cara and back again. When it appeared they’d settled down, he continued. “The theater was built by your great-grandfather Reynolds Hudson. It’s an Art Deco treasure and belongs on the National Register of Historic Places.”
“What if the owner doesn’t want it restored?” Cara asked.
“Fritz owned it. It’s now part of the estate you stand to inherit. As I said, his grandfather built it, and the family still
owned it up until about twenty years ago. The new owner had plans to completely renovate it, but grossly underestimated the cost and ran out of money before he could finish,” Pete explained. “When it was slated for demolition about a year ago, Fritz bought it back. He felt he’d let his father and grandfather down by allowing the building to pass out of the family in the first place. The fact that the building itself has fallen into its present state bothered him right to the end because it’s part of his family legacy.”
“Why did he sell it in the first place, then, if it’s so important?” Des asked. “All I ever heard was that when he was young, he worked in a theater and he met Mom there.”
“I never heard about it at all,” Cara added. “And he never mentioned his family to me.”
“Me either, come to think of it,” Des said. “Allie?”
“Time for a little history lesson, girls.” Pete settled into his chair. “The Hudson family was instrumental in settling Hidden Falls, a small town in Pennsylvania. Fritz’s grandfather owned several coal mines in the area back when coal was a big deal. Reynolds made a fortune and felt it was his responsibility to put his money into the town for the benefit of everyone who lived there.”
“So he built a theater?” Allie asked.
“Among other things. He also gave money to build the county’s first hospital, and a college in the area that was free for the children of his miners. The local elementary school was built on land he donated. The family always took pride in the fact that the Molly Maguires stayed out of Hidden Falls when so many other mines were targeted for attacks by the group protesting the conditions the miners had to work and live under.”
“So he was quite the philanthropist,” Cara said thoughtfully.
“He was. The mines have been closed for a long time, and the family fortunes took a dive during the 1930s, but Fritz’s father—your grandfather, also named Reynolds—kept the theater going. Ran films once every other week, invited everyone in town to come for free. His wife got her friends together and started a local theater group for adults and kids. Times were pretty grim, but the theater gave people something fun to do. Every month they could see a new play, always free. Oh yes, the theater was an integral part of the town.” Pete paused. “I remember my dad talking about going as a child with his whole family all dressed up for an enchanted night out. The Sugarhouse—that’s the theater—holds a very special place in the town’s history.”
“No wonder Dad felt like he’d dropped the ball.” Des nodded.
“So you understand where your father was coming from. He really did have all intentions of restoring the theater himself, went so far as to begin to solicit a few estimates for the work that would need to be done and actually did begin the work on some of the mechanics. I don’t know how far he got with that, because it soon became apparent that he wasn’t going to live to see the project through.” Pete hesitated, remembering the last days with his friend. He waited for the lump in his throat to ease a bit before continuing. “So perhaps you’ll understand why he made it a condition of your inheritance that the building be restored and returned to use as a theater again.”
“It must’ve been the meds he was on. They made him delusional,” Allie said. “He obviously wasn’t thinking straight.”
“Oh, believe me, he knew exactly what he was doing. We talked it through, every which way,” Pete assured her.
“Then why didn’t you talk him out of it?” Allie demanded.
“What can I say? You know your father: He was never going to be talked out of this. He thought this was the way to kill two birds with one stone. You get to know each other and the Sugarhouse gets restored. It was win-win.”
“Ignoring the obvious problems with that, how did he expect us to accomplish this?” Allie asked. “Surely he didn’t expect . . . Where is this place again?”
“Hidden Falls, Pennsylvania,” Pete replied. “You know your dad and I grew up together in Pennsylvania, right?”
“I knew he was from somewhere in Pennsylvania, but Dad never wanted to talk about his childhood. Is Hidden Falls anywhere near Philadelphia? Or Pittsburgh?” Des inquired.
“Or any civilized city?” Allie held up crossed fingers.
“It’s in the Poconos. Population . . .” Pete paused. “Actually, I have no idea what the population is these days, but it probably isn’t much.”
“The Poconos? Aren’t they mountains?” Allie wrinkled her nose in obvious distaste. “Wait. Not the place with all those tacky heart-shaped bathtubs?”
“That’s right.” Pete smiled. “The honeymoon capital of the world.”
“Well, I have no intention of playing this silly game.” Allie turned to the other two women. “Either or both of you can play along, but I for one—”
“Will inherit nothing,” Pete cut in. “As a matter of fact, none of you will inherit anything. The money will then go to charities of my choosing.”
Allie wheeled around, ready to explode. Before she could speak, Pete said, “If any one of you refuses, or leaves before the theater is restored, none of you will inherit a dime.”
“All for one and one for all,” Des muttered.
“You said ‘leaves,’?” Cara said cautiously. “Leaves where?”
“While you’re working on this project, you’ll live together in your father’s family home, the house your great-grandfather built.”
“Not gonna happen.”
“You cannot be serious.”
“Couldn’t be more serious,” Pete told them.
“Live with her? You can’t mean it.” A clearly horrified Allie glared at Cara.
“Which means I would have to live with the two of you,” Cara replied. “Frankly, I think I’m getting the worse end of the deal.”
“Okay, let’s say we agreed to do this,” Des pondered aloud. “How are we supposed to pay for this renovation? I’m assuming if the building had been on someone’s demo list, it must need a lot of work. Where’s the money coming from?”
“From the estate. Your dad put money aside for the project in a special account. Might be a good idea to choose one of you to be in charge of the checkbook, because if you go over what he projected, it’ll be up to you to come up with the rest of the funds.” He pointed his pen in Des’s direction. “Des, that might be a good job for you. Your dad told me many times how well you’ve handled the money you made from your TV series. How wisely you invested.”
Cara frowned. “What TV series?”
“Long story,” Des told her. “Apparently we’ll have lots of time to catch up.”
“So Dad just expected us to waltz out of our lives to do a job he should have done.” Allie voiced what the other two clearly were thinking. “We have lives, you know. What about my daughter?
This is outrageously inconvenient and thoughtless of him.”
“Your daughter can live with her father until school is out.” Pete’s patience was nearing its end. “As for you, you’re unemployed, with no immediate prospects, and on the verge of losing your house. So if you ask me, it’s a plenty convenient time for you.” She started to object, but Pete cut her off.
“Des, you’re living off your investments and don’t have to work, and you won’t be leaving much behind this time of the year except the Montana winter.”
He turned to Cara. “You own your business and have a remarkably qualified assistant who’s been begging to buy in for the past year. Now’s a good time to see how she’d do as a potential partner.” He looked around at the three of them. “There’s no real hardship involved for any of you, when you get right down to it. This is your father’s last wish. Complying is all that stands between you and your inheritance.”
“I still can’t believe he’s serious.” Allie turned to Des. “Why don’t we get our own lawyer and contest it? There has to be a way around this. I can’t believe you’d do this to us, Uncle Pete.”
“I’m not doing anything but what your father wanted. He was my best friend, and I do see there was a method to his madness. But suit yourselves.” Pete opened a desk drawer and removed three envelopes. Handing one to each of the women, he said, “Here’s a copy of the will. Please feel free to take it to the attorney of your choice. But you’ll be wasting time and money. When I said the will was ironclad, I meant it.”
The three women stared at the envelopes, but none opened theirs.
“I still don’t understand why he did this,” Cara said.
“Well, I’ve tried to explain it all as best I could.” Pete reached into the open drawer and took out a small device. “Now it’s time you hear directly from your dad.”
“What?” Cara asked.
“Your father left an audio letter for you. He wanted me to play it after I’d gone over the terms of his will.” He clicked a switch and sat back. A moment later, the women heard their father’s voice.
“Is this thing on? Pete, is it on?”
“It’s on, Fritz. Go ahead.”
“Okay. Well, girls, if you’re listening to this—and if old Pete here has done his sworn duty to me—I’m ashes in a jar, and the three of you have just been hit with a bombshell. I owe each of you an apology, for things I did and didn’t do. There isn’t time enough for me to go into every way I’ve failed you, but please know that I am sorry to my soul for not being the father you all deserve. Know that I love the three of you more than anything in this world . . . this world, the next world. Whichever world I land in.” He chuckled at his attempt to make a joke, then coughed.
A moment passed before he resumed. “I want you to understand that I loved your mothers, both of them, in my own way, and in their own time. Don’t think for a minute that any of my actions were the result of anything you did. Allie, I’m talking to you especially here. You just remember that last conversation we had and remember what I told you.” He paused and coughed again. When he resumed speaking, his voice was a bit weaker. “Des, I’m sorry for not standing up to your mother when you needed me to. I shouldn’t have let her bully you into doing things you didn’t want to do.” More coughing. “Cara Mia, I’m sorry for the lies. Sorry that I let you and Susa live a lie for all these years. Sorry that I . . .” Cough, cough.
“That I left all this in Pete’s lap.” The voice grew faint, as if Fritz had turned from the recorder. “Pete, you’re the best friend a guy ever had. I love you like a brother. . . .” Again a cough, longer, harsher this time.
Then, Pete’s voice. “Fritz, that’s enough.”
“No. I need to tell them about the theater. Why it matters.”
“I’ll tell them.”
“I promise. I’ll tell them.” A heavy sigh from Pete. “Say goodbye, Fritz.”
An even heavier sigh from Fritz. “Goodbye, girls. Be good to each other. Trust each other and yourselves. Do what I ask you to do, and all will be well in the end. I promise. Love you. Always.”
Pete wiped his eyes and turned off the recorder. The only sound in the room was the sniffling of the three women as tears ran down their faces. He handed Cara a box of tissues. She took several and passed the box on to Des, who shared it with Allie.
When they finally all composed themselves, Cara pointed to the now-silent recorder. “When did he make that?”
“The afternoon before he died,” Pete replied.
“When did he tell you that he was sick?” Des asked.
“The same day he found out,” Pete admitted. “He had very little time to put his house in order.”
“What happened to his ashes?” Cara asked.
Pete pointed to a large, shiny silver urn on the top shelf of a bookcase across the room.
“You mean he’s here?” Allie’s eyes widened. “He’s been here this entire time?”
“In a sense, yes.” Pete watched in amusement as all three women turned and stared at the urn. “I know this has all
come as a huge shock to you, and I know that what your dad asked of you is . . . well, unusual, to say the least. But once the theater is up and running again, you’ll bury his cremains in his family’s cemetery next to his parents. Then you’ll all be free to go about your lives and you’ll never have to see each other again.”
He waited for someone to comment. When no one did, he continued.
“Okay. Also inside your envelopes, you’ll find directions to the house in Hidden Falls. Your father gave you each one month from today to arrive at that address. I remind you that all three of you must arrive on that date, or none of you will get a dime. If any one of you leaves before the theater is finished, the money goes to charity. I hope I made that clear.” He stood, feeling satisfied. He’d kept his final promises to his old friend. “Any last questions?”
No one spoke.
“Good. Well, don’t hesitate to call if you think of anything. Otherwise, I expect you’ll all comply with your dad’s wishes.”
“All righty, then.” Pete walked to the door and opened it. “Keep in touch, girls. Let me know how it goes.”
Pete hugged each of the three women and planted a kiss on their heads as they filed wordlessly out of the office. He walked them to the elevator, pushed the button for down, and stood aside as the three silently entered the car together. When the door slid closed, he walked back to his office, relieved that his part in Fritz’s mess was, for the time being, over.
“How’d it go?” Marjorie asked as he passed her desk.
Pete rolled his eyes.
“As we suspected,” she replied. “Well, it’s certainly going to be interesting to watch this play out.”
“You think they’ll be able to do it?”
“Once they come around to the idea, sure. Whether or not they can without killing each other . . .” Pete shrugged.
“Did you tell them about Barney?”
“Nope. Left that part out.” Pete entered his office, adding over his shoulder, “There should be something for them to discover on their own.”