On Harry’s last visit, Norma Dinnick wore a flaming red wig and served sherry in crystal glasses. Despite her advanced age of eighty-seven, she chatted brightly about the stock market and the roses in her garden. Hearing loss seemed to be her only trouble.
Arriving at her apartment house, he prepared himself for another loud, but lively hour of banter. He rapped sharply and waited.
“Go away! My mind is filled with holes,” she cried out from behind the door.
He frowned. “It’s me, Harry Jenkins, your lawyer. You asked me to come.”
Straining to listen, he heard the awkward shuffle of slippers on the bare floor. Her tiny whimpers made him think of a frightened, caged animal. The door handle rattled, and metal scraped on metal until the door creaked open. Just above the knob, suspicious eyes peered out.
“Who are you?” she demanded.
“For heaven’s sake, Norma, it’s me, Harry.”
“Where’s your beard then?”
“What? I’ve never had a beard!” Without thinking, Harry rubbed his chin and pushed back the strands of his thinning hair from his forehead.
“Are you the plumber? Show me your card.”
Sighing, Harry took his business card from his suit pocket. “It’s me, Harry Jenkins, your lawyer.”
“We have an appointment about your will,” he reminded her. Suspicious and confused, she stood before him in a faded green housedress stitched up at the shoulder with black thread.
“Well, come in then.” She backed away from the door, giving him just enough room to enter.
Harry stood speechless as he surveyed the apartment. A naked bulb swayed gently from a broken fixture and cast shifting shadows across the once elegant living room. He saw the outlines of her furniture, now draped with dingy bedsheets. Oddly, all the lamps had lost their shades and, in the dining room, the mahogany buffet sat buried under piles of old newspapers.
Once seated, Norma seemed to forget him.
“Norma, what on earth’s happened?” he asked.
She occupied herself with picking fussily at the arm of the settee, as if to remove creatures visible only to her.
Sitting beside her, he asked gently, “Are you all right?”
She tilted her tiny face upward to the light and gazed out the window. “I think it’s safe to talk now,” she whispered.
“Safe? Is someone listening?”
Pointing at the ceiling, she said crossly, “You should have come in the back way. Now they’ve seen you, they’ll be quiet.”
As far as he knew, Norma had only one remaining tenant: a shy and silent man named Grieves. Last year her investments did so well that she decided to close the other five suites, not needing the income or the worry.
“And they’ve not paid one cent of rent!”
Harry dutifully made a note. “You mean Mr. Grieves?” he asked.
Norma shook her head. “No. The ones directly above me.”
“But that apartment is empty.”
“And furthermore, they listen in on my phone.”
Sadly, Harry shook his head. Only months ago, Norma’s blue eyes had sparkled with lively intelligence and her knowing laugh accompanied a razor-like wit. Now she rocked back and forth beside him, glassy-eyed.
“How do they listen in?” he asked. Although the paranoid delusions of the elderly held little humor, Harry struggled to suppress a smile at the absurdity of imaginary tenants. He knew a lucid mind could inexplicably drift without warning into madness.
She seemed lost, focusing on the flickering shadows at the window.
“How many tenants are in the building?” he asked, although he held out little hope that his client’s problem could be solved by a Landlord and Tenant court application.
She shook her head fiercely. “Just the ones above me!”
“Have you seen them?”
“No! But I hear them every night, carousing like drunken sailors.” Again, her fingers chased the invisible creatures running amok on the arm of the settee. When she glanced up at him, he saw a glimmer of the old intelligence in her eyes.
“Do you think Archie’s causing all the trouble?” she asked. “I think he’s trying to drive me mad so I can’t change my will.”
Harry, who did not want to worry her, spoke reluctantly, “Actually, Archie called to tell me not to come today. He claimed you didn’t want a new will and that you didn’t have the capacity to make one.”
Her eyes flashed in anger. “Of course! That greedy lout will suck me dry. He even wants the shares my Arthur left me.”
“What shares, Norma?” He couldn’t recall any share certificates in Arthur’s estate.
“George Pappas-that dangerous animal-is after them too!
“Who is he?” Although the name was unfamiliar, he dutifully jotted it down.
“Vicious,” she shivered, drawing inward like a shrinking flower.
Harry took her hand.
When she resurfaced, she asked, “Will you come upstairs to see where the trouble is, Harry?”
“Are the tenants in?”
“I don’t think so.”
Fussing with a jumble of keys, Norma teetered to the top of the narrow stairs. At the door, Harry knocked sharply. He could hear the accusations in court. Unauthorized entry by landlord, with her solicitor in tow. With exasperated sighs, Norma worked one key after another until the door swung open into the silent room.
Light flooded through the extraordinarily large bay window. Harry set his briefcase down and drew in the cool, musty air. He looked through the living room, dining room and on into the kitchen. His view of the apartment was entirely unobstructed by rugs, drapes or furniture. Dust motes floated in the light and the silence was broken only by laughter of children playing in the street below. Norma stood off to one side, dwarfed by the cold and empty fireplace.
“Please, Harry, you must get them out. They’re driving me mad.”
“But Norma,” he said quietly, “I don’t see anyone.” He edged closer to her.
Her face puckered with annoyance. He thought she might stamp her foot. “Of course not! They’re only here at night.”
“But I don’t see any furniture, either.” Harry knew that his client was at least partially delusional. Fortunately, the law recognized that you could still make a will even if you saw the occasional apparition.
Norma’s lower lip trembled as she muttered “Those cursed shares! Must I pay for them forever?”
Gently, he touched her shoulder and felt her whole body shaking. “What shares do you mean, Norma?”
“Please. You must get the tenants out. I can’t stand it any longer.”
“All right, Norma.” He put his arm around her. “I’ll try my best,” he concluded doubtfully, wondering how to give legal notice to a phantom.
“Thank you, Harry.”
Downstairs, over tea, she seemed more her old self. He probed gently, asking if she still wanted to discuss her will.
She nodded vigorously. “Archie’s to get only a quarter—not half—the estate, and Bronwyn Saunderson the rest.”
Clear enough in regard to beneficiaries, he thought. “Is Bronwyn related to you?”
“She’s my goddaughter. I knew her mother well when we were just starting out. Young and foolish, we were!”
Harry made a note. Desire to benefit a goddaughter was sufficient reason to cut down Archie’s share. After all, the man was only Arthur’s business associate and her executor. Although she was clearly delusional about her tenants, when it came to will- making; the law only required she be aware of the approximate size of her estate and the natural objects of her bounty, that is, her next of kin. With no children of her own, or nieces or nephews who might inherit, Bronwyn would be the logical choice the courts would honor.
“If you’re concerned about Archie, do you still want him as your executor?”
Norma reached for his hand. “No, I want you, Harry. I know you’ll look after me.”
“About these shares …”
Confusion spread across her face. “Goodness! Sometimes I get muddled up. I must have been thinking of something else.”
“Who’s this George Pappas?”
“That dangerous man!” she declared. “Arthur had such strange business associates.” She lapsed into silence.
Harry stared at his client before closing his briefcase. She was perfectly clear in her intent to benefit her goddaughter, and Brinks had no moral or legal claim to anything at all. “I’ll be back in a few days with the new will. I’ll bring my secretary, Miss Giveny, as a witness.”
She clasped his hands. “Good. But you will do something about the tenants?”
Harry frowned as he stood at the door. “First, I’ll have to find them, Norma.”
Once outside in the foyer, he heard the scrape and screech of wires being wound around latches. A deadly security precaution, especially in the event of fire, he thought.
Harry paused on his way down the front steps. Coming in, he had not noticed the vines and bushes choking off the light from the apartments or the wild grasses growing through the cracks in the steps. Arthur would be dismayed at the dilapidation of his once impressive apartment building. As he drove off, he wondered what to do about the nonexistent tenants.
Taking the long route downtown, he was plagued with visions of Norma creeping upstairs to the completely empty apartment. Stuck in a line of cars, he sighed. Dundas Street was a jumble of cars and delivery trucks, overhead wires and tracks for streetcars. But, surrounded by the chaos of life in downtown Toronto, he felt safe and contained.
His mind wandered back to Norma’s husband, Arthur, who was a professor when Harry was at law school. A tall and somber man, he had been an inspiration to all first-year students crammed into lecture halls with rows of scarred wooden desks.
Dinnick would begin with a courtly bow in the direction of the two female students. “Ladies, and gentlemen,” He gave a perfunctory nod to the rest of the class.
“Civil Procedure is not a dry and colorless book of rules. It is a code of honorable conduct for the litigant, as well as an invaluable source of strategy.”
Looking about the class, the professor then intoned, “Without the restraint of law, our darker natures, like storm clouds, will prevail—making civilized society an impossible dream. You see, ladies and gentlemen, rules are essential in the real world.”
Harry thought the law was more like a blunt and clumsy tool, but Arthur Dinnick pushed and prodded legions of first-year law students to a fleeting perception of the law’s higher purpose. Now his widow saw invisible tenants.
Archie Brinks, Norma’s soon to be dismissed executor, had brought a whiff of scandal to Arthur’s otherwise exemplary teaching career. Rumors of suspicious stock trading swirled around the two men, and while Archie bellowed and bluffed, Arthur grew pale and silent and finally retired. On vacation in Florence, he died of a heart attack. Archie, obviously, was still very much on the scene.
Before visiting Norma this morning, Harry had received a call from Archie.
“I’m calling about Mrs. Dinnick. I’m her executor,” boomed Brinks.
“You know I’m not at liberty to discuss her affairs.”
“I don’t want you to. I’m telling you, Mr. Jenkins, Norma does not want a new will. Besides, she’s incompetent to make one.”
“How interesting. I suppose you’ve had her assessed?”
“Then you’re a psychologist?” Harry had dealt with bullies before.
“Listen. Don’t be smart with me. She doesn’t know what day it is.”
Harry sighed. The man was tiresome. “I thank you for your views, sir. I’ve made a note of our conversation and will discuss it with my client as soon as possible.”
Brinks was apoplectic. Harry smiled and hung up.
Still lost in recollection, he turned his car northward into a long-forgotten neighborhood of narrow houses jammed together. He pulled up in front of 147 Cecil Street. The subconscious destination of his seemingly aimless drive was now painfully obvious to him. The house still listed to one side under the weight of fussy Victorian detail. Only one thing was missing. When he lived there as a student, a sign in red and black lettering announced Madame Odella—the future foretold. Only thoughts of Norma and Arthur could have brought him here.