Snead was two steps behind Mr. Phelan, and thought for a second
that he might catch him. The shock of seeing the old man not only
rise and walk but also practically sprint to the door froze Snead.
Mr. Phelan hadn't moved that fast in years.
Snead reached the railing just in time to scream in horror, then
watched helplessly as Mr. Phelan fell silently, twisting and
flailing and growing smaller and smaller until he struck the
ground. Snead clenched the railing and stared in disbelief, then he
began to cry.
Josh Stafford arrived on the terrace a step behind Snead, and
witnessed most of the fall. It happened so quickly, at least the
jump; the fall itself seemed to last for an hour. A man weighing a
hundred and fifty pounds will drop three hundred feet in less than
five seconds, but Stafford later told people the old man floated
for an eternity, like a feather whirling in the wind.
Tip Durban got to the railing just behind Stafford, and saw only
the body's impact on the brick patio between the front entrance and
a circular drive. For some reason Durban held the envelope, which
he had absently picked up during the rush to catch old Troy. It
felt a lot heavier as he stood in the frigid air, looking down at a
scene from a horror film, watching the first onlookers move up to
TROY PHELAN'S DESCENT did not reach the level of high drama he had
dreamed of. Instead of drifting to the earth like an angel, a
perfect swan dive with the silk robe trailing behind, and landing
in death before his terror-stricken families, who he'd imagined
would be leaving the building at just the right moment, his fall
was witnessed only by a lowly payroll clerk, hustling through the
parking lot after a very long lunch in a bar. The clerk heard a
voice, looked up at the top floor, and watched in horror as a pale
naked body tumbled and flapped with what appeared to be a bedsheet
gathered at the neck. It landed on its back, on brick, with the
dull thud one would expect from such an impact.
The clerk ran to the spot just as a security guard noticed
something wrong and bolted from his perch near the front entrance
of Phelan Tower. Neither the clerk nor the guard had ever met Mr.
Troy Phelan, so neither knew at first upon whose remains they were
gazing. The body was bleeding, barefoot, twisted, and naked, and
exposed with a sheet bunched at the arms. And it was quite
Another thirty seconds, and Troy would have had his wish. Because
they were stationed in a room on the fifth floor, Tira and Ramble
and Dr. Theishen and their entourage of lawyers were the first to
leave the building. And, therefore, the first to happen upon the
suicide. Tira screamed, not from pain nor love nor loss, but from
the sheer shock of seeing old Troy splattered on the brick. It was
a wretched piercing scream that was heard clearly by Snead,
Stafford, and Durban, fourteen floors up.
Ramble thought the scene was rather cool. A child of TV and an
addict of video games, he found the gore a magnet. He moved away
from his shrieking mother and knelt beside his dead father. The
security guard placed a firm hand on his shoulder.
"That's Troy Phelan," one of the lawyers said as he hovered above
"You don't say," said the guard.
"Wow," said the clerk.
More people ran from the building.
Janie, Geena, and Cody, with their shrink Dr. Flowe and their
lawyers, were next. But there were no screams, no breakdowns. They
stuck together in a tight bunch, well away from Tira and her group,
and gawked like everyone else at poor Troy.
Radios crackled as another guard arrived and took control of the
scene. He called for an ambulance.
"What good will that do?" asked the payroll clerk, who, by virtue
of being the first on the scene, assumed a more important role in
"You want to take him away in your car?" asked the guard.
Ramble watched the blood fill in the mortar cracks and run in
perfect angles down a gentle slope, toward a frozen fountain and a
In the atrium, a packed elevator stopped and opened and Lillian and
the first family and their entourage emerged. Because TJ and Rex
had once been allowed offices in the building, they had parked in
the rear. The entire group turned left for an exit, then someone
near the front of the building yelled, "Mr. Phelan's jumped!" They
switched directions and raced through the front door, onto the
brick patio near the fountain, where they found him.
They wouldn't have to wait for the tumor after all.
IT TOOK Joshua Stafford a minute or so to recover from the shock
and start thinking like a lawyer again. He waited until the third
and last family was visible below, then asked Snead and Durban to
The camera was still on. Snead faced it, raised his right hand, and
swore to tell the truth, then, fighting tears, explained what he
had just witnessed. Stafford opened the envelope and held the
yellow sheets of paper close enough for the camera to see.
"Yes, I saw him sign that," Snead said. "Just seconds ago."
"And is that his signature?" Stafford asked.
"Yes, yes it is."
"Did he declare this to be his last will and testament?"
"He called it his testament."
Stafford withdrew the papers before Snead could read them. He
repeated the same testimony with Durban, then placed himself before
the camera and gave his version of events. The camera was turned
off, and the three of them rode to the ground to pay their respects
to Mr. Phelan. The elevator was packed with Phelan employees,
stunned but anxious to have a rare and last glimpse of the old man.
The building was emptying. Snead's quiet sobs were muffled in a
Guards had backed the crowd away, leaving Troy alone in his puddle.
A siren was approaching. Someone took photographs to memorialize
the image of his death, then a black blanket was placed over his
For the families, slight twinges of grief soon overcame the shock
of death. They stood with their heads low, their eyes staring sadly
at the blanket, organizing their thoughts for the issues to come.
It was impossible to look at Troy and not think about the money.
Grief for an estranged relative, even a father, cannot stand in the
way of a half a billion dollars.
For the employees, shock gave way to confusion. Troy was rumored to
live up there above them, but very few had ever seen him. He was
eccentric, crazy, sick--the rumors covered everything. He didn't
like people. There were important vice presidents in the building
who saw him once a year. If the company ran so well without him,
surely their jobs were secure.
For the psychiatrists--Zadel, Flowe, and Theishen--the moment was
filled with tension. You declare a man to be of sound mind, and
minutes later he jumps to his death. Yet even a crazy man can have
a lucid interval--that's the legal term they repeated to themselves
as they shivered in the crowd. Crazy as a bat, but one clear, lucid
interval in the midst of the madness, and a person can execute a
valid will. They would stand firm with their opinions. Thank God
everything was on tape. Old Troy was sharp. And lucid.
And for the lawyers, the shock passed quickly and there was no
grief. They stood grim-faced next to their clients and watched the
pitiful sight. The fees would be enormous.
An ambulance drove onto the bricks and stopped near Troy. Stafford
walked under the barricade and whispered something to the
Troy was quickly loaded onto a stretcher and taken away.
TROY PHELAN had moved his corporate headquarters to northern
Virginia twenty-two years earlier to escape taxation in New York.
He spent forty million on his Tower and grounds, money he saved
many times over by being domiciled in Virginia.
He met Joshua Stafford, a rising D.C. lawyer, in the midst of a
nasty lawsuit that Troy lost and Stafford won. Troy admired his
style and tenacity, and so he hired him. In the past decade,
Stafford had doubled the size of his firm and become rich with the
money he earned fighting Troy's battles.
In the last years of his life, no one had been closer to Mr. Phelan
than Josh Stafford. He and Durban returned to the conference room
on the fourteenth floor and locked the door. Snead was sent away
with instructions to lie down.
With the camera running, Stafford opened the envelope and removed
the three sheets of yellow paper. The first sheet was a letter to
him from Troy. He spoke to the camera: "This letter is dated today,
Monday, December 9, 1996. It is handwritten, addressed to me, from
Troy Phelan. It has five paragraphs. I will read it in full:
"'Dear Josh: I am dead now. These are my instructions, and I want
you to follow them closely. Use litigation if you have to, but I
want my wishes carried out.
"'First, I want a quick autopsy, for reasons that will become
"'Second, there will be no funeral, no service of any type. I want
to be cremated, with my ashes scattered from the air over my ranch
"'Third, I want my will kept confidential until January 15, 1997.
The law does not require you to immediately produce it. Sit on it
for a month.
"'So long. Troy.'"
Stafford slowly placed the first sheet on the table, and carefully
picked up the second. He studied it for a moment, then said for the
camera, "This is a one-page document purporting to be the last
testament of Troy L. Phelan. I will read it in its entirety:
"'The last testament of Troy L. Phelan. I, Troy L. Phelan, being of
sound and disposing mind and memory, do hereby expressly revoke all
former wills and codicils executed by me, and dispose of my estate
"'To my children, Troy Phelan, Jr., Rex Phelan, Libbigail Jeter,
Mary Ross Jackman, Geena Strong, and Ramble Phelan, I give each a
sum of money necessary to pay off all of the debts of each as of
today. Any debts incurred after today will not be covered by this
gift. If any of these children attempt to contest this will, then
this gift shall be nullified as to that child.
"'To my ex-wives, Lillian, Janie, and Tira, I give nothing. They
were adequately provided for in the divorces.
"'The remainder of my estate I give to my daughter Rachel Lane,
born on November 2, 1954, at Catholic Hospital in New Orleans,
Louisiana, to a woman named Evelyn Cunningham, now
Stafford had never heard of these people. He had to catch his
breath before plowing ahead.
"'I appoint my trusted lawyer, Joshua Stafford, as executor of this
will, and grant unto him broad discretionary powers in its
"'This document is intended to be a holographic will. Every word
has been written by my hand, and I hereby sign it.
"'Signed, December 9, 1996, three P.M., by Troy L. Phelan.'"
Stafford placed it on the table and blinked his eyes at the camera.
He needed a walk around the building, perhaps a blast of frigid
air, but he pressed on. He picked up the third sheet, and said,
"This is a one-paragraph note addressed to me again. I will read
it: "Josh: Rachel Lane is a World Tribes missionary on the
Brazil-Bolivia border. She works with a remote Indian tribe in a
region known as the Pantanal. The nearest town is Corumbá. I
couldn't find her. I've had no contact with her in the last twenty
years. Signed, Troy Phelan.'"
Durban turned the camera off, and paced around the table twice as
Stafford read the document again and again.
"Did you know he had an illegitimate daughter?"
Stafford was staring absently at a wall. "No. I drafted eleven
wills for Troy, and he never mentioned her."
"I guess we shouldn't be surprised."
Stafford had declared many times that he had become incapable of
being surprised by Troy Phelan. In business and in private, the man
was whimsical and chaotic. Stafford had made millions running
behind his client, putting out fires.
But he was, in fact, stunned. He had just witnessed a rather
dramatic suicide, during which a man confined to a wheelchair
suddenly sprang forth and ran. Now he was holding a valid will
that, in a few hasty paragraphs, transferred one of the world's
great fortunes to an unknown heiress, without the slightest hint of
estate planning. The inheritance taxes would be brutal.
"I need a drink, Tip," he said.
"It's a bit early."
They walked next door to Mr. Phelan's office, and found everything
unlocked. The current secretary and everybody else who worked on
the fourteenth floor were still on the ground.
They locked the door behind themselves, and hurriedly went through
the desk drawers and file cabinets. Troy had expected them to. He
would never have left his private spaces unlocked. He knew Josh
would step in immediately. In the center drawer of his desk, they
found a contract with a crematorium in Alexandria, dated five weeks
earlier. Under it was a file on World Tribes Missions.
They gathered what they could carry, then found Snead and made him
lock the office. "What's in the testament, that last one?" he
asked. He was pale and his eyes were swollen. Mr. Phelan couldn't
just die like that without leaving him something, some means to
survive on. He'd been a loyal servant for thirty years.
"Can't say," Stafford said. "I'll be back tomorrow to inventory
everything. Do not allow anyone in."
"Of course not," Snead whispered, then began weeping again.
Stafford and Durban spent half an hour with a cop on a routine
call. They showed him where Troy went over the railing, gave him
the names of witnesses, described with no detail the last letter
and last will. It was a suicide, plain and simple. They promised a
copy of the autopsy report, and the cop closed the case before he
left the building.
They caught up with the corpse at the medical examiner's office,
and made arrangements for the autopsy.
"Why an autopsy?" Durban asked in a whisper as they waited for
"To prove there were no drugs, no alcohol. Nothing to impair his
judgment. He thought of everything."
It was almost six before they made it to a bar in the Willard
Hotel, near the White House, two blocks from their office. And it
was only after a stiff drink that Stafford managed his first smile.
"He thought of everything, didn't he?"
"He's a very cruel man," Durban said, deep in thought. The shock
was wearing off, but the reality was settling in.
"He was, you mean."
"No. He's still here. Troy's still calling the shots."
"Can you imagine the money those fools will spend in the next
"It seems a crime not to tell them."
"We can't. We have our orders."
For lawyers whose clients seldom spoke to each other, the meeting
was a rare moment of cooperation. The largest ego in the room
belonged to Hark Gettys, a brawling litigator who'd represented Rex
Phelan for a number of years. Hark had insisted on the meeting not
long after he returned to his office on Massachusetts Avenue. He
had actually whispered an idea to the attorneys for TJ and
Libbigail as they watched the old man being loaded into the
It was such a good idea that the other lawyers couldn't argue. They
arrived, along with Flowe, Zadel, and Theishen, at Gettys' office
after five. A court reporter and two video cameras were
For obvious reasons, the suicide made them nervous. Each
psychiatrist was taken separately, and quizzed at length about his
observations of Mr. Phelan just before he jumped.
There was not a scintilla of doubt among the three that Mr. Phelan
knew precisely what he was doing, that he was of sound mind, and
had more than sufficient testamentary capacity. You don't have to
be insane to commit suicide, they emphasized carefully.
When the lawyers, all thirteen of them, had extracted every opinion
possible, Gettys broke up the meeting. It was almost 8
Excerpted from THE TESTAMENT © Copyright 2001 by John
Grisham. Reprinted with permission by Doubleday. All rights
- Mass Market Paperback: 544 pages
- Publisher: Dell
- ISBN-10: 0440234743
- ISBN-13: 9780440234746