LIONEL NEUMAN LOOKED AT THE YOUNG MAN SITTING OPPOSITE him and found his mind wandering back into the past.
It was 1952, a similar bright June morning. Kate Blackwell was sitting in the very same chair as the young man. Counting back, Lionel Neuman realized with a shock that Kate must already have been sixty at the time. The image his mind's eye had carefully filed away was of a middle-aged but still beautiful woman: slim, impeccably dressed, and with a full head of glossy black hair only intermittently laced with silver threads. She was worried about her son.
Tony isn't himself, Lionel. It's as if something has died inside. I've tried everything I can to make him happy, but it's no use. He's determined not to marry.
The problem with Kate Blackwell was that although she sought advice from time to time, from Lionel Neuman, Brad Rogers and a few other Kruger-Brent lifers, she never took any of it. Any fool could see what was wrong with Tony Blackwell. The boy wanted to be an artist, and Kate wouldn't let him. Her ruthless trampling on his dreams eventually cost poor Tony his sanity. But Kate Blackwell could never see it that way. She went to her grave believing she'd done the best for her son. That it was Tony who had let her down.
Of course, Tony Blackwell did marry. For a few short months he was happy, blissfully happy, until his wife, Marianne, died giving birth to their twins, Eve and Alexandra.
They're all dead now. Kate, Tony, Marianne, Alexandra. But I'm still here. Same office. Same family. Same problems. What a curious thing life is.
The young man sitting opposite Lionel Neuman was Kate Blackwell's great-grandson, Robert Templeton. Had Tony not married, of course, young Robert wouldn't be here. Neither here in this office nor here on this earth. But Kate Blackwell had gotten her way on that as on all things. It hardly seemed possible, but the child was nineteen years old already, six feet tall in his socks and as blond and chiseled as any matinee idol.
He's not a child, though, is he? He's a man. That's the problem.
"There's nothing you can do to stop me."
Robbie's tone was surly and aggressive. He sat forward, his delicate pianist's fingers resting on his knees, and glared at the old man defiantly.
"I'm legally an adult now. This is my decision and mine alone, so show me where to sign and I'll get out of here."
"I'm afraid it's not quite as simple as that, Robert."
Lionel Neuman ran a crepey hand through his wiry, salt-and-pepper hair. He reminded Robbie of an elderly rabbit. His nose seemed to be permanently twitching, as if he could pick up nuances of legal language purely through smell. Even his office had the air of a burrow, with its dark wood, dimly lit Tiffany lamps and wine-red leather-bound legal tomes stuffed into every nook and cranny.
"Your father - "
"My father has nothing to do with this."
Robbie slammed his fist down on the desk. The top pages of Lionel Neuman's neat pile of documents fluttered in consternation, then lay still. The old man himself remained unperturbed.
I see you have your great-grandmother's hot temper. But you don't scare me, kid. I've been shouted at by more angry Blackwells than you've had hot dinners.
Such a pity. Robert had been an adorable little boy. No wonder Kate had loved him as she did. But he had grown, in Lionel Neuman's opinion anyway, into a thoroughly spoiled, thuggish young man. At nineteen, Robert Templeton already had a juvenile police record for theft and drug-related offenses. Theft! What on earth could the heir to Kruger-Brent possibly need to steal?
Lionel Neuman had been around long enough to know that wealth on the Blackwells' scale, obscene wealth, was often more of a curse than a blessing. Robbie Templeton showed every sign of going the same way as poor Christina Onassis, lost to drugs, booze and depression. He reminded Lionel of Shakespeare's Hamlet. Denmark's prince suffered "the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune." Robert Templeton's fortune was certainly outrageous. Come to think of it, Kruger-Brent's market cap was probably higher than the entire GDP of Denmark. As for the "slings and arrows," young Robert brought those upon himself.
Lionel Neuman blamed the boy's father. Ever since that unfortunate incident with the gun, Peter Templeton seemed to have abnegated his paternal responsibilities entirely. He was too guilt-ridden to discipline his own children.
A stint in the army, that was what Robert needed.
Nothing like a taste of war to whip a young hoodlum like him into shape.
"As chairman and a life member of the Kruger-Brent board, your father has a right to be informed of decisions that may materially affect the company."
"But he can't stop me from signing away my inheritance. He can rant and rave about it if it makes him feel better. But there's nothing he can actually do. Is there?"
Lionel Neuman shook his head. So much anger. And arrogance. The arrogance of youth.
"Ultimately, Robert, you are correct. The decision rests with you. However, as your family's attorney for more than four decades, it is my duty to inform you..."
Robbie wasn't listening.
Save it for someone who cares, Grandpa. I don't want Kruger-Brent. I never did. And I don't care about the goddamn family. Apart from Lexi, not one of them is worth a damn.
He'd come to a decision last night. Admittedly he'd been looped at the time, lost in a heroin and tequila haze while playing the filthy, dilapidated piano at Tommy's, a gay bar in Brooklyn.
Some older guy who'd been coming on to him all evening yelled out: "You know what, kid? You could do that shit for a living."
It was a throwaway remark. But it hit Robbie like a bullet between the eyes.
I could do this for a living. I could run away. Away from Dad, away from Kruger-Brent, away from my demons. Change my name. Play piano in some anonymous bar somewhere. Find out who I really am.
Robbie Templeton wasn't interested in Old Man Neuman's concerns and warnings and quid pro quos. He wanted out.
"Here." He grabbed a piece of paper from Lionel Neuman's blotter. Using the lawyer's pen, he scrawled two lines that were to change his life forever.
I, Robert Peter Templeton, hereby renounce all claims, entitlement and inheritance left to me by my great-grandmother, Kate Blackwell, including all rights and shareholdings in Kruger-Brent, Ltd. I transfer those claims in their entirety to my sister, Alexandra Templeton.
"It's signed and dated. And you just witnessed it."
Handing the paper to the alarmed attorney, Robbie stood up to leave. Lionel Neuman was struck again by how unusually good-looking the boy was. Truly a gilded youth. But the telltale signs of substance abuse were already beginning to show. Bloodshot eyes, sunken cheeks, bouts of uncontrolled shivering.
How long before he winds up on the street, another hopeless, helpless, faceless addict?
Six months. Tops.
"Thank you for your help, Mr. Neuman. I'll see myself out."