Funny Fiction

Peter Dillon sat in the parlor of the swank offices of Blum, Rottenkirk and Slacke. He was anxiously jostling his knees up and down. He felt underdressed, even though he had put together one of the best outfits he owned – a tan suede jacket with dark brown elbow patches, a clean blue-and-brown plaid shirt, a pair of relaxed-fit jeans he had purchased a few days ago. His brown loafers were kind of old, but not ratty or anything.

He wished that he had shaved. The young women he met at bars and social functions tended to like his scruffy appearance - carefully arranged hair for that tussled look and a permanent five o’clock shadow that took him three days to grow.

His fingers twirled amongst themselves, not knowing what else to do. Peter thought again about popping a piece of gum in his mouth and decided, yet again, that it would make him look immature.

Glancing around the room, his eyes made the same circuit they had made a dozen times since he had arrived twenty minutes earlier – painting on the far wall of a schooner on the open seas, an oval portrait to his right of some old woman who gave no evidence of ever smiling in her life, a bronze bust of an eagle swooping over a branch on the desk before him, a small stack of financial magazines on the table next to him.

Finally, the wood-paneled door behind the desk opened and Ms. Abernathy, the office’s secretary, came sashaying back into the room.

“They’re ready to see you now,” she said in a voice that was a combination of professional courtesy and sex.

She stood aside to let Peter enter the inner sanctum of the law firm which his family had retained for generations.

The room was quite large, with a heavy wooden table almost directly in front of him. To his right were bookshelves filled with carefully arranged law manuals. To the left was a gigantic wooden desk that was large enough to have a dance party on. A pair of windows let in scant natural light. Dark, authentic wood paneling swallowed up most of that.

Seated at the table were a pair of attorneys which Peter had been introduced to through an on-line chat.

On the left was Mr. Edward Ruffle. Mostly bald with a thin stretch of grey hair coming around from the back of his head, his face was that of an undercooked pastry – pale, droopy and not at all charming. A pair of glasses included thick lenses which made his beady eyes even smaller. For some reason, he sported a heavy moustache from the early 1900s. His face flowed down over his starched collar, which poked out from a tailored suit that would have been perfectly appropriate for a mortician.

On the right was Mr. Stephen Sagetun. He appeared to be a few years younger than his counterpart, with dark locks waging a battle against the grey over every last inch of his scalp. Clean-shaven and with a spot of color in his cheeks, he offered a well-practiced smile. A light grey suit and cheerful tie proved that he was more in tune with the latest fashions. The younger barrister had been sitting upright in his chair before springing up and offering Peter an official handshake.

“So sorry to be meeting under these circumstances,” Mr. Sagetun said. “But otherwise happy to be meeting you in person.”

“Likewise, I’m sure,” Peter replied, without quite knowing if that was the appropriate response. He sat down on a high-backed chair that had looked comfortable, but was not.

Mr. Ruffle grunted his greeting.

“Good morning, Mr. Dillon.”

Ruffle then reached for a folder at the top of a stack of folders to his right.

“The first order of business is the conferring of title.” He opened the file to exhibit an official-looking certificate. “Your great-grandfather, as you may have heard, was the last to bear the title of ‘Baron’. He was a peer. However, upon his death, your grandfather, born out of wedlock…” Here Ruffle arched his eyebrows at Peter, as if to measure the extent to which this piece of information was a surprise.

Peter did not even know that his great-grandfather was a Baron, so all of this was a surprise to him. Previously, Peter had been one of those who scoffed at the notion of hereditary nobility. He would be quite embarrassed if he was now part of that class.

The next words to come from Ruffle, then, were an odd sort of comfort.

“…was excluded from peerage. Your great-grandfather made all the necessary arrangements to put a stop to that. However, your grandfather was still listed as the inheritor of the estate which your ancestors had held for many years.”

Peter was aware of that. He recalled visiting his paternal grandfather’s mansion on a few occasions as a small child, before his father was disowned by his grandfather. A family tradition, seemingly.

“As such, there is what is called a ‘courtesy title’ that carries over with ownership of the estate. When your grandfather signed off the estate to your father, he conferred the courtesy title, as well. And although your father had nothing to do with the maintenance of the estate, it was still legally his. Until his recent passing.” Mr. Ruffle stated all of this rather formally, without a hint of sentiment.

Mr. Sagetun, on the other hand, was empathetic.

“Again, we certainly do wish that we had met under better circumstances,” he offered with a pitying grimace. That quickly changed to a look of congratulatory surprise, accompanied with a light slap on the table. “On the other hand, you may add ‘Sir’ to your correspondence now!”

Peter could not think of anything that he would be less likely to do. Most of his friends were supportive of Labour and would dump him in the Thames if word got out that he held even such a trifling thing as a courtesy title.

Ruffle literally harumphed.

“Nevertheless, you will need to sign here,” he indicated as he slid the certificate over. “And initial this form from our office here, and here. Now, sign here.”

Peter did as he was told. It could have been his imagination, but Peter almost felt a slight tingle as he signed the forms legally conferring a title to his name.

“There will be other forms to sign and register over time, regarding that matter.” Mr. Ruffle closed that file and brought forth a much thicker folder from the stack. “Now, regarding the physical properties of the estate, there is the matter of ownership of the manor.”

“You mean my grandfather’s manor?” Peter asked with a hint of excitement.

“Do you know of any other manors in your family’s name?” Mr. Ruffle asked while glaring at Peter. It took several moments before Peter realized that the attorney was waiting for a response.

“No,” Peter said quietly.

“Well, then, of course we’re talking about your grandfather’s manor.”

Peter’s mind once again stirred up the memories of the large house, with ornate stonework and long hallways, high windows and a grand sitting room.

“You know,” Mr. Sagetun interjected, “the funny thing about the manor is that it went through several legal challenges during the time that your father would have had ownership of it. As your father did not demonstrate residence on the property, a few people laid claim to it. If it were not for the fact that the formation of the estate allowed for our firm to represent the interests of the estate, ownership likely would have been granted by the courts to one of the other claimants.”

“The worst was one Gantry Heath,” Ruffle grumbled. “A neighboring land-owner. He pressed several claims on the property over the years, with a number of ridiculous statements about things going on at the manor. He went so far as to assault several people who he claimed were trespassing on the manor grounds.”

“But you needn’t worry – that man was arrested and went to jail,” Mr. Sagetun sought to assure Peter. “Although the initial charge was over the incident of a disappearance on the grounds, wasn’t that the case?” he asked of Ruffle, who gave no response. “Doesn’t matter,” Sagetun went on gleefully. “The man was put in jail years ago. Things have been quiet at the property since then.”

After a brief pause and a distracted glance away from the table, Mr. Sagetun began again.


Mr. Ruffle reassumed command of the conversation.

“The most pressing matter is the financial status of the estate.” Mr. Ruffle’s brow knitted together in a most serious way. “All these years of representing the estate has been at a cost to this firm. Your father saw to it that the retainer fee was met from year to year, but our costs have run outside of the agreed upon limits. Also, you’ll have to pay taxes on the estate, which are in arrears.”

Peter felt the dreamy notions of owning his grandfather’s manor slipping away.

“How much do I owe?” the young man asked in resignation before the inevitable.

Ruffle produced a printed ledger sheet and circled a number at the bottom.

“This is the total amount due, including the overdue taxes and the amount which we feel is owed to this firm for services rendered outside of the retainer agreement.”

Peter took one look at the figure and blanched.

“There is no possible way I could ever - ” Peter began.

Sagetun interrupted him.

“Now, dear boy, don’t get too excited. It’s not as bad as you think.”

Peter regarded him as one might look at a lunatic.

“How could I possibly pay for that?! I’m a clerk at a health administration office, for Christ’s sake. I can barely afford a night out with friends on my pay.”

Mr. Ruffle cleared his throat in a dramatic manner, visibly shivering his cheeks.

“It is not in our interest to bankrupt you, or to go further into arrears,” the old gentleman advised. “We have given consideration to the various ways which you could possibly make payments to settle this debt.”

“Oh, jolly good,” Peter huffed as he sat back in his chair. “A slave to my father’s and grandfather’s debt. How perfectly symbolic of the times.”

“Oh, don’t be as sour as all that,” Sagetun cheerfully responded. “There are some creative ways you can handle this twist of fortune and still retain property and title. For instance, you could turn the manor into a tourist attraction.”

Mr. Ruffle’s face contorted in a display of obvious disapproval.

“Yes, there are some people who have no sense for finances that will do such a thing,” the older man muttered.

“Really?” Peter’s interest was piqued up. He had heard of such arrangements before.

“Well, yes,” Mr. Sagetun replied. “There are some who will rent their estates out as bed and breakfasts. But you would have to have trained staff to run that properly. Based on the amount of taxes and fees that will be owed, you might be better served running it yourself as part of the sightseeing circuit for tourists. The costs would be lower than keeping a staff on, and the amount you could earn would be based on how much time you would be willing to be there to hold the door open for strangers. Americans and Asians, in particular, will pay handsome sums for the experience of walking around a common English manor.”

“Well, just how much could I potentially earn from that sort of thing? Would it be enough to pay the taxes?” Peter’s mind started swirling. He hated doing calculations in his head.

Mr. Sagetun jotted another figure on the piece of paper.

“You should be able to net this amount,” he said.

Peter’s eyebrows came together in confusion.

“That’s not nearly enough to cover the expenses if that’s all I can make in a year,” the young man whined.

“That would be per month,” Sagetun corrected him.

Peter gasped.

“I could make that much in a month just by showing off my property?”

“That is one potential figure for earnings, before costs of regular maintenance.” Ruffle objected in a raised voice. “If you should wish to sully your family’s name and your personal dignity by turning your estate into a carnival attraction.”

Peter was certainly willing to go that route.

“Of course,” Sagetun interjected, “you will have to write up a brochure or something to highlight the particulars of the manor.”

Peter leaned back in his chair. A sense of relief had begun to soothe him.

“Oh, I don’t see any problems doing that,” Peter said as a youthful smile played on his face. “I’ve seen plenty of brochures to know what works. I suppose all I need is a little more background on the place.”

Mr. Sagetun turned slightly to acknowledge Mr. Ruffle, who sat impassively.

“You should know….” Sagetun began before reconsidering how he was going to broach the subject. “I suppose it is within your right to be told that the manor is allegedly haunted.”

“What’s that?” Peter asked as his smile flattened out.

“Don’t believe it, myself,” Ruffle asserted with a face that was nearly set in stone. “Been there a number of times. Never had an experience that bothered me in the slightest.”

“Be that as it may,” Sagetun went on. “There have been official reports made of hauntings. So it is a part of the public records. But that is something you could put in your brochures to gin up some interest among tourists.”

“Sorry,” Peter sat forward again, with his hands spread out. “What kind of hauntings are we talking about? Apparitions, poltergeists, cold spots?”

“Oh,” Sagetun answered with a wave of his hand and a tittering laugh, “nothing that you should be alarmed by. Some have claimed to witness the apparition of a small girl dart from room to room. Others have heard odd creaking and doors being shut. And, um… some sort of story about a mirror somewhere in the manor where the reflections may include… well, I’m not sure what the story is with the mirror.”

Again, Peter’s head was swirling with this new information. He had always been fascinated with ghost stories. He could invite those ghost hunter television people out to increase the notoriety of the property. Schedule seances and the like, for a fee. Throw fabulous parties on the solstices and Halloween. And how hard could it be, really, to run a bed and breakfast? This could actually work, he thought.

“Now,” Mr. Ruffle said as he regained the lead position in the conversation, “before we get ahead of ourselves, let’s go over the full details of the estate.”

Several hours later, Peter stepped out of the building, his head aching and his stomach knotted from a combination of hunger and trepidation.

A manor. An official estate. A courtesy title. It was all a bit too much. It was like one of those godawful stories you find at a discount book store. But what a story this could turn out to be!

He was slightly perturbed that he had not thought to schedule an Uber driver or some such thing, but he wanted to get away as quickly as possible. While searching for an available taxi cab, Peter noticed an older sort of gentleman pacing about, also looking around for a ride. The man was tall and broad of shoulder, but well past his prime years. He was dressed in a suit that would have been worn out in the 90s. He clearly had not gotten a haircut for some time, and his shoes were in obvious need of repair. Yet there was something common and plain about the man’s face. A clear contradiction from the world of fine snobbery Peter had just left behind.

When Peter was able to hail a cab, he gestured over to the old man to share a ride. The man’s face lit up with unfiltered joy. Peter shoved over and the man filled in the seat right behind him. After giving the driver an address, Peter nodded to his fellow passenger.

“Well, I never expected such thoughtfulness in this part of town,” the man declared loudly. “So many bankers and insurers and lawyers up and down this row. I’m quite pleased to find that someone in this world still understands simple kindness.”

“Yes, well,” Peter replied, “I’ve just been handed an opportunity to join those clowns and their circus. I’d rather remain a simple commoner, thank you very much.”

“Good for you, good for you!” the old man commended him. Peter had come to smell a bit of mustiness from him as the man prattled on. “You know, I had come down here to straighten out a matter of inheritance. But in my haste, I had forgotten my papers. I wanted to be able to press my case legally at first, in case that might work. No need to start off nasty, hey?”

The old man turned to Peter. The younger man noticed that his fellow passenger’s smile was somewhat thin, while his left eye did not quite track with his right.

“I suppose we should properly introduce ourselves, shouldn’t we?” The older man offered a big, strong hand with the full expectation of a fraternal grasp in return. “My name’s Gantry Heath. What’s your name, sir?”

July 21, 2022 17:14

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