Wed
Jun 18 2014 2:30pm

The Last Heir: A New Excerpt

Chuck Greaves

The Last Heir by Chuck Greaves is a legal thriller centered on a family's deadly battle for control of America's most storied winery (available June 24, 2014).

Philippe Giroux, estimable patriarch of the Château Giroux wine empire, has tragically lost a son. Or has he? Once confirmed by the court, Alain Giroux’s death will pave the way for his brother Phil to inherit America’s most storied winery. Or will it? Andy Clarkson, Alain’s boyhood chum, covets the Château Giroux vineyard acreage for his neighboring golf resort. Or does he? Claudia Giroux, Philippe’s hauntingly beautiful daughter, has proof that Alain’s death may not have been all that it seems. Or does she?

As the scions of a privileged California wine dynasty grapple for control of their family’s legacy, attorney Jack MacTaggart is caught in a cross fire of estrangement, betrayal, and murder. To complicate matters, Jack is being shadowed by film star Ethan Scott, who hopes to spin the dross of a family’s private travails into box-office gold.

Amid the stately oaks and sylvan vineyards of California’s fabled Napa Valley, Jack learns the hard way that while blood may be thicker than water, money is a powerful anticoagulant. As the long-buried secrets of a troubled family are finally revealed, only one question remains to be answered: Who will survive to become the Last Heir?

Chapter 1

They called it the French Laundry, but I hadn’t seen a steam iron or a sweating Chinaman all night. We were on our seventh or eighth food course, none of them larger than a nine-volt battery, and I for one was still hungry after two hours at the table.

The wine was another story. Six dusty bottles of Chateau Giroux Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon lay at anchor before me like galleons in a sea of crystal glassware, all of it rocking and swaying in the gentle swell of my incipient intoxication. Commanding this ambrosial armada, his silver personage outfitted in a blue blazer and paisley ascot, was the owner of the eponymous winery whose dark nectar I’d been imbibing—the winery generally acknowledged, or so I’d come to learn, to be the crown jewel in the glittering tiara of California’s storied Napa Valley.

“Here,” Philippe Giroux said, reaching for another bottle. “Let’s try the sixty-one.”

A waiter, noticing movement, sprang into action. He intercepted the bottle and walked it around to my side of the table where, cradling it like a premature newborn, he measured three inches of purple liquid into my glass.

He then did the same for my prodigal host.

The Frenchman raised his glass, turning it slowly in the half light, and gave it a swirl. He passed his sharp Gallic beak over the rim and inhaled. Eyes closed, he took a sip and made a bubbling noise with his mouth, then spit the wine back into the glass.

Again.

“Black currants,” he pronounced, dabbing at his lips with a napkin. “Tar and licorice and wet pebbles.”

I took a slug. Like the others before it, this bottle was aces high.

“Tell me something. Why is it always plums and cherries and notes of old-growth cedar? How come wine never just tastes like grapes?”

Giroux brightened. “Ah. Therein lays the artistry. In the hands of a great wine maker, each vintage is a precise expression of the soil and the climate from which it is born. The soul, if you will, of the grape itself. What we French call the terroir.”

“We have the same thing here in America. We call it Beechwood Aging.”

He chuckled, setting down his glass. “I’m the luckiest man in the world, Mr. MacTaggart. For over thirty years, if ever I came home to dinner and didn’t reek of wine, my wife would say, ‘Philippe, what mischief have you been up to?’”

He chuckled again, and this time, so did I. He was a charming old rooster—a boulevardier of the Maurice Chevalier stripe, all raffish twinkle and easy warmth—and you couldn’t help but like the guy. I’m sure he’d sold a lot of wine over the years.

“Let’s try the ninety-four, shall we? That was an excellent vintage.”

I placed a defensive hand over my glass just as the next phalanx of waiters arrived from the kitchen with steaming plates of braised chinchilla testicles in buerre blanc. Or something very much like it. Another thing I hadn’t seen all night was a menu.

“Maybe we should get down to business while a part of my brain is still dry. You spoke on the phone about a matter of some delicacy?”

Giroux’s smile faded, a shadow passing behind his eyes. He lifted his napkin again and dabbed, stalling for the waiters to move out of earshot.

“Very well then, to business. I have two sons, Mr. MacTaggart. Or had, perhaps.”

He reached into an inside pocket and handed me a slip of newsprint. It was an article clipped from a back issue of the San Francisco Chronicle, bearing the headline VINTNER’S SON CLAIMED IN AVALANCHE.

I read the story. It described a heli-skiing mishap somewhere north of Lake Tahoe from which Phil Giroux, age thirty-nine, had been rescued, but his brother Alain, age thirty-eight, had not. The incident had occurred in mid-February of this year.

“By the time he was found, my son Philip had lost three toes to frostbite. Alas, he was the lucky one.”

“I’m terribly sorry,” I said, returning the article. “But you said ‘perhaps’ just now. Does that mean Alain’s body was never recovered?”

“Correct.” He folded away the clipping and patted his breast pocket. “There was a rock slide, apparently. The body could easily have been buried. That’s what the authorities say.”

“But you don’t believe them.”

He thought about that, lifting his glass again and gazing into the wine. As if peering into some rose-colored past.

“Do you have children, Mr. MacTaggart?”

I showed him my left hand. He grunted.

“Perhaps I’m just a foolish old man, but something here”—he tapped again at his heart where the clipping was folded—“tells me that Alain did not die. That if he were dead, I would know it. That I would feel it.”

“I hope you’re right about that. But I don’t see how I’m in any position to help.”

He set down the glass and took up his fork, his eyes falling to the steaming plate before him.

“Indulge me, if you will, in a bit of family history. My father came to this country after the Great War. He was Bordelaise. He grew up as a field hand, an ouvrier, working for some of the great chateaux of the Médoc, planting and pruning and harvesting. Then, once the war had ended, he set out to buy a vineyard of his own. But not in France. Not after all that carnage. So he did a bit of research, and he learned of a sleepy little valley in a place called California where German and Italian immigrants were already making wine. There, he said, is where I will raise my family. He married my mother in 1918, still in France, and together they bought twenty-five acres of land here on the eastern edge of Napa Valley, sight unseen, through a farm agent with whom he’d corresponded by mail. That was in May of 1919. The price was quite reasonable, you see, because his research was not very thorough. He bought just in time for Prohibition.”

Giroux smiled ruefully as he sampled the braised whatever, his eyes closing to savor the culinary moment.

“But still they came. Instead of planting vines, they grew vegetables. For ten years, nothing but vegetables. All the time making contacts and connections with the very best restaurants in San Francisco. Connections that would pay off handsomely when, in 1933, they finally planted their first fifteen acres of Cabernet Sauvignon, plus a few odd blocks of Cab Franc and Merlot and Petit Verdot. They were, as I said, Bordelaise.”

I tried the cooling dollop on my plate, for which so many chinchillas had sacrificed. Then I tried the rest.

“In order to consecrate the new vineyard, or so the story goes, my parents conceived a son. Their only child, as it turned out, since my mother died in 1937 of complications from pneumonia.”

I nudged my empty plate aside, the better to resist licking it. “So you inherited the family business from your father when he died.”

“In a manner of speaking. Here is where you come in, if I may be so presumptuous.”

He reached into another pocket and produced a different piece of paper. It was a three-fold brochure, the kind you’d find in a rack at the airport, printed on glossy paper stock. It promoted something called the Napa Springs Spa and Golf Resort.

“By the time my father died in 1979, Chateau Giroux had grown to a hundred and fifty acres. Today it includes the original stone chateau, the vineyards, the winery, four other family residences, and a new visitor center run by my daughter, Claudia.”

“You also have a daughter.”

He nodded. “Our youngest child. Or mine, to be precise. Marie, my beloved, passed in 2003. It seems to be a curse of the Giroux men, to outlive their wives.”

But not Alain, I thought, as Giroux leaned sideways in his chair and produced a wallet from his pocket. From it he removed a color photo of a real looker—a twentysomething blonde with notes of ripe apricot and vanilla spices. She had her father’s nose, and what appeared to be Kate Moss’s body.

“You’ll meet Claudia tomorrow. She is the spitting image of her mother. She too is a lawyer, although she’s never actually practiced. Instead she manages all aspects of our hospitality—the tasting room, the winery tours, our wine club. In many ways, she has become the public face of Chateau Giroux.”

“And this Napa Springs Spa?”

The shadow returned. He reached to pour me another drink, and this time I let him.

“My father and I were never close, despite the many years we worked together. Or because of them, perhaps. He was a stern man, très severe, with what you might call an Old World point of view. To him, the wine business was just a business, like selling vegetables, or vacuum cleaners. No public tours for him, no tasting room. It was a source of conflict between us. We were estranged, you might say, by the end of his life. When he died, all of Chateau Giroux became part of a trust for the benefit of his grandsons, my male heirs.”

I nodded. “It’s a common estate planning device, called a generation-skipping trust. Although the male part is unusual, in this day and age.”

“As I said, his views were quite old-fashioned. According to the trust document, I have control over Chateau Giroux only until the youngest of my sons reaches the age of forty years. After that, it passes to them outright, as equal beneficiaries.”

“And the resort?”

He glanced at the brochure again and sighed.

“A bit more local history, I’m afraid. In 1990, Napa County voters passed an initiative limiting the conversion of vineyard properties to nonagricultural uses. I personally helped to lead that effort, and provided much of the funding. Its purpose was to prevent urban sprawl from gobbling up the most storied vineyard acreage in all North America.”

“I’d call that sound public policy.”

He nodded. “But you must understand that Napa Valley is more than just a wine-making region. It has also become an international vacation destination, with tourism accounting for over a billion dollars per year in local spending. Tourists, of course, need restaurants and hotel beds. So the developers hired lawyers, and the lawyers hired lobbyists. Soon loopholes were exploited, and resorts like that”—he flicked a finger at the folded brochure—“were permitted to move forward. It’s a monstrosity, I can assure you, and it borders Chateau Giroux to the south. The owner is a man named Clarkson, Andy Clarkson. He and Alain were schoolmates.”

Foggy though I was, the picture was coming into focus.

“Now Clarkson wants to expand, but your vineyard is in the way.”

“Correct again. He wishes to build a second golf course. A course he can’t complete without fifty acres of my prized Cabernet!”

Heads turned at the neighboring tables. I leaned forward, lowering my voice.

“And if Alain is dead, that puts exclusive ownership of Chateau Giroux in your son Phil’s hands when he turns forty.”

“Just so. Two and-a-half months from now, on the thirtieth of August.”

“Is Phil willing to sell out to Clarkson?”

Here the old man hesitated. “That I cannot say. He denies it, of course, and I prefer to believe him. His wife, however, is another story.”

A hushed murmur rippled through the restaurant as a large, florid man in a chef’s white jacket and toque appeared at our table. He and Giroux spoke in fluent French, the chef obsequious, beaming and bowing at what I presumed were Giroux’s expressions of gastronomic approval. Giroux filled a glass—I think it was the ninety-seven—and watched as the chef did the old swirl-and-sniff routine.

Like me, he was a swallower.

“Jack MacTaggart, meet Lucien Moreau. Lucien is America’s greatest sous chef.”

The big man bowed in my direction, then bid a reluctant bonne soirée to Giroux as he continued on his rounds, taking the wineglass with him. Giroux watched him depart before resuming his story.

“My son Philip has filed a legal action to have Alain declared dead. Merely to clear title, he says, to Chateau Giroux. But I know that Lourdes, his wife, is the one behind it. She cares nothing for the vineyards, nothing for the wine that is our family legacy. She cares only for the thugs and criminals who would drive us into bankruptcy!”

“Thugs and criminals?”

“The United Farm Workers. A terrorist gang of extortionists that she, in her misguided naiveté, both idolizes and enables.”

As Giroux’s trembling hand lifted a bottle and filled an empty glass, I recalled my college Tolstoy—that all happy families are alike, but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

“Why are you telling all of this to me? I’m sure there are plenty of excellent lawyers in the area, and certainly in San Francisco.”

Giroux nodded. “There is a firm in the City of Napa that we’ve used for many years, called Melchior and Moore. Perhaps you’ve heard of them?”

I had not, which wasn’t surprising, since there are nearly two hundred thousand lawyers in California alone. As my late uncle Louis once observed, two lawyers can make an excellent living in a town that can’t support one.

“Thad Melchior is the senior partner there,” Giroux continued. “He tells me that, having represented Chateau Giroux in the past, his firm would have a conflict of interest taking sides in any personal dispute between Philip and myself.”

“So you plan to oppose Phil’s action.”

“Yes, of course. And when Betsy Rothstein told me about you, I was intrigued. She’d spent a small fortune on attorneys’ fees, not to mention a year of sleepless nights, and yet the answer to her problem was right there, staring her in the face the entire time. I value an agile mind, Mr. MacTaggart, and I value tenacity. I take it that estate planning is not your field of expertise?”

“No. I’m strictly a trial lawyer.”

“No matter. I’ve checked up on you. You’re exactly the kind of lawyer I need.”

Which was good, because Philippe Giroux was exactly the kind of client every lawyer needs—a worried millionaire. I poured myself a glass of the ninety-seven, and I raised it in his direction.

“All right, you’ve got me. But in this case, agility and tenacity won’t be enough. If we’re going to disprove that Alain is dead, we’ll need more in the way of evidence than a gut feeling from his father.”

The twinkle had returned to the old man’s eye as he leaned across the table to grab hold of my sleeve. “We have the evidence, Mr. MacTaggart. Solid evidence. And I’ll show it to you in the morning.”

 

Chapter 2

My suite at Auberge du Soleil had a balcony overlooking a swimming pool and, beyond its turquoise oblong, vine rows that unfurled like Wales of plush corduroy across the valley floor. The setting was woodsy—the hillside resort lay nestled amid live oaks and native brush—with the virid geometry of the distant vineyards broken by up-thrusts of poplar and Italian cypress flagging Tuscan-style estates, all of it backset by purple mountains that formed the valley’s western rim.

It occurred to me that I was about as far from the asphalt lattice of East L.A., where I’d grown up, as you can get without showing a passport.

I sat on the shaded balcony in a thick terrycloth robe and lingered over my room-service Belgian waffle, which, this being Napa Valley, had come with a warm Cabernet-grape compote. From the in-room Visitor’s Guide in my lap, I learned that Napa Valley is roughly thirty miles long and five miles wide, runs northward from the City of Napa, includes the storybook towns of Yountville, Oakville, Rutherford, St. Helena, and Calistoga, is home to more than four hundred wineries, and receives over five million visitors annually.

Since most of those visitors come here to imbibe, I figured Napa Valley was also the drunk-driving capital of North America, although I couldn’t find any mention of that in the Visitor’s Guide.

The Guide did, however, include a small real estate section, where I discovered that you can buy a modest two-bedroom, two-bath fixer-upper on a quarter-acre lot in Yountville for a mere $799,000. Like Marshall at Sutter’s Mill, Philippe Giroux’s father had clearly stumbled onto a gold mine.

I refilled my coffee and punched up Mayday on her cell phone. Marta “Mayday” Suarez is my protégé and law partner, not to mention most of the brains and all of the tact behind the law firm of MacTaggart & Suarez, and I knew she’d be eager to learn the details of our new client’s case.

“How’d it go?” she answered before I could get to hello.

“The sacrifices I make for this firm,” I told her, sounding aggrieved. “Cramped airplane, crappy food, and now this fleabag of a motel.”

“I happen to know that you’re in a suite at a Relais and Chateaux resort, and that your room rents for two thousand dollars a night, which I hope the client is paying. An incidentals charge came through this morning on the firm credit card. By the way, what movie did you watch last night?”

“Never mind that. I have a life-threatening hangover, I overslept, and our new client’s limo is picking me up”—I glanced at my watch—“in thirty-five minutes.”

“I like new clients with limos.”

“Then you’ll love Philippe Giroux, although his father apparently didn’t, and the jury’s still out on his kids. He has two of those, by the way, or possibly three. That’s what we’ve been hired to determine.”

“When did you say you stopped drinking?”

“We’ve been retained to oppose an action to establish the death of an heir,” I told her. “You’ll find it covered in the Probate Code somewhere. And if you’d be kind enough to research the subject and give me a call back in the next half hour or so, then I can sound like I know what I’m talking about, and the client will sleep better at night. And so will I, although the Belgian chocolates they leave on the pillows here are extraordinarily rich.”

“Why do I suddenly feel like Cyrano de Bergerac?”

“Because you’ve been a very nosy young woman. Au revoir.

I shaved, showered, and donned a clean dress shirt. I found the Advil in my toiletries case and swallowed three. Since it was already eighty degrees outside, I left my tie and jacket in the room and headed over to the lobby with my shirtsleeves rolled. There I waited for Larry, Philippe Giroux’s personal chauffer, who’d picked me up at the Napa County Airport and had, I presume, dropped me off last night at the hotel, although I wouldn’t swear to the last part under oath.

It was only after we’d exited the resort property and turned downhill toward Silverado Trail—the two-lane country road skirting the eastern edge of the Valley—that Larry the Driver addressed himself to the rearview mirror.

“Sleep okay?”

“Like a baby. Every two hours, I woke up crying.”

“Hah. You did seem a little tipsy last night.”

“Just trying to blend in with the locals.”

Larry promised a short drive to Chateau Giroux, and then delivered it in discreet silence, leaving me to contemplate the wrath of grapes. We traversed sun-kissed vineyards to the west and low foothills to the east furred by oak and native pine whose shadows dappled the windshield as we glided past. Not more than a mile farther on, a large and garish billboard marked the gated entrance to a driveway. The sign read NAPA SPRINGS SPA AND GOLF RESORT, and below that, MEMBERSHIPS AVAILABLE.

I made a mental note of the location.

After another quarter mile we forked off of Silverado Trail onto an unmarked county road that climbed and wended over an oak-studded hill and deposited us, a half mile later, into an idyllic little side valley. The first driveway we encountered had an open double gate that bore amid its black iron filigree the iconic gold fleur-de-lis of Chateau Giroux.

Larry slowed and signaled.

Ancient olive trees lined the long and landscaped driveway, which led us to a paved visitor parking lot in which a dozen or more vehicles already basked like cats in the low morning sunlight.

“Pretty quiet for a Saturday,” Larry observed.

Most of the vehicles appeared to be rental cars, but they included a cherry-red Porsche and, in a striped-off area by the Visitor Center entrance, a white stretch Hummer that was longer than a Quentin Tarantino film festival.

Larry glided to a halt. “Bachelorette party would be my guess,” he said, following my gaze to the Hummer. “We get a lot of those in June. They’re probably taking the tour.”

My phone vibrated. It was Mayday, calling in the nick of time.

“California Probate Code section two hundred,” she began without preamble. “‘If title to or an interest in real or personal property is affected by the death of a person, another person who claims an interest in the property may commence proceedings pursuant to this chapter to establish the fact of death.’”

“Cliff Notes, s’il vous plait. They’re waiting for me inside.”

“Okay, bottom line. Jurisdiction is in the Superior Court of the county in which either the property is located or the decedent resided.”

“The alleged decedent.”

“Right. The action is commenced by the filing of a petition. Notice of the action must be mailed to interested persons not less than fifteen days before the hearing. Evidence is by affidavits, which, and here I’m quoting again, have ‘the same force and effect as if the petitioner and the affiants were personally present and testified to the facts set forth.’”

“That’s it? No evidentiary hearing?”

“Not per the statute. But I’d imagine if there are disputed issues of fact, you could ask the court to take live testimony.”

This was less than ideal. It meant that Phil Giroux and his lawyers had weeks or even months in which to assemble their paper case, while we’d have only ten days to rebut it. Less, depending on when and how the petition had been served. Moreover, it meant that a probate court judge could decide the case while sitting in his chambers with his feet up on the desk eating a ham sandwich, all without any cross-examination of the affiant-witnesses in open court.

“Burden of proof?” I asked her, which prompted the sound of riffling pages.

“The statute doesn’t say, but I’d presume it lies with the petitioner, and that death need only be established by a preponderance of the evidence.”

“Please tell me there’s some good news.”

“The good news is that a judgment rendered by the probate court creates only a presumption of death. So if any post-judgment evidence should come to light—”

“Like the dead man limping into court?”

“Good example. That would rebut the presumption, and the issue could then be re-opened for adjudication.”

I saw Larry the Driver checking his wristwatch, and I did likewise. I was already five minutes late.

“Okay, new subject. What do you know about the economics of growing wine grapes?’

“Everything there is to know. As long as it’s on the Internet.”

I smiled. “I could use a crash course, for which I’ll call you later. Oh, and you might want to start clearing the decks down there. I have a feeling we’re going to get busy.”

 

 

The glass double-doors to the Visitor Center were flanked by potted topiary trimmed into the same fleur-de-lis shape as had adorned both the driveway gates out front and the Chateau Giroux wine labels I vaguely recalled from last night’s dinner. Stepping through the doors was like entering the lobby of a modern luxury hotel, complete with furniture groupings, floral arrangements, and a huge sectional rug covering most of a gray flagstone floor. The perky young redhead at the reception desk straightened and beamed at my approach.

“Good morning and welcome to Chateau Giroux. How may I be of assistance?”

“Jack MacTaggart to see Philippe Giroux. I have a ten o’clock appointment.”

“Yes, sir.” She made a check mark in her appointment book as she lifted the telephone. “Mr. Giroux asked if you’d be so kind as to wait for him in the tasting room. It’s just that way.”

She gestured toward an open archway, through which a peal of drunken laughter gusted into the lobby. I was heartened to know that someone was feeling festive this early in the morning. I knew for sure it wasn’t me.

The tasting room was configured like an upscale restaurant bar from which all the barstools had been removed and the table area replaced by a boutique gift shop. The bar itself was over thirty feet long and besieged at present by customers standing two-deep. The mob included what looked like a Kappa Kappa Gamma rush party—a dozen or more debutantes in colorful sundresses, some wearing cowboy hats and boots, all of them chattering like grackles as they swirled and sniffed their breakfast beverages.

I guessed it was five o’clock somewhere. Possibly in Bordeaux.

I didn’t see the old man, so I killed time in the boutique, which offered everything from hundred-dollar wineglasses to golf shirts and ball caps at forty bucks a throw, all of it embossed with the ubiquitous gold fleur-de-lis. I was eyeing a wine-country cookbook for Mayday and Regan—who share what is known nowadays as a domestic partnership—when a girlish giggle interrupted me from behind.

“Excuse me, sir. Could we all ask you a question?”

I turned to see three lushly coiffed brunettes holding wineglasses. They weren’t blitzed, exactly, nor were they rock-steady on their feet. One of them—the one in the middle, with the white lace veil pinned to her hair—appeared to be standing in a rowboat.

“You certainly may.”

“It’s about my friend’s boots,” said the giggler, gesturing toward the bride-to-be’s tooled crocodile footwear with the inlaid orange cow skulls.

“What about them?”

They shared a conspiratorial look. “Well. We all were wondering if you think they make her breasts look too big.”

They doubled over laughing, hands to mouths, the bride spitting her wine.

“Mr. MacTaggart?”

Philippe Giroux stood at an open door. He wore a different blazer this morning, this one paired with a mustard-yellow ascot, and his appearance caused a minor stir at the bar, where several patrons snapped photos of him with their cell phone cameras. I excused myself and crossed the room to join him.

“Sorry to keep you waiting,” he said, offering a hand. “At least you found a way to amuse yourself.”

He led me down a carpeted hallway to a door near the end on the left. The office within had mullioned windows overlooking a courtyard, comfortable chairs and sofas, and a Louis XIV desk with long, finely shaped legs. As the door closed behind us, a woman rose from her perch on the edge of the desk.

For my money, her legs were nicer.

This version of Claudia Giroux had a few years on the winsome girl in the photo, and maybe she’d put on a few pounds, but she’d put them in all the right places. She wore a white silk blouse and a snug navy skirt with sensible blue heels. Her golden hair, long and straight in the photo, had been cut to shoulder-length and swept backward in a way that displayed the diamond studs in her ears.

She put the hyphen in high-class, as would befit the new public face of Chateau Giroux.

“Mr. MacTaggart,” she said, her handshake firm, her sapphire eyes assessing. “My father has told me so much about you.”

“But me so little about you. We’ll have to remedy that.”

“Be careful what you wish for,” she said, circling to her swivel chair and pressing her palms on the desk. “I’m afraid you’ll have had quite enough of me before this is through.”

I bit hard on my tongue as Philippe and I took the client chairs facing his daughter, where we waited in polite silence as she sifted through some paperwork on her desktop. When she found what she was after—a nine-by-twelve envelope—she handed it across.

“It arrived on Wednesday,” she said. “It came with the regular mail delivery.”

The document inside the envelope was a pleading that bore the case caption In re Estate of Alain P. Giroux, Deceased, and the title “Petition to Determine Death of Alain P. Giroux.” It had been filed by a lawyer named Rubenstein. The proof-of-service form at the back confirmed its deposit in the U.S. Mail on Monday, the thirteenth day of June. A hearing date had been rubber-stamped on the face page by the clerk of the Napa County Superior Court. That date was July 6.

“We’ll want to ask for a continuance,” I said absently, flipping to the supporting affidavits.

Philippe half-turned in his chair. “Are you sure? Don’t forget Philip’s birthday. If we wait too long…”

He didn’t finish the thought, but he didn’t have to. If we were to wait too long, and if Alain were declared dead by the probate court, then under the terms of the Giroux family trust, Phil would own everything as of August 30. What effect might an appeal have after that? Or the discovery of new evidence that re-opened the question of death? What if Phil sold part of Chateau Giroux to Andy Clarkson, the owner of Napa Springs Spa, while an appeal was pending? Or what if Phil dropped dead at his birthday party, leaving Lourdes, Philippe’s insurrectionist daughter-in-law, in control of Chateau Giroux?

Philippe was right—time was of the essence.

The supporting Declarations—the affidavits referenced in the statute—were from the Petitioner, Phil Giroux, and from a man named Brent Vroman, who headed up something called the Tahoe Nordic Search and Rescue Team. Both Declarations described the circumstances of the avalanche that, to the declarants’ best knowledge and belief, had claimed the life of Alain Giroux.

“Well, what do you think?”

I returned the petition to the envelope and set it on Claudia’s desk.

“Your father mentioned some evidence that Alain might still be alive. That would come in handy right about now.”

Father and daughter shared a look, and Claudia rose and crossed to a file cabinet on the wall directly behind her, where she bent to open a drawer. Philippe’s voice brought my attention back to the business at hand.

“Chateau Giroux employs over twenty full-time staff, but it remains a family enterprise. The board of directors consists of myself and my three children. Each of us, along with a few key personnel, is issued a company credit card. Alain had his card with him when he disappeared. We know that from Philip. Also from the fact that Alain’s wallet was found in their hotel room in Tahoe with the credit card missing. Also from the last charge processed on the card on the day Alain went missing, to a firm called Alpine Heli-Guides.”

Claudia returned to her desk with a folder. She passed it to her father, who opened it and handed me an American Express credit card statement for the month of February.

“We requested a copy of the charge slip,” he said, passing me another sheet. “Here it is.”

The photocopied receipt showed the time of the Alpine Heli-Guides credit card charge—9:12 A.M.—and bore the cardholder’s signature, Alain Giroux.

“What time did the helicopter depart for the mountain?”

Philippe again looked to his daughter. “We spoke to the pilot. His flight log shows skids-up at eight-twenty A.M.

“That means Alain paid for the flight while they were en route to the mountain, or shortly after they’d landed. If his wallet was still at the hotel, then he must have had the credit card with him.”

Philippe nodded. “The card and some cash. That’s what Philip told us.”

“All right. But what’s the significance of all this?”

Philippe passed me another sheaf of AmEx statements from the file.

“These are the statements for Alain’s credit card for the months of March through May. For after he disappeared.”

As expected, the statement for March showed no activity. For April and May, however, there were charges to the account. I counted seven transactions in total.

“Did you—?”

“We did.” Philippe handed me the final pages from the folder—photocopies of the receipts that corresponded to the seven credit card charges. Five of them bore signatures, and I compared those signatures to the one on the Alpine Heli-Guides receipt.

They were a perfect match.

Copyright © 2014 by Chuck Greaves.

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Chuck Greaves spent 25 years as an L.A. trial lawyer before turning his attention to fiction. His debut novel Hush Money (Minotaur), a legal mystery, won the SouthWest Writers' International Writing Contest, received starred reviews from both Publishers Weekly and Library Journal, and was a Critics' Pick from Kirkus Reviews.

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