When Baroness Agnes von Bruhn died at the ripe old age of 106, she left behind a small castle on the banks of the Rhine. Her castle was exactly how a castle should look. It boasted a moat and a small, still-functional drawbridge. The castle’s long, echoing hallways were filled with oil paintings, suits-of-armour, ancient tapestries, 17th-century muskets and other magnificent antiques. The baroness’s bedroom featured a cavernous walk-in wardrobe that contained numerous bejewelled shawls and mink furs, as well as two dozen handbags with the monogram A.V.B. inscribed in gold on their clasps.
Her three children had long assumed that they would each inherit a third of the estate upon the death of their mother. After all, the three of them had paid her dutiful visits every Christmas Day (although they preferred to spend the rest of the year driving fast cars and downing expensive whisky on the French Riviera). Thus, when the Baroness’s attorney explained the contents of her will to the children, there were loud gasps of shock around the table. The Baroness, as it turned out, had left her entire estate to a 65-year-old man named Hans Balle of Ödland Village.
“Who the fuck is Hans Balle?” said Karl, her eldest son, sputtering.
“An unscrupulous gold-digger, of course,” said her daughter Katerina, her cheeks burning with outrage. “Why, the asshole is practically half her age. What on earth is he going to do with Mum’s mink furs?”
“We’ll contest the will,” said Konrad, the youngest of the three, eliciting fervent nods from his siblings. “The conniving bastard must have forced this on Mum. We always knew that that she was suffering from dementia and was unfit to administer her own estate.”
The three children marched out of the attorney’s office with determined expressions. Karl had good reason to desire a third of his mother’s estate, as he had lost an embarrassingly large amount of money at the casino in Monte Carlo two months before. Konrad had recently been nursing an addiction to white Lamborghinis, while Katerina simply wanted more plastic surgery.
The enigmatic Hans Balle, for his part, was tracked down by the attorney’s secretary and summoned to the same office a few days later. He turned out to be a scrawny little man with thick spectacles and a bald pate that gleamed under the muted lighting. He reminded the attorney of a short-sighted mole (or perhaps just a simpleton who hailed from a tiny village in the north with a reputation for inbreeding).
“Baroness von Bruhn has willed you the bulk of her estate,” said the attorney, getting straight to the point.
His statement triggered an immediate look of astonishment on Hans Balle’s face.
“What?” said the bald man. “You must be kidding.”
“I seldom joke.”
“Agnes must have gone mad. Or maybe dementia finally got to her.”
The attorney blinked in surprise before plodding on with his next point: “I should inform you that her children are determined to contest the will on the grounds of undue influence.”
“My influence on Agnes was minimal,” said the bald man, spreading his hands. “Though I admit I took her out for dinner regularly, especially when she was feeling lonely at home. Her husband died twelve years ago and her children only ever visited her on Christmas Day.”
“I should also inform you that probing questions are likely to be raised in the probate court over the issue that my client had changed her will in your favor merely two weeks before she died.”
“Dear Lord,’ said Hans Balle, blinking under his spectacles. “Was that really the case? Agnes invited me to dinner at a fancy restaurant in Bruges. It was also two weeks before her death.”
The attorney jumped.
“What was the exact date?” he said, narrowing his eyes at the bald man.
“The fourth of June, if I remember correctly. It was the last time I saw her alive. It was also a dinner I’ll never forget.”
“Why so?” said the attorney, his curiosity getting the better of him.
“Agnes brought three bottles of wine to the restaurant: Chateau Mouton Rothschild 1945, Chateau Lafite 1945, and Chateau Margaux 1945. I can still see the sommelier gulping as he uncorked the bottles for us.”
The bald man paused for breath. The attorney was tempted to say a few explanatory words about the finer properties of first-growth Bordeaux, but decided that they would probably be lost on one as unsophisticated as Hans Balle.
”As we finished the wine, Agnes began telling me about the guests she had hosted at her home in the past, when her husband was still alive. She said that both Lenin and Trotsky had dropped by for dinner one wintry evening, and that the two men nearly came to blows over her roast turkey. She even met Chiang Kai-shek when he was on the run in Bruges and housed him for one night in her home in the autumn of 1921. Unlike Lenin and Trotsky, he really liked her roast turkey. I was quite sceptical about these stories of hers, but she said that she would prove to me that they were true.”
The attorney was now entirely convinced that the Baroness had suffered from both delusion and dementia during her final days, but he nevertheless kept his professional opinion to himself.
“One other thing, Herr Balle,” said the attorney. “Baroness von Bruhn left behind a small locked safe in her private study. As you have been named as the chief beneficiary of her will and her three children are contesting the document, I am legally obliged to open the safe in the presence of all claimants to her estate. I therefore seek to carry out this act at precisely two o’clock on Monday afternoon.”
Hans Balle nodded.
“Finally, I should inform you that the Baroness has made one unusual stipulation to this office in conjunction with the opening of her safe,” the attorney continued. “I’ll read her note to you. She wrote it in the presence of her driver and butler, right after she signed her will.”
The attorney pushed his own glasses up his nose before reading in a solemn voice:
“Dear Herr Otto Ludwig (of Ludwig & Heinz & Scholz, LLP), Herr Hans Balle was kind enough to invite me to dinner at his little cottage in Ödland on 28 September 1998. I was charmed by his dining room’s uneven ceiling and walls. I also enjoyed the giant pot of ratatouille he prepared for us. I would appreciate it if he could bring the framed photo of his parents on the wall to any group discussion involving my final will. Yours sincerely, Agnes von Bruhn, 4 June 2004.”
“That’s one of the strangest requests I’ve heard.”
“I agree,” said the attorney. “The Baroness had quite a few quirks in her lifetime, I must say. Could you please bring the photo of your parents on Monday?”
“I will,” said Hans Balle, nodding.
The attorney watched the bald man scurry out of his office before double-checking the date on one of the documents in front of him. His suspicions were right: the Baroness had signed the revised version of her will in the presence of her butler and chauffeur at exactly 12 minutes past 11 o’clock on the evening of 4 June 2004, the night she had downed those bottles of Bordeaux in Hans Balle’s company.
“Drink, dementia, and the drafting of wills do not go well together,” the attorney said to himself with a mournful shake of his head, recalling what the Baroness had said about Lenin, Trotsky, and Chiang Kai-shek. “Even if the drink involves three bottles of first-growth Bordeaux.”
As the chimes of a grandfather clock echoed twice across the Baroness’s study on Monday afternoon, the attorney had the distinct feeling that he was acting as a referee in a one-sided boxing match. The three siblings were glaring with undisguised ferociousness at Hans Balle on the other side of the room (Katerina was even making an occasional hissing noise in the man’s direction). The scrawny little man, for his part, was doing his best to shrink into his shoes, causing him to seem even more like a short-sighted mole. The Baroness’s chauffeur and driver, both standing in the middle of the room, were wearing expressions that suggested that the afternoon’s proceedings were the most exciting thing to happen in the castle in a long time.
The attorney held up the key to the safe, prompting a collective intake of breath.
“Herr Müller and Frau von Bruhn, could you kindly step up to confirm when this safe was last opened and closed?” he asked.
Both individuals strode up to peer at the safe, which featured a small digital time-combination lock.
“Between 23:42 and 23:47 on 4 June 2004,” stated the butler after examining the electronic display, while Katerina nodded her head in agreement.
“Thank you, Herr Müller,” said the attorney, making a note of the date and times on a writing pad. “This confirms that Baroness von Bruhn opened and closed this safe after returning here from her dinner with Herr Balle, and the safe has not been touched since. I will now open it.”
All eyes in the room swivelled in the direction of the door of the safe as it swung open.
Katerina gasped as the attorney drew out a gold Cartier watch and three diamond necklaces.
“I never knew that Mum owned these items,” she said, her eyes rosy with desire.
The attorney saw Karl and Konrad’s eyes light up as he removed ten fat wads of US dollars from the safe moments later. But when he pulled out the remaining items—a small gold seal and a few papers held together by a paperclip—it was Hans Balle’s turn to react.
“What’s that?” asked the bald man, pointing to the seal.
“I have no idea,” said the attorney, frowning as he turned the item over in his hands. “It looks like a personal seal of some sort. There are three Chinese characters on it. Unfortunately, I have no idea what they say.”
The attorney placed the seal down and began examining the clipped sheets of paper. His expression became graver as he scanned the uppermost sheet, prompting Katerina to ask:
“What’s wrong, Herr Ludwig?”
The attorney did not reply at once. Instead, he removed a pair of reading glasses from his breast pocket and placed them on his nose, before picking up the sheet of paper again.
“As this letter appears significant, I believe that it is my duty to read it out to all of you,” the attorney said with a solemn expression on his face, prompting everyone in the room to sit up straighter.
“Dear Herr Otto Ludwig (of Ludwig & Heinz & Scholz, LLP),” the attorney began with a small cough. “You will probably be reading this letter in the presence of all potential claimants to my estate. I should therefore point out that it is intended as a supplement to the revised version of my will, which I signed in the presence of two witnesses (Butler Franz Müller and Chauffeur Alan Schmidt) earlier this evening.
“While many things in my lifetime have filled me with remorse, I particularly regret the fact that my three children have not been living the lives they could be. All of them have frittered away the financial windfalls they received upon my husband’s death. Over the past 12 years, they have even attempted to convince various doctors to certify that I am demented and unfit to administer his estate. My revised will therefore ensures that my children will receive what they deserve.”
The attorney heard another loud gasp. He looked up; Katerina was opening and closing her mouth like a stricken goldfish. Her two brothers appeared similarly thunderstruck; their faces were ashen white.
The attorney cleared his throat before continuing:
“Six years ago, I had the good fortune to meet Herr Hans Balle. Or rather, I had the good fortune to miss him, for Chauffeur Schmidt accidentally swerved into Herr Balle’s car one evening and smashed most of it to bits. If Herr Balle had been two inches taller, he would probably not be sitting before you today. Thankfully, Herr Balle graciously forgave both Schmidt and myself, and even invited me to dinner at his charming little home in Ödland a few months later. Our dinners became regular affairs, and I soon realized that I had finally found a true friend. A friend who made me laugh with equal regularity, and who convinced me that I deserved moments of happy conviviality (even at my advanced age). An unassuming companion who had assumed all along that I was just a widow who resided in a small cottage on the banks of the Rhine.
“I attach four items to this letter to clarify my present state of mind. Yours sincerely, Agnes von Bruhn, 4 June 2004.”
“And what are the four items, Herr Ludwig?” said Chauffeur Schmidt, curiosity filling his face.
The attorney turned his attention to the other sheets of paper.
“How odd,” he eventually said, scanning the first item with a puzzled expression on his face. “The first of them appears to be Page 46 of The Times, also dated 4 June 2004. It’s the puzzle page, in fact. Someone has filled in all the blanks, including the ‘fiendishly difficult’ Sudoku at the top.”
“Baroness von Bruhn was an ardent subscriber to Die Welt, The Times, and Le Monde,” said Butler Müller. “She would fill in the puzzle pages of each newspaper without fail at breakfast, and continued to do so right up to the morning of her death. The last time she got anything wrong was one excruciatingly hot summer morning just before the Baron died, and she sulked for an entire day afterwards.”
The attorney was tempted to make a remark or two about the unpredictable effects of dementia, but he decided that it would be quite unprofessional of him to do so. He picked up the next document and scanned it before announcing:
“The second item is a handwritten note signed by Baroness von Bruhn in the presence of Butler Franz Müller and Chauffeur Alan Schmidt on 4 June 2004.”
The attorney noticed, out of the corner of his eye, that everyone was sitting up straight again.
“It says: “Dear Herr Otto Ludwig (of Ludwig & Heinz & Scholz, LLP), I should add that I was a bit naughty and began examining the photos on the wall of Herr Balle’s dining room when he returned to his kitchen to prepare dessert (an excellent rice pudding, as it turned out). I couldn’t help but notice a framed photograph of his parents on the wall. Herr Balle’s father had written a charming little message in the bottom left corner of the photo. It said: ‘Love makes us want to remember all the best things we shared, including this particular moment in the sunshine. I have loved you since we met in the spring of 1923, my darling Greta, and I will always love you. Helmut, 20 November 1960.’ Butler Müller and Chauffeur Schmidt can attest that I have just written this note at my desk, without any visual or textual references at hand. Their signatures are below. Yours sincerely, Agnes von Bruhn, 4 June 2004.”
The attorney permitted himself a brief smile before lifting his head.
“Herr Schmidt, could you kindly read the inscription on the photograph Herr Balle has brought with him?”
The bald man reached down for the plastic bag at his feet, before pulling out a small wooden frame and handing it to the Baroness’s chauffeur. The attorney noticed that it was a black-and-photograph of a man and woman on a park bench, her head resting on his lap.
“It says here, bottom left …” The chauffeur’s eyes were as round as saucers. “‘Love makes us want to remember all the best things we shared together, including this particular moment in the sunshine. I have loved you since we met in the spring of 1923, my darling Greta, and I will always love you. Helmut, 20 November 1960.’”
“Word-for-word, indeed,” the attorney said, noticing that Hans Balle’s mouth was wide open, while Katerina’s face had turned a ghostly grey.
He picked up the fourth item and examined it before announcing:
“The last is a photograph of a Chinese man seated at a dinner table with a large smile on his face. The picture is dated 19 September 1921.”
It was Hans Balle’s turn to gasp.
“Does roast turkey appear on the table, by any chance?” the bald man asked.
“Yes, it most certainly does,” the attorney said, squinting at the photo.
“Does the Chinese man look as bald as me?”
Hans Balle rose from his seat and walked over to the little gold seal that the attorney had placed down.
“I now know the name on this seal,” said the bald man, picking up the item and studying the three brushstrokes etched on its bottom. “To think that I ever doubted that she housed him in Bruges in the autumn of 1921. Drink and disbelief tend to go together. After all, I was the one who drank most of those bottles of first-growth Bordeaux. The Margaux, I must say, was much better than the Mouton Rothschild. That’s because…”
The bald man trailed off with a small chuckle.
“Because?” The question escaped from the attorney’s mouth before he could haul the word back.
“Its nose was dense and velvety, autumnal and beguiling. Its palate reminded me of a dark forest, brambly leaves, sweet tobacco, wood smoke and bitter cherry. Its finish, I must say, was magnificent. It lingered on for minutes and reminded me of a castle on the banks of the Rhine.”