Sentinel Mountain

Chapter One
An Unknown Uncle

Josh Taylor received a phone call late Monday afternoon from a lawyer's office located, not in his rather shabby San Francisco neighborhood, but in the high-rent district downtown. That phone call began an unimaginable journey.

"Mr. Taylor, this is Helen Trent, legal secretary to attorney Julius VanWinkle of VanWinkle, VanWinkle, VanWinkle and Adams. I am calling concerning the estate of the late Joshua Elijah Taylor, your great-uncle. I have appointments with Mr. VanWinkle available tomorrow, Tuesday, at 1:30 or at 9:30 Wednesday. Are either of these convenient for you or should I look at next week?"

"Ms. Trent, I haven't the foggiest idea what you are talking about! Perhaps you'd fill me in on some details?"

"I'm sorry, Mr. Taylor. I assumed you knew your great-uncle and had some idea what this matter concerns. Am I not correct?"

"Ms. Trent I have never heard of an uncle with the same name as the one I bear. I have never heard him mentioned and should I have, since I have the same name, I think I would remember it. Anyway, it happens I am free this week and would like to find out what this is all about so I will be at your office tomorrow at 1:30."

"Excellent, Mr. Taylor. Mr. VanWinkle asks that you prepare for a week away. Casual clothing. If you cannot clear the week, other arrangements can be made tomorrow when you meet with Mr. VanWinkle." Ms. Trent then asked Josh to bring with him a number of items of identification.

When Josh hung up the phone, he looked around the shabby room which reminded him of his miserable life. Once again he thought of the bottle of pills hidden in the bedroom and once again decided to postpone the inevitable. Yes, he was going to down the bottle of pills which he knew would put him to sleep, a sleep from which he would never wake, but at least for twenty-four hours, he would put that on hold while he discovered what this unknown uncle Joshua Elijah Taylor was all about.

And thus began his adventure, the likes of which he could never have imagined in his wildest dreams.

Tuesday morning, he crawled out of bed, took a shower and shaved for the first time in two weeks and dressed in casual, but expensive clothes. He took public transportation downtown—he no longer had a car—and walked into the ornate offices of VanWinkle, VanWinkle, VanWinkle and Adams at a quarter after one, nodded to the receptionist and said, "I'm Josh Taylor for a 1:30 appointment."

"Yes, Mr. Taylor I see your appointment is with the senior Mr. VanWinkle." She picked up the phone and said, "Mr. Taylor here for Mr. VanWinkle," smiled and added, "Ms. Trent will be out in a moment."

The words were hardly out of her mouth when a tall, handsome women of sixty or more walked out of a door and said, "Mr. Taylor, Helen Trent," as she extended her hand. "If you'll follow me," and they walked down a long hall. Later, reflecting on his walk down that hall, Josh thought, "I may as well have fallen down Alice's rabbit hole as far as my known world was concerned."

When Josh walked into his office, Ms. Trent said, "Mr. VanWinkle, Joshua Elijah Taylor." Mr. VanWinkle was obviously a man who had taken good care of himself. He was fit and trim which Josh was sure made him look much younger than his actual years, but even at that he was not a young man—sixty-five, sixty at the very least he guessed.

Mr. VanWinkle extended his hand and said, "Pleasure to meet you, Mr. Taylor."

"Sir, it's just Josh."

Mr. VanWinkle laughed and said, "Then I guess I'm June. Name's Julius, but mama started calling me June Bug when I was born and I've had to live with June ever since."

Josh laughed, "Looks like you've lived well, June," which was the last time Josh called him by his given name until it became a necessity.

"Indeed I have done pretty well for a North Carolina hillbilly. Helen, you cleared my appointment book for the afternoon?" Ms. Trent nodded. "You can hold my calls as well. We'll probably be leaving shortly but, before we go, we need to take care of that paperwork."

After Ms. Trent left, Mr. VanWinkle said, "Son, I am the acting executor of the estate of Joshua Elijah Taylor, your great-uncle. Helen was surprised when you said you had never heard of him, but it is no surprise to me. If you are free this afternoon and maybe an additional day or so, I'd like for us to spend some time together after we get the legal paperwork out of the way. I want to tell you about your uncle. Also, I need to get to know the present-day Joshua Elijah Taylor."

"I am free," Josh said, and thought of the hidden bottle, but there was no particular time it had to be used. "I'm free as long as needed."

"Fine." He then called in Ms. Trent who handed him a folder. He opened the folder and began going over the documents inside. Ms. Trent was standing by with a notary seal. She had been joined by a Miss Everett who was to witness all the paper signing. "I assume you have a driver's license. Any other photo identification? Did Ms. Trent ask about a birth certificate?" Josh nodded and produced his license, passport and birth certificate.

"Well, there's no doubt you are Joshua Elijah Taylor and that was the name given you at birth." He passed the documents to Ms. Trent who made photocopies, each of which was witnessed and notarized. After what seemed like two dozen signatures, Mr. VanWinkle said, "That takes care of everything except the biggie. There's a sizable amount of money involved in what you have just signed, a bit over half a million that is yours here and now, free and clear." He took a check from the folder and handed it to Josh. When he saw the amount, $556,009.76, he was stunned. "But, there's more. Elijah—he had been called Joshua or Josh growing up, but after he was twenty-four always went by Elijah—owned a bit of property which is also yours under certain conditions. You are to look it over, take a year to make a decision. If you agree to make it your principal residence and do something constructive with it—which will be decided upon by you with the approval of my uncle Jordan VanWinkle, the executor of Elijah's estate—then at the end of the year, it's yours. I am only acting in Jordan's place since you live here. Well, let's get out of here," and the two left the office.

On the elevator down, Mr. VanWinkle said, "Josh, I have made reservations for a suite at the Argonaut. It's yours for the next week while you think through what has happened to you and decide what your next step will be unless you can't get off work or need to be home."

"I quit my job last week," he replied, "or it quit me and there is nothing left for me at home, in fact, there's no home."

"Well, we can talk about that as well, if you like," he said as they reached the underground garage. As they stepped out of the elevator, he pointed toward a red car Josh was sure a Rolls-Royce. "Like the car?" He laughed, Josh was obviously staring at it.

"It's a Rolls, isn't it?" he responded.

"It is. It is a Rolls-Royce Phantom Dropdead. Fortunately, San Francisco is having a day made for it— bright, sunny and warm. Strange, but it worked out that the price of the car and my fee for getting a worthless, indulged son of an uncaring, but wealthy matron federal time rather than his spending the next ten years in a California prison were exactly the same. I wanted a red convertible since I was sixteen. A wet dream for a poor North Carolina boy. My young years I spent struggling to get somewhere in law, then raising a family. By then I was too old and too dignified for a convertible, but now I'm seventy-six, I decided I'd spend some of my son's inheritance. Hop in."

Once the pair were inside the automobile, the top came down and they drove into a beautiful July day. As he drove, Mr. VanWinkle said, "Josh, I know something about you. Two of the stipulations of Elijah's will are that you not have a criminal record—at least involving a serious crime or crimes—and, this may seem strange to you, that you are not an active Mormon. The estate paid for a background check and I found that you have been a pretty good boy with the exception of a few traffic violations, none serious. As to being an active Mormon, I learned you had been a Mormon until you were seventeen when you were excommunicated. Guess that means you graduated high school at seventeen?"

"Yes," he replied, softly, recalling those bitter high school years.

"And you are now, what, twenty-three?"

"Yeah, as of next November."

"You don't sound too happy about it," Mr. VanWinkle looked at Josh, puzzled.

"It's a long story," Josh replied.

"Then let's save it."

They rode in silence and a short while later, pulled into the entrance of the Argonaut where a valet took the keys from Mr. VanWinkle and the two went inside. "You're already checked in, but I'd like to introduce you to Mr. Williams, the manager, before we go up." He walked to the desk and said, "Mr. Williams is expecting me. June VanWinkle."

"Yes, Mr. VanWinkle," the young lady at the desk responded.

Apparently she had buzzed Mr. Williams as soon as she saw Mr. VanWinkle because he appeared almost immediately. "Welcome again to the Argonaut, Mr. VanWinkle!"

"Thank you, Mr. Williams. This young man is Joshua Elijah Taylor and he will be a guest here for the next week. I am sure you will show him the Argonaut's best."

"Indeed. Do you have luggage, Mr. Taylor?"

"Only this one bag and I can take it up myself."

"Very well. Allow me to show you to your suite."

"That won't be necessary," Mr. VanWinkle said, "he is already checked in and I have his card key. You may, however, tell room service we are ready for our afternoon refreshments."

"They will be right up. If you need anything at all, Mr. Taylor, let me know. Meanwhile, enjoy your stay."

They took the elevator to the top floor of the hotel and Mr. VanWinkle handed Josh a card key. When he opened the door he could hardly believe his eyes. The suite offered stunning views on two sides. Even the Golden Gate Bridge, which he could see, was clear of fog for the moment. As Josh looked around the suite, there was a discreet knock on the door. Mr. VanWinkle answered it and a young man in a hotel uniform pushed a dining cart into the room. Mr. VanWinkle tipped him and asked that they not be disturbed for the next few hours.

"There's a selection of cheeses and crackers here, some fruit and a bottle of a nice red, which I happen to know you enjoy," he said as he poured two glasses and prepared his own plate, gesturing for Josh to do the same. Once they had their wine and food, he said, "Josh, you said your job was taken from you and you had no home. Care to talk about that?"

"I guess," Josh replied.

"Better yet, would you be willing to tell me your story? Then I will tell you about your great-uncle—or we can do the reverse. I think it's pretty important that we both know the stories which are, I suspect, merging into a single story."

"I think I'd like that. I kinda need to talk anyway."