In keeping with the anti-tax theme of this issue, REASON is pleased to present a short story by popular author Robert Greenwood.
More cars pulled in and parked in the shade underneath the big live oak tree. It was going to be a hot day. An elderly woman was tying on a sunbonnet. Two boys in their late teens, dressed in jeans and T-shirts, were putting a battery into a portable bullhorn. One woman, who seemed to be the leader of the group, studied a clipboard she carried. She motioned to the two boys. They listened to her and then walked over to a Plymouth station wagon, opened the tailgate and unloaded a bunch of placards, stacking them on the ground.
Last night, when I'd heard the local news on television, I'd heard of their plans. The stout woman, the one who seemed in charge, a Mrs. Ryearson, had done most of the talking. The reporter had held a mike in front of her face while she looked straight into the camera. It was what the television people call one of those "standup interviews." Mrs. Ryearson had said they were going to try and save the Reed mansion. Because it was a grand example of late gold-rush architecture, one of the best in California. Besides, she'd said, it had been left to the Historical Society in Mr. Hightower's bequest. Those people from the Treasury Department had no legal right to be in possession of the mansion. She'd said they would demonstrate.
I watched them from my front window. About 20 people, of all ages, even a few children. Local people interested in local history. They formed a circle around Mrs. Ryearson. She wore a pair of large sunglasses, and a large picture hat woven of straw, crowned with a sprig of artificial cherries.
Let me explain about the Reed mansion. Maybe you've read about it in the newspapers. When they got hold of the story they called it the "Midas Mansion." They exaggerated a lot of things, even said that the gilt tapestries in the main hall were made of woven gold. It was called the Reed mansion after a man named Cyrus Reed, a hardrock miner. He discovered the Excelsior Mine, and over a period of 10 years took out about 6 million in gold. That was back before the turn of the century. Cyrus Reed died in 1927. When he made his first big strike, in 1896, he took a notion to build himself a mansion on the hilltop overlooking the mine. He hired an architect in San Francisco to come up and supervise the construction. Like most mansions of that time, it was built of native stone. Two floors. A lot of mahogany wood inside, a huge staircase, and vaulted ceilings 12 feet high. The interior walls were made of stone and masonry. All in all, a modest mansion, nothing like the newspapers made it out. Reed lived in it until he died. The mine played out in 1909 when they lost the ore vein. Reed always said he could find it again but he never did. He was still looking when he died, but he died a very rich man.
The mansion went into a period of decline. It was vacant for a while after Reed died. Then, during Prohibition, a bootlegger in Placerville bought it and turned it into a roadhouse. A use for which it was almost ideally situated, being 12 miles out in the country, isolated, and at that time on a dead end road. When President Roosevelt repealed Prohibition and raised the price of gold, a mining company moved in and tried to work the old Excelsior. But by that time the shaft and all the underground workings had filled with water. The company spent a fortune trying to pump out the water, and went broke.
When the Hightowers bought the mansion in 1947 it was pretty rundown. The county had extended the road on through to the State highway, taking part of the land for a right-of-way. As a result, the road separated the old carriage house from the mansion. You have to cross the road to get to the mansion. Avery Hightower hadn't liked that. That's where I live now, for the time being, in the carriage house. The Hightowers had it all done over when they bought the place. I wasn't here then, you understand. Actually, I'm a newcomer to the area. Everything I've told you about the history of the mansion I learned from Avery Hightower. I learned other things from him, too.
Mrs. Ryearson was marching right down the center of the county road. She was holding a placard and I noticed her purse strap slipped whenever she raised her arm. The old lady in the sunbonnet was close behind her. All 20 of them, in single file, went by my window, carrying their placards. None of them looked my way. They hadn't been able to get permission to enter the mansion grounds. The people from the Treasury Department had set up some sawhorses at the entrance and exit of the circular driveway to keep people out. They'd put those flashing red reflectors on the sawhorses, the kind they use in road construction work. Two men in business suits stood on the front lawn of the mansion watching the demonstrators. I figured they were Treasury agents. Just inside the driveway was one of those large mobile air compressors. An air hose ran from the compressor all the way up to the front door of the mansion, where it disappeared inside. The noise from the damned thing had wakened me early and had been going ever since. From inside the mansion I could hear the sound of air hammers inside. One of the boys in the road fell out of line and held the bullhorn to his face and shouted something to the Treasury people about what right did they have to trespass on private property. The others backed him up and waved their placards. Then Mrs. Ryearson came up and took the bullhorn and shouted something.
I pushed away the books on my desk. With all that racket outside I could see I wasn't going to get any work done. I closed my manuscript and took off my glasses. I'd only been back two days. But it seemed as though in the time I'd been gone everything had changed. Just two weeks ago, I'd had dinner over at the mansion with the Hightowers. The next day I'd left for southern California to do some final research on my book at the Huntington Library. That last night with the Hightowers had been a perfectly normal affair. No hint of what was to come. Avery had been spirited and talkative. His wife, Florence Hightower, had been attentive and interested in the conversation we'd had. The last thing she'd said to me when I left that night was, "When you get back, will you come over for dinner?" I'd turned and smiled at them standing in the doorway and said, "Sure, you can plan on it." While I'd been down at the Huntington I hadn't looked at a newspaper or listened to a radio. I'd spent every hour I could manage doing research and working on my notes. It wasn't until I'd started driving back, somewhere outside of Bakersfield, when I turned on the car radio, that I heard the news. It shook me. But the rest of the story was all cockeyed and didn't make much sense. Something about a fortune in gold and silver coins having been discovered in an old mansion near Placerville, California, the residence of the eccentric millionaire, Avery Hightower. I stopped at Bakersfield and telephoned. The phone rang at least 10 times before anyone answered.
"Let me speak to Florence Hightower," I said.
There was a pause. I heard someone breathing. Then: "Mrs. Hightower is not at home," a voice said.
"Let me speak to Karl," I said. Karl was the butler.
"Karl Brunswick?" the voice asked.
"Mr. Brunswick is not here." Another pause. I heard a second voice in the background. "Who is calling please?"
"Who the hell is this?" I asked. "What the hell is going on there?"
"Is this a local call?" There was a clicking sound at the other end of the line.
"What difference does it make?" Then I heard the beep. I said: "Who the hell are you? Why are you recording this conversation?"
Another voice came on the line and I figured he had listened in. "I'm sorry, sir. We're not allowed to give out information over the telephone. If you'll just give me your name?"
I hung up. When I got back late that night I got most of the facts. The rest of it I managed to piece together for myself.
Mr. Nash, one of the Treasury agents, stood in the road and talked with Mrs. Ryearson. She took off her sunglasses and gestured with them. Her group had closed in around her. She pointed at her clipboard and I heard her say, in a taut voice, "This here is a photocopy of his bequest to the Historical Society. It says here, in black and white," and she tapped the board with her finger, "that he left the mansion to the Society." Mr. Nash looked at it, shrugged his shoulders, and said, "That's not a legal will. No will has been found. All you can do is file your claim with the tax court."
I hadn't seen it before, but a black sedan was parked in the shrubbery inside the driveway, almost hidden. I could see part of the roof and the windshield. Two men sat in the front seat. Further down the road I noticed two men setting up a line of sawhorses. They evidently intended to put in traffic control. Only authorized personnel admitted beyond this point. Something like that.
One of the boys left the group and wandered over to the air compressor. He studied it a minute, then reached up and flicked a switch. The compressor coughed a few times and stopped. The boy turned around and smiled at his friends. One of the men from the car inside the driveway jumped out, coming at a run, and leaped over the sawhorses. The boy didn't see him coming. The man seized him from behind, by the neck, forced him down over one of the sawhorses, and pinned him there. The other boy, when he saw his friend in trouble, ran over and jumped on the back of the Treasury agent. The other boy struggled to get free. The second agent ran from the parked car. The two boys and the first agent fell together on the lawn. One of the boys tried to get up but his leg was caught in the tangle. They all rolled over together in a heap. The second agent was almost there when I saw him hesitate a moment and put his hand inside his unbuttoned coat. His coat opened and in that brief instant I saw the holster clipped to his belt and his hand resting on the butt of his revolver. I don't know whether anyone else saw it. Even if you'd had a camera you might have missed it. I only got a glimpse of it. For one crazy minute I saw it in my mind's eye as one of those shots that D.W. Griffith was famous for. When Griffith wanted to direct your eye to some particular detail, he would reduce the aperture of the camera down to where he had only a small circle focused on the detail he wanted you to see. That was all.
Then the gun was gone from sight and the agent had one of the boys by his legs. The other agent had got free and had the other boy pinned face down on the lawn. He put his knee in the small of the boy's back and brought out a pair of handcuffs. He pulled the boy's hands together behind his back and handcuffed him. The second agent led the other boy, also handcuffed, toward the black sedan parked in the shrubbery. He stopped and removed one of the sawhorses from the driveway. The motor started, and the car pulled into full view, then stopped. I saw the two boys urged into the back seat. The car pulled out into the road and sped away.
Mrs. Ryearson looked shocked. Mr. Nash, the Treasury man with whom she had been talking, walked away across the lawn back to the mansion. The group milled around a little, looking at each other nervously. It was obvious they hadn't bargained for something like this. Mrs. Ryearson was clearly out of her league. In half an hour they had gone, and the air compressor was throbbing again.
All this, what I've been telling you, happened in late June. I'd rented the carriage house from the Hightowers six months before, in early January. Before that, I'd been a college instructor at a small private college in Southern California. Not having tenure, I'd been let go during a year of budget cutting, in one of those cycles of deflation that seem to afflict our economy with increasing frequency. I wasn't happy about it, but I'd put a little money aside for a rainy day. Besides, I was working on my book, and I wanted to finish it. So I decided to lay off for a year before I looked for another job and use the time to finish my book. Most of my research was done; my notes were pretty well organized. What I needed was privacy and isolation, a place where I could keep my own hours and write for long stretches at a time.
That's how I happened to come here. I'd been driving through the country around Placerville, liked it, and decided to inquire about rentals. How I ended up at the Hightowers was mostly by chance. They weren't looking for a renter, you understand. They certainly didn't need the money. I'd been driving along the road that led to their place, not having any particular destination in mind, when I saw this Chrysler parked beside the road. The trunk was open and an elderly man was trying to get the spare out. I stopped to give him a hand. It turned out the spare was flat, so I asked him if I could take him somewhere. "My name," he said, offering me his hand, "is Avery Hightower. I appreciate your courtesy. My place is just up the road. I'll send my man, Karl, back for the car. Ordinarily he drives me, but today I've got him doing something else."
We came over a small rise covered with live oaks and then I saw the place. The old mansion was a gem of opulence in the middle of nowhere. Everything about it was spacious, even the grounds. By that time, of course, Hightower had spent a small fortune restoring the place. He'd been three years doing it, he told me later. He invited me in for coffee and introduced me to his wife. We had coffee in the kitchen, and Mrs. Hightower, in a print apron, poured it hot from the stove. I'd expressed my admiration of the restoration work on the mansion and Avery insisted that I stay for lunch. After we had chicken sandwiches and deviled eggs, he took me on a tour of the house and grounds. That's when I first saw the old carriage house, across the road.
Some people you meet you hit it right off with them. Natural rapport. That's the way it was with us. By late afternoon I was still there, we were still talking, and they asked me to stay for dinner. I did. I even stayed the night as it turned out, my first night at the carriage house. They asked me questions about myself and seemed interested in what I told them. I kept what questions I asked of them pretty much to commonplace things, nothing personal. When I told them I was writing a book and looking for privacy, they nodded, as though it were a perfectly natural thing. That night, after dinner, they told me things about themselves, voluntarily. They told me they were childless, with no close relatives on either side. They were in their seventies and had already outlived most of their contemporaries. But they were alert, especially Avery. Florence, his wife, was more introspective. You didn't have to know them very long to discover that Avery was the independent one, and Florence the dependent one. Though they had been married 50 years, neither one took the other for granted.
My memory kept turning over that name, Hightower. It rang a faint bell. Yet I couldn't place it. Not until later that night. They'd invited me to stay the night in the carriage house. Karl, the butler, took me across the road, carrying a big flashlight and a ring of keys. When we were inside, he turned on the lights and told me where everything was. In as few words as possible. That was Karl. He was about 50, maybe less, but in remarkable physical condition for his age. He had powerful arms, a barrel chest, and a completely impassive face. He spoke with a German accent. He reminded me of Erich von Stroheim in the movie Sunset Boulevard. Efficient and devoted, but otherwise inscrutable. Sometimes you couldn't get a word out of him, unless you asked him a direct question. Then the answer might be only one or two words. It wasn't sullenness, or reserve. More like a kind of self-assurance mixed with old-world dignity.
"Have you been with the Hightowers long?" I asked him.
"Twenty years," he said. His voice was a rich baritone.
"Are you German?"
"Is Mr. Hightower the same person who was associated some years ago with Hightower Research and Development?" That had been almost 15 years ago. The only reason I remembered anything about it was because of all the publicity in the newspapers.
"Yes," he replied. "Will there be anything else?"
"No," I said. "Thank you, Karl."
"Goodnight, sir." He closed the door and disappeared into the night. I say disappeared because that's just what he did. He hadn't turned on the flashlight. I opened the door and looked out. No sign of him. No sound. After a while I got used to this sort of thing. Sometimes when I'd be over at the mansion he'd suddenly appear out of nowhere, when you least expected him. Or in a moment of some little crisis, like the time when Mrs. Hightower snagged her finger on a rosebush, he'd be right there to attend to it.
Hightower Research and Development had been one of the big swingers on the big board back in the go-go days of the stock exchange. They specialized in the most advanced areas of technology. Like solar energy, laser holography, and optical recognition devices. It had been known as a "thin issue," meaning only a few hundred thousand shares of stock were publicly traded. Avery Hightower owned the rest. When he announced his retirement, he sold all his stock to the new management. They changed the name of the company over his objections, giving it one of those jazzy titles, Pragmatek, I think it was. About a year later he made news again when he refused to pay his personal income tax. Whenever the newspapers wrote about his running battle with the tax people, they always used the adjective "eccentric" to describe him.
After they'd invited me to stay on, and we'd agreed on the rent, I'd discovered just how far this "eccentric" thing had gone. Sometimes when I'd go down to Placerville to shop, people would ask me where I was staying, especially if I wanted to cash a check, and I'd tell them at the Hightower place. Or the old Reed mansion. That usually got a reaction of some kind. That's how I heard all those crazy stories about the Hightowers. Like the time some guy told me about having seen Avery Hightower dressed in old overalls and tennis shoes, around midnight, down in some alley in Placerville, rummaging through garbage cans. Or the one about Florence Hightower, how she never missed a rummage sale, how she liked to paw through a pile of old clothes, always carrying this big paper shopping bag, and dressed like a country frump. "They're so tight they wouldn't spend a nickel to see an earthquake," one woman told me. "You know what? She goes to all the criminal trials down at the courthouse. Never misses a one. She does that for entertainment. Sits there all day. Too tight to buy a ticket to a movie. He's no better than she is. Like when he got into all that trouble with the government. He was too tight to hire a lawyer. Acted as his own, he did. See where that got him? Six months in prison." I heard a lot more, not worth repeating. In some ways people haven't changed much in 2000 years. I chalked it up to envy and malice.
The next morning Florence called and asked me to join them for breakfast. We got to talking about my book.
"What's it about, you say?" Avery asked.
"A biography of Malesherbes."
"One of the great men of the French Enlightenment," he said, munching on a piece of toast. His eyes sparkled. "Not in the spotlight like Voltaire and Diderot. A man in a difficult position. A paradoxical man. Without him the Encyclopedie might never have been published. As much as any man of his time, he changed the intellectual complexion of France. Perhaps the world."
I was impressed. Probably not more than five people in all of El Dorado county had ever heard of Malesherbes. Avery had put it beautifully. I took a long look at him.
He smiled back. "Certainly a man worthy of a biography. What do you do about sources? I should think you might have a problem there."
"Not really," I answered. "His diary has survived. There's a wealth of contemporary material. A lot of primary sources, too. I've had most of it photocopied."
"Excellent," he said. "I see you believe in organizing things." He buttered another slice of toast and took some jelly. "The thing about the Enlightenment that's always interested me is the practical emphasis they put on philosophy. You might say they took philosophy out of the monastery. The theists considered philosophy as separate from the world of phenomena. The philosophes changed all that."
"To some extent," I said. "But the argument persists. Or I should say it remains in its essential forms."
"How is that?" Mrs. Hightower asked. She looked at my empty coffee cup inquiringly, I nodded, and she filled it.
"The two basic approaches to knowledge remain the same," I said. "First, the school that holds that all knowledge comes from revelation, or intuition. Second, the school that holds that phenomena are perceived through the senses and conceptualized by the mind."
"You don't allow for all the variations, but then you did say basic. I can't quarrel with that. I think the philosophes taught us the value of exhibiting identities, that meanings have to be related to reality. Don't misunderstand, I'm not talking about pragmatism. Let me give you an example. Some 19th-century logicians who were influenced by the Enlightenment held that the subject of predication is ultimately in the nature of things, Reality, which they liked to write with a capital R. Now the formulation of meaning has to be precise. Take, for example, the confusion of many young people today. They have no R to refer to, therefore they sprinkle every sentence with 'like that' or 'you know?', which is a confession of compensation."
That's the way our conversations usually went, when they asked me over for a drink or a meal. Which wasn't every day, I don't want to give you that impression. Sometimes I wouldn't see them for several days at a stretch. I'd started writing my book and that kept me occupied.
One night he told me about his newsletter. When he'd got into that hassle with the tax people, he'd got a lot of mail from all over the country. He showed me some of the letters. Some were from cranks and screwballs, who'd said he was a fascist, or a communist, a monarchist, a weirdo, or a lunatic. Others were sympathetic and offered encouragement. He hadn't been able to answer all that mail. So he'd decided to put out a newsletter and put some of the people on his regular mailing list. He did all the writing, often giving footnotes, sources, and bibliographies. Karl ran off about a thousand copies of each issue on a duplicator in the basement. Each issue was illustrated with a cover drawing of Avery leaning out of a castle tower, with the title, "Observations and Opinions From A. Hightower." Around the top of the tower were a few clouds, and at the base was a medieval army putting siege to the tower, complete with siege ladders. Altogether he'd put out about 50 issues. He made me a present of a complete file and inscribed the first number for me. Most of what he'd written was about economics and finance. But sometimes he'd written about philosophy and art. He told about his troubles with the tax people and the events leading up to his trial. How he'd refused to answer the summons from the tax court and how they'd sent him to prison. And later, how he'd got a hearing and acted as his own lawyer, and been released. His account of those six months spent in prison was probably his best single piece of writing. Actually, as it turned out, he'd had legal counsel when he acted as his own lawyer. He'd insisted on directing his own defense, but he'd brought in two of the best tax lawyers in the business. There was enough material in the newsletters for a book, I thought, a good book. I was surprised at the depth of his discussions, his insights, and his formulations of values. He wrote like he talked, persuasive and full of confidence.
One night he got started on Balzac. "You know that quotation from Balzac? The one that says 'Behind every great fortune there is a crime'—what poppycock that is. I never intimidated or stole from anyone in my life, no matter what some people say. But with Balzac's view of life I don't find that statement surprising, coming from him. Possibly he was prejudiced against property. Did you know he once lost a fortune when he invested in a pineapple plantation? On the outskirts of Paris, of all places. That might have soured him. But seriously, how many people do you suppose have ever thought through the idea of property? When a man acquires property, he usually has to gain it through purchase. The purchase price represents the results of his efforts, his earnings. Specifically, his time, his thought, his muscle, maybe even his blood. Those things represent his life. When he spends it to acquire a property he is making a value judgment. Property, then, is symbolic of life. To the extent that it represents earned value, it can be seen as life in its abstract form."
Florence squeezed some fresh lemon juice on her broiled salmon. The way she glanced at Avery I guessed she knew he was wound up about something.
"What the hell is a crime?" he went on. "Today all definitions are relative, or so it would seem. Let me give you an example. Take the money in circulation. Take the whole financial structure of this country. Do you realize it's all built on credit and debt? Most of it is." He looked at me, nodding significantly. "Our currency is fiat. Other paper assets, whether in the form of stock certificates, bonds, notes, are all instruments of liability. They represent debt. Because they're a promise to pay. They don't represent real wealth. Everyone ought to know that an instrument of debt carries with it risk. You want proof? Then consider all the money lost through defaulting. It's getting worse every year. What is a promise worth today?"
He paused to put some sour cream on his baked potato. Karl stood beside the sideboard, his face inscrutable.
"Even the money in circulation represents debt," he continued. "True, it's monetized debt. But debt all the same. A promise to pay. Look inside your billfold, David. Take out a dollar bill. What does it say at the top of the bill? It says 'Federal Reserve Note,' doesn't it? Think about that word 'note' for a minute. Look it up in the dictionary. You'll find that a note is commercial paper, an obligation to pay. An instrument of credit, or debt. Not many people realize that interest is being paid on nearly every dollar in circulation. It comes as a shock to some people when they learn that the money in their billfold represents debt."
Karl appeared at the table with coffee and a dessert tray. Florence looked at me and smiled. "I hope you don't mind. Avery doesn't always have such a good listener."
"Of course not," I said. "I wouldn't have missed it for anything."
Avery looked at the dessert tray and took a slice of lemon pie. He smiled. "David's already read my newsletters. I hope I'm not repeating myself."
"Please go on," I said.
"Now here's the important thing to understand," he said. "Of all money, only gold and silver coins are free of liability. Unless, of course, they've been bought on margin or credit. A gold coin is not a promise to pay. It carries no liability. No one is collecting interest on it at your expense. It's a store of value. It's real wealth."
After dinner, Florence said she had some letters to write and went upstairs. Avery took me into the library. He pulled a tray from a cabinet and motioned me over. It was full of gold coins.
"They're all from the Byzantine Empire. An empire that fell over 700 years ago. Have the coins lost their value? No, of course not. They were accepted in trade throughout the Mediterranean for hundreds of years after the empire fell. They were traders. An empire built upon trade. Constantinople was the only beacon of light in a world otherwise plunged into the black night of the Dark Ages. For almost a thousand years the Byzantines preserved the heritage of Western civilization." Then he waved his hand over the coins, "But you know all that." He looked at me.
"You have a way of putting it," I said.
He sat down and lit a cigar. "I'm not altogether a materialist, I think you understand that. A coin may come closer to immortality than a man. But a coin is not sentient, like a man."
"Some men have achieved immortality," I said.
"Only a few. And some for the wrong reasons. Like Plato. I've sometimes thought only certain ideas have true immortality. Like liberty, justice, and the idea of the individual. Have you ever thought that?"
"Yes," I said. "That's what I see in Malesherbes."
"Yes," he said, "an individual man can exhibit those ideas."
He leaned back in his chair, took off his glasses and polished them. "Speaking of mortality, did you know that I am 74? I've not made out a formal will. Probably should have by now. I've delayed because of this tax trouble, and my one regret is that if I should die before Florence, then the whole ball of wax will fall into her lap. I don't think she can cope with it. I've tended to be too protective with Florence. But then we do that with those we love, don't we?" He smiled again. "Everything will be a mess. Financially, I mean. But I've known that all along. Even at the beginning. The tax people have kept a tally of what they say I owe them, plus interest and penalties. What good would a will do? They'd only file a lien on my assets and contest the will. Imagine Florence contending with all that. It sickens me. In England they call it 'death duties.' A stupid phrase, as though one's duties somehow extended beyond the grave. But then they've come up with so many phrases like that, haven't they? Like paper gold. Next it will be plastic antiques."
I laughed, knowing he was trying to balance out the gravity of what he'd said with a little humor.
"I had a tax specialist in here once," he went on. "About two years ago. A highly recommended man. All he does is consult with wealthy people who are about to die. Gives advice on the best ways of preserving capital and making out bequests. Hell of a way to make a living, isn't it? Nothing productive about it. Anyway, we covered all the possibilities. Tax exempt bonds, trust funds, gifts, endowments, anything to bring down the cost of dying. He worked in here with his calculator for three hours. When he was done he said to me, 'It'll cost you at least 20 million to die. I can't get it down any lower than that.' There was something about the way he'd put it that got to me. It wasn't the amount. Or the probability that the tax people wouldn't accept it. It was that incredible statement of his: 'It'll cost you at least 20 million to die.' Well, I threw him out. Or rather Karl did. Three days later I got his bill. He wanted $3,000 for eight hours of his time. I sent him a check for a thousand. That was the end of it."
He paused and looked at the end of his cigar. "I've made a few special bequests, like this house. Florence won't want it if I go first. She's already told me she'd prefer something smaller. I've set up a trust fund for her. One for Karl, too. I suppose the Treasury people will challenge all that in court." He shrugged his shoulders and turned the palm of one hand up. He looked around the room, at the paintings and books. Then back at me. He looked tired. "It's a hell of a thing, when a man at the end of his life has to worry about such things. I should instead be remembering my youth, my courtship with Florence, my achievements, my friends. You can see my position. In a way, I'm like your man, Malesherbes. A man trying to resolve a paradox. You know, of course, what finally happened to him for defending lost causes. They cut off his head and looted his estate."
I saw him once more after that, the night I had dinner with them before I left to go down to the Huntington. That night, when I'd walked through the grounds, on my way back to the carriage house, I could smell the heavy scent of roses in the garden. It was June already, and the time had passed more quickly than any of us realized.
Two nights ago, when I'd returned from Southern California, I'd got some of the answers. When I drove up, I noticed the mansion was all lit up. Then I saw my place, the carriage house, and it was all lit up, too. Through the windows I saw people walking around. A man stood in front of the door.
"What the hell is going on here?" I tried to move past him to the door but he stepped in front of me.
"Who are you?" He looked me over.
"I happen to live here. That's who I am."
"You are David Lanyon?"
"I'm sure as hell not Mickey Mouse."
"I'll need some identification," he said.
"Yours first," I said.
He pulled out a small black wallet and flipped it open. I saw a badge. Treasury Department. "What are you looking for? You think maybe I've got a bootleg still hidden in there?"
"We know what we're looking for," he said. "Now some identification, please."
I handed him my billfold but he motioned it away. "Just hand me your driver's license. Your social security card, if you have it."
I did. He looked at the photo on the driver's license and then at my face. "Not a very good likeness. You seem to have aged," he said, handing them back to me. "You can go inside."
"Life does that to people," I said, going in.
The first thing I saw were the metal detectors. Two men were moving them over the wall that separated the living room from my study. They looked like big saucers stuck on the end of a pole. An older man came out of my study and offered me his hand. I didn't take it. He didn't seem in the least offended.
"I take it you are Mr. David Laynon?"
"You take it correctly," I said.
"Will you please come into the study? I'll explain what this is all about. I've a few questions to ask you."
He seated himself at my desk. He put a manila folder into his briefcase and pushed it to one side. "I hope you don't mind my taking the liberty," he said, indicating my desk.
"Be my guest," I said. "I hope you found everything satisfactory."
He smiled. "My name is Roy Nash."
"Like in gnashing teeth?"
"I've not heard that one." He smiled more broadly, but it was a little forced. "I envy you your study. A most comfortable room."
"I'm sure yours is nicer."
"Perhaps. I understand you've been down at the Huntington Library?"
"You're well informed."
"Didn't you think we would be?"
"Who can say? There's more than one kind of information."
"Really? You must tell me about it sometime."
"I doubt if you'd be interested."
"I might be."
"I'm not an informer. I despise all informers."
"Come now," he said. "I realize you're upset. I understand you're writing a book. Surely a writer is a kind of informer. You inform people, don't you?"
"Like I said. There's more than one kind of information. I deal in the honorable kind."
"You've made your point, Mr. Lanyon." He looked at his wristwatch.
"I suppose you have a search warrant?" I asked.
"Of course." He reached inside his coat pocket and handed it to me. "Perfectly legal. Signed by Judge Hoare of Sacramento."
That's an interesting name for a judge."
He didn't say anything.
I said: "What are you looking for?"
"You don't know?"
"Would I ask?"
"You might. You might strike a pose."
"Then I'll put it to you differently. Have you found what you're looking for?"
"Why should I volunteer that information? I don't volunteer anything, Mr. Lanyon."
"I'm sure you don't."
"Do you want to call your lawyer?"
"That's entirely up to you. You see, I do offer you a choice."
"Have a nice day," I said.
"What a clever way of putting it. So oblique." He opened the briefcase and pulled out a tablet. "How long were you acquainted with Avery Hightower?" He clicked his ballpoint pen.
"Since last January."
"Six months, then?"
"This is June. Do you want me to count it out on my fingers?"
"What was your relationship with Avery Hightower?"
"He was my friend."
"A good friend?"
"A good friend."
"What was your purpose in renting this house from Mr. Hightower?"
"I wanted a quiet place to work on my book."
"But so far from the major research libraries? I should think that a disadvantage."
"My research is now complete." I heard footsteps shuffling around upstairs in my bedroom. They were probably going over the whole second floor with those metal detectors.
"Did Mr. Hightower ever discuss his financial affairs with you?"
"In what way? Be more specific."
"In any way. You let me be the judge of what's specific."
"I knew he was wealthy."
"Everyone knew that, Mr. Lanyon."
"I knew his ideas on financial matters were considered peculiar by some people."
"Did he ever speak with you about his investments?"
"Only in a general way."
"He didn't place much faith in conventional investments. Like stocks and bonds."
"You're not being very helpful, Mr. Lanyon."
"That really worries me."
"It might yet. Did he ever speak with you about his hoard of gold and silver coins?"
So the cat was out of the bag. I'd got him to volunteer something. I'd won a round. "We talked about coins once or twice. Certainly nothing was ever said about a hoard. What do you mean by a hoard?"
"A great fortune. Millions. All hidden and undeclared."
"I knew that he collected coins. I know nothing about a hoard." That was the honest truth.
"Are you aware that Mr. Hightower paid no income taxes for the last 10 years? That he once spent six months in a Federal prison for refusing to answer an official summons of the tax court?"
"He told me about it."
"Did he ever deliver any coins to you to hide for him?"
"Think carefully before answering."
"I said no."
"To the best of your knowledge, did he ever hide any coins in this house?"
"The carriage house? None that I know of."
"Did you ever, in any way, conspire with Mr. Hightower to conceal his wealth, either in the form of coins or cash money?"
"No. And if by cash you mean paper money, your question is ridiculous. He didn't believe in paper money."
"I'm fully aware of that, Mr. Lanyon." One of the men with the metal detectors stood in the doorway trying to catch Nash's eye. Nash ignored him for the moment. "Did Mr. Hightower ever mention to you whether he rented a safety deposit box?"
"Why should he? Why don't you ask his wife?"
He got up and walked over to the door. He stepped outside and closed the study door. I could hear them talking outside in low tones. He was gone about three minutes. When he came back, I noticed through the doorway the men with the metal detectors were leaving. He sat down again.
"Apparently you were telling the truth," he said, putting some papers in the briefcase.
"Didn't find anything? No hoard?"
He didn't answer. Just glanced at me sideways.
"I've a few questions of my own, if you don't mind," I said.
"Ask away," he said. He closed the briefcase and looked over the desk for any papers he might have missed.
"What exactly happened to Avery Hightower?"
"You haven't heard? It was in all the papers. He died of a massive coronary. Two days after you left. His wife and Mr. Brunswick took him to the hospital in Placerville, but he was dead on arrival."
"Where is his wife?"
"The strain was too much for her. I understand she's not been well these past few years. She collapsed the night he died. Hasn't been quite right since. For her own good the court ordered her into Sacramento General for psychiatric observation. We received a report on her condition yesterday, as a matter of fact. I've got it here somewhere. It's what I believe they call diminished capacity."
"Can I see her?"
"No. She's not allowed visitors just yet."
"Does she have an attorney?"
He frowned. "She does."
"I'll find out for myself, you know."
"You don't believe me?"
I grinned at him.
"Anything else?" he asked.
"What happened to Karl Brunswick?"
"A hard case, that one. He attacked one of my men over at the mansion one night and nearly broke the man's back. We had to restrain him. Did you know he was really Avery Hightower's bodyguard? That butler act was simply a pose. He's been taken into custody."
"You've got it all to yourself, haven't you?"
"I represent the government, Mr. Lanyon. Not myself. Which brings me to our final item of business. You may continue to live here for the present. The government has filed a lien on Mr. Hightower's property, both real and personal. After a suitable period of time, the real property will be sold at public auction. Including the carriage house, as you call it. I'd suggest you begin thinking about other arrangements." He stood up. He didn't put his hand out this time. "No one will disturb you here. But please don't take it into your head to come over to the mansion. No one is allowed admittance."
"Off limits. Is that it?"
He walked to the door, his hand rested on the knob. He turned. "Oh, Mr. Lanyon. There is one more thing."
"Have a nice day."
"Screw you, too," I said.
In less than a week they'd demolished the roof and the entire second floor. By this time I'd grown used to the noise of the air compressor, more or less. I'd even finished two more chapters of my book. I planned to work another 10 days, to the end of the month, when my rent would be up, then pack up and head back to Southern California.
The media were having a field day with the story. About how the "Midas Mansion" continued to yield up its treasure of gold and silver coins. The total, if you could believe it, was already close to 3 million, with more being found every day. I'm not saying everything the media reported was exaggerated. Some of it was accurate. But they focused upon what you might say were the sensational parts, omitting the context. I wondered how many people who'd heard or read those stories ever guessed how much had been left unsaid.
I'm sure of one thing. Mr. Nash wasn't happy about the number of things that leaked out. The wire services had reported how the mansion was being demolished. How they were finding coins hidden in the walls, underneath the flooring, and just about every place you could think of. They'd already moved all the furniture out, nobody knew where for sure, except maybe Mr. Nash. I'd seen the moving vans lined up in the driveway one morning. They were all day taking things out. They even took the two iron deer that stood in the front lawn. That night, when the vans left, the mansion was only a shell. A shell waiting to be cracked. I read something once where someone said that a shell cracking open meant either a birth or a death.
The curious came, but they couldn't get past the roadblock down the road. They just stood there and gaped, pointing at the mansion through the oak trees. The Treasury people had set up another roadblock at the opposite end of the road, where it connected with the State highway. I was the only person they'd let by, except Treasury personnel, or someone they'd cleared for a special reason. Later, when they brought in the heavy equipment, bulldozers and backhoes, they let in a few men to operate them. They used the backhoes to haul the rubble over the hill and dump it down the shaft of the old Excelsior.
When they'd demolished the first floor, that left the basement. The newspapers said they'd found close to 7 million by then. How they arrived at those figures I couldn't say. Maybe the Treasury people weighed the gold and silver and figured it up by the ounce. Maybe they had some people appraising every coin. I do know when they started to work in the basement they found where Avery had hidden most of it. By that time the mansion was gone. I could see nearly everything that went on over there. I could even see into the basement. They started bringing all these pipes out. I never saw so many pipes. They were so heavy it took maybe 3 men to carry a pipe 10 feet long. It turned out they weren't really plumbing pipes at all. They were dummy pipes that Avery had put in down there, probably with Karl's help, and filled with coins. They'd been mounted to look like plumbing pipes. When they tipped them up, the coins spilled out in long rows. I saw at least 10 pipes filled with $20 gold pieces. There was a lot of activity over there that day, people running around, cars coming and going, and finally, about four in the afternoon, an armored car drove in.
The newspapers called it a "bonanza." They put the total figure up to 16 million. When they finally got the basement torn out, even down to the foundation, the bulldozers filled it all in with masonry and then covered it with fresh earth. The only thing left to suggest that a house had ever been there was the ornate iron fence that enclosed the grounds. It looked like a huge grave.
The next day only about three men were left over there, walking carefully over the leveled ground with metal detectors. I saw Mr. Nash coming over to my place, carrying his briefcase. He knocked at the door.
"I understand you're leaving this evening. Is that right?"
"That's right," I said.
"I'm leaving at noon. Before I go, I've a statement for you to sign." He reached into the briefcase and pulled out a typewritten sheet and handed it to me. "You'd better read it through carefully."
I did. It said I swore, under penalty of perjury, and to the best of my knowledge, that I'd never conspired with Mr. Avery Hightower, now deceased, in hiding or concealing any of his personal assets, specifically gold and silver coins. Or words to that effect. I handed the paper back to him.
"I advise you to sign," he said.
"What if I don't? Will you have your men rough me up and handcuff me like they did those boys the other day?"
"That was unfortunate. Please don't be hostile."
"Just be compliant, is that it?"
"That'd be the easy way," he said.
"There isn't any easy way," I said. "Not in anything. Not in this life. Even dying isn't an easy way out."
"What the hell are you talking about?"
"I didn't think you'd understand. Avery knew he was dying. I see that now. He knew it wouldn't be easy. It never is, no matter what the circumstances. Not for anyone. You know what he told me? He told me a man nearing death should be thinking about his youth, of those whom he loved, his achievements, his friends. You caused him torment. You robbed him of more than coins."
"I simply do my job," he said.
"I know all that crap. How you are only the agency of what has to be done. I've heard it all before."
"You won't sign the statement?"
"Hell no, I won't sign your statement."
He put it back in the briefcase and started for the door.
"Just one last thing," I said.
He turned around.
"Have a nice day," I said.
I started to pack. It took me most of the afternoon. I spent part of the time going over some of the chapters I'd written and made a few corrections. When I got around to packing my books, I came across that file of Avery's newsletter and that drawing of him leaning out of his tower. I looked at the inscription he'd written for me. It read: "If we believe in the immortality of certain ideas, then certain men, in whatever time and circumstances they may find themselves, must give the proof that such ideas live."
Everything was quiet across the road. Though I hadn't seen them leave, they'd gone. Down the road, even the usual crowd of the curious had gone, though I noticed the sawhorses were still there. I packed all my stuff into my car, then took one last look through the carriage house to make sure I hadn't left anything. The sun was setting, low over the hill behind where the mansion had been. I crossed the road and walked up the driveway. The earth had been scraped clean by the bulldozers, down to a fine powder. I walked up the hill, in back of where the mansion had stood, and looked down at the old headframe of the Excelsior. It leaned at a precarious angle against the sky, covered brown with rust.
I turned around and started to walk back. The sun was behind me and the earth seemed to catch and hold the last rays of light. I saw something glitter in the earth, reflecting back the light. I walked over and looked. Only a tiny rim of brilliance was exposed. I poked with my finger, like I was searching for a seed in the soil. Then I picked it up, one of Avery's $20 gold pieces. Somehow, miraculously, it had been missed by all those prying eyes, even the metal detectors. I held it in the palm of my hand and looked down at the symbolic face of Liberty, her profile raised, her gaze imperturbable, her image untarnished.
As though it were a palpable idea, a tangible ideal, I put the coin carefully in my pocket, walked across the road, and drove away.
Robert Greenwood is the author of the REASON short story "The Other World" (Dec. 1973) and the article "Ayn Rand and the Critics" (Nov. 1974). He has also published in Yale Review, Paris Review, Antioch Review, Twentieth Century Literature, and other literary publications.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Seed Grain".