It turns out I can now post my Round 1 entry to the NYC Midnight Screenwriting Challenge, which placed third out of twenty-five in my group. The prompts for this story were: Genre -- Crime Caper, Subject -- a Last Will and Testament, Character -- a Journalist.
This one got me into the second round.
THE AFTERLIFE LIST With a con this big, somebody has to go to jail.
INTERIOR. REMOTE TV SHOOT
NATALIE, a young woman, enters the TV shoot, navigating around the box lights and cameras. A producer attaches a lavalier microphone to Natalie’s orange prison jumpsuit. A prison matron stands off to the side. JANE, a female journalist greets Natalie and they sit on folding chairs.
Welcome, Ms. Bournish.
Jane crosses her legs, but Natalie sits with her feet together and hands in her lap as if they are still shackled. Jane turns to the producer offscreen who counts down from five.
Ms. Natalie Bournish, you’re considered one of the most notorious con-women in recent memory.
Not something to be known for, I think.
Yes, I think you are right about that. You were accused, and you pled guilty, to trying to steal your dead uncle’s billions from over seven hundred worthy charities. I have to ask you, Why?
Why did I do it, or why did I confess?
Both, please. Let’s start with why you confessed.
An onset of conscience? A fear of giving all that money to lawyers? I don’t know. Maybe just a need to get a good night’s sleep.
Or, maybe because the evidence was overwhelming? It was, right? Overwhelming?
HOLD ON NATALIE’S IMPASSIVE FACE.
That explains—sort of—why you pled guilty, but why did you steal billions in the first place?
Try to steal it! I never actually saw a penny of it. And it was one billion. You said “billions.” It was only one billion.
Excuse me. You stole a billion dollars from charities.
Natalie shrugs indifferently.
You still haven’t answered the question. Why?
Natalie shifts uncomfortably in the folding chair. She plays with a wisp of hair.
Because I could. Opportunity knocked and I answered the door. My uncle was a bastard, but he taught me well.
INT. A GENTLEMAN’S STUDY
An old man, NATHAN BOURNISH, a middle-aged woman, SOPHIA LIGHTSIDE, and Natalie sit in overstuffed club chairs in a well-appointed study. The walls are hung with the heads of a bear, a zebra, and other big game trophies. Glass cases full of works of art line the walls.
Sophia is dressed in a severe business suit, her black hair, flecked with grey is tied up in a bun. Natalie is also wearing a suit, but much more casually. She is holding a glass of red wine while Nathan sips a whiskey. Sophia is holding an iPad.
You know they’re coming for you. From all sides.
(consulting her iPad)
One hundred forty-two lawsuits. Six indictments in various jurisdictions. Oh, and the I.R.S. is out for blood.
Nathan shrugs again and chuckles, then sips his whiskey.
That’s it? Nathan, if you’re lucky, I might be able to keep you out of jail, despite definitely being convicted. But by this time next year, a good chunk of your fortune will have evaporated.
Sophia, my dear, by this time next year, I’ll be dead.
Natalie gasps, but Sophia just stares.
So it’s true, then?
It’s true. Six months, or thereabouts.
Uncle, what are you talking about?
Natalie, you’ve been like a daughter to me. Hell, I convinced your mother, God rest her soul, to name you after me. I didn’t tell you because I didn’t want you to worry, but now that the diagnosis is confirmed, I guess it’s time. It’s the ‘Big C’ and it has spread all over.
Natalie is teary-eyed.
Don’t cry, my child. At least I won’t have to spend my last days in prison. But, until I go to whatever afterlife I’m destined for, I have one last job for you.
Natalie rushes over and kneels at Nathan’s side, tears running down her cheeks.
Anything, Uncle. Whatever you need.
Nathan looks to Sophia, who nods.
Natalie, your Uncle has instructed me as his personal lawyer to draw up his Last Will and Testament. He has some very specific requests. First, his entire holdings in, and his seat on the board of, Bournish Industries goes to your cousin, Nathan, Jr. That amounts to about sixteen billion of Nathan’s roughly thirty billion in assets. The remaining fourteen billion is to be liquidated and the funds distributed to as many worthy charities as you can come up with.
Me? Wait. Uncle Nathan, you’re giving away fourteen billion dollars? Why for God’s sake?
Because I want to rest in peace in the Afterlife.
Okay, I guess. So, are we talkin’ universities and museums? So you get buildings named after you?
Screw them! They’ve got more money than they know what to do with already. No, I want you to find hundreds, maybe even a thousand charities that can do good with my money. If it takes a million dollars to stock a foodbank, do it. If it takes ten million to buy computers for poor kids, do it. Give it all away.
Nathan and Sophia share a look and they both smile shrewdly.
Natalie, my dear, you’re my executrix. I’m sure we can figure something out.
INT. TV SET
That was pretty out of character for you uncle. He didn’t exactly have a reputation for being a philanthropist.
Natalie nods ruefully, then becomes serious.
He became very concerned about his standing in the Afterlife, there at the end. But what you say is very true. I guess that’s why I figured I could get away with it.
I figured it would be the dancing dog syndrome. You know, when you see a dancing dog, you don’t question how well the dog dances. I figured the shock of Uncle Nathan giving away his fortune would be enough to keep anyone from looking too closely.
That was your a fatal mistake, wasn’t it?
Indeed. I didn’t count on cynical journalists like you to start digging up dirt.
Nathan is lying in a hospital bed, surrounded by blinking and beeping machines. An oxygen mask is on his face and IV tubes are connected to both arms.
DR. TRIMBLE walks away from the bed toward the door.
Sophia, Natalie, and another woman enter. They are greeted at the door by the doctor, who shakes his head.
Whatever business you have with him, do it quickly. I doubt he’ll last the night.
Natalie sniffs back tears as they approach the bed.
(voice barely above a whisper)
Seven hundred forty-two, Uncle. They’re all worthy candidates. I have the list here.
Natalie takes a sheaf of papers out of her satchel.
Do you want to review the list?
Nathan waves his hand weakly and pulls the mask aside.
Get on with it.
Sophia takes a document from her briefcase, but Natalie stops her.
Here, Sophia, use this one. I just added a couple new charities to the list.
Did you vet them?
Of course. Just like the others.
Sophia looks concerned, then puts her copy of the will away. With a shaking hand, Nathan signs the last page, Sophia witnesses it, and the other woman, who is a Notary Public, stamps it with her seal.
Natalie kisses Nathan’s forehead and Sophia squeezes his hand before they leave the bedroom.
When they have gone, Nathan pulls off his mask, reaches over, and turns off the machines one by one.
Jane’s voice is heard in voice-over while a series of shots show charities being surprised with multi-million dollar checks, like Publisher’s Clearinghouse.
- A haggard woman running a soup kitchen opens mail with a $1,000,000.00 check and faints.
- In a church-run recreation center, a coach holds up a check while basketball players gather around cheering.
- School teachers open crates of laptops.
- A disheveled long-haired, bearded man wearing a U.S. Army jacket is ushered into a brand new apartment.
It was like Christmas morning for dozens of well-deserving charities. Things went swimmingly … for a while.
INT. TV SET
Then not so much. Your cousin filed a lawsuit and was granted an injunction freezing the distribution of the funds.
Sixteen Billion wasn’t enough for the greedy S.O.B.
That’s a bit disingenuous, don’t you think?
Look, at the end of the day, after that <beep> lawyer, Sophia Lightside, came forward with the original will, the lawsuit was thrown out, the charities got their money, and there was only a billion-dollar discrepancy.
Only a billion dollars? With a “B.” Tell us how you planned to steal that billion with a “B?”
Natalie smiles slyly.
I just added a codicil that gave me discretion over any unclaimed funds. I was the executrix, after all.
Jane waits for Natalie to continue, with a raised eyebrow.
And I added a couple of mythical charities.
Ten non-existent or defunct charities with awards totaling one billion dollars.
Out of fourteen billion. A drop in the bucket.
HOLD SHOT ON NATALIE’S DEFIANT FACE.
That was over two years ago. You were charged with fraud, pled guilty, was sent to prison, and have since refused parole twice, serving your entire two-year sentence.
Is there a question in there somewhere?
Why plead guilty? Why refuse parole?
Natalie wipes a tear from her eye.
ZOOM OUT FROM T.V. SCREEN
EXTERIOR. A TROPICAL BEACH BAR
PAN ACROSS A TROPICAL BEACH WITH PALM TREES SWAYING IN A GENTLE BREEZE TO A TIKI-STYLE BAR BENEATH A THATCHED ROOF.
Three people, two men and a woman, dressed as tourists with colorful drinks in hurricane glasses are sitting at the bar, with their backs to the camera, watching the interview on a TV.
Cigar smoke curls up into the air.
I tried to steal a billion dollars, Jane. From poor kids and homeless vets, and many others who needed the money. I deserved to go to prison for as long as the judge said I should.
And, by the time this episode airs, you’ll be a free woman, having served your time.
And, at the end of the day, the “missing” billion was distributed to real charities. So, maybe, just maybe, I can put this whole episode behind me and live a quiet life after.
A young woman enters the beach bar as the TV show goes to credits and the three at the bar stand and applaud. They are revealed to be Nathan, Sophia, and Dr. Trimble. The woman, Natalie, removes her floppy hat and sunglasses.
Beaming, Natalie gives her Uncle Nathan and Sophia hugs, and shakes Dr. Trimble’s hand.
Nathan turns to the bartender.
A drink for the lady of the hour.
The bartender tosses a coaster on the bar.
THE CAMERA LINGERS FOR A BEAT ON THE LOGO OF THE AFTERLIFE BAR.
You’re looking pretty tan … for a dead man, Uncle.
And you cleaned up pretty well after that interview.
A tall blue drink appears, and Nathan hands it to Natalie, then ushers the four to the far corner.
The four sit at a table with their drinks. Natalie pulls a rosewood box from her beach bag.
Here are your ashes, Uncle. It was a nice memorial.
Sophia and Dr. Trimble, nod and laugh while Nathan takes the box, sets it on the table and taps the ash of his cigar into it.
Welcome, friends to the first annual board meeting of the Afterlife Foundation. We four represent Charities number four hundred seventy-eight,
Dr. Trimble nods and raises his glass.
Number five hundred twenty-two,
Sophia raises her own glass.
Number six hundred thirteen,
Natalie smiles and sips from her straw.
And number six hundred sixty-six—a nice touch that, my Dear—on the Bournish List of Charities. All legally registered here in the islands, and by all appearances completely on the up-and-up. Funded to the tune of two hundred million U.S. dollars.
Nathan turns to Natalie.
It’s not a billion, but like you said, Uncle, give them what they’re looking for—not too easily, mind you—and they’ll stop looking.
But it cost you two years of your life…
Reading books and watching soap operas in minimum security.
How many times did I tell you all, that for that much money, somebody had to go to jail. So, let’s all raise our glasses to our heroine, the one who took the fall, who slept in a cell for two years so that we could laze about on our beach chairs, Ms. Natalie Bournish.
FINAL SHOT HOLDS ON NATHAN’S RAISED GLASS BEARING THE LOGO OF THE AFTERLIFE BAR.