Sycamore Row

Page 10


“A servant? Ain’t heard that in a long time.”
“They’re not nice people, Momma. I doubt if Mr. Hubbard was a good father, but his kids are sorry.”
“And now they get all his money.”
“I suppose. They’re sure countin’ on it.”
“How much he got?”
Lettie shook her head and took a sip of cold coffee. “I have no idea. Not sure anybody does.”
The parking lot of the Irish Road Christian Church was half-full when Ozzie’s relatively unmarked car turned in to it at five minutes before four on Tuesday afternoon. There were no words or numbers painted boldly on the car—Ozzie preferred a lower profile—but one glance and you knew it was the high sheriff. A collection of antennas; a small round blue light on the dash, partially hidden; a big brown Ford with four doors and black wheels, same as virtually every other high sheriff in the state.
He parked it next to the red Saab, which was parked away from the other cars. Ozzie got out as Jake was getting out and together they crossed the parking lot. “Anything new?” Jake asked.
“Nothing,” Ozzie said. He was wearing a dark suit with black cowboy boots. Jake, the same, minus the boots. “You?”
“Nothing. I guess the shit’ll hit the fan tomorrow.”
Ozzie laughed and said, “I can’t wait.”
The church, originally, was a redbrick chapel with a squatty steeple above a set of double front doors. Over time, though, the congregation had added the obligatory metal buildings—one beside the chapel that dwarfed it, and one behind it where the youth played basketball. On a small knoll nearby there was a cemetery under shady trees, a quiet and pretty place to be buried.
A few smokers were getting their last-minute drags, country men in old suits reluctantly worn. They were quick to speak to the sheriff. They nodded politely to Jake. Inside, there was a respectable crowd scattered throughout the dark-stained oak pews. The lights were low. An organist softly played a mournful dirge, priming the crowd for the sorrow to come. Seth’s closed casket was draped in flowers and situated below the pulpit. His pallbearers sat grim-faced and shoulder to shoulder off to the left near the piano.
Jake and Ozzie sat alone on a back row and began looking around. Grouped together not far away were some black folks, five in total.
Ozzie nodded at them and whispered, “Green dress, that’s Lettie Lang.”
Jake nodded and whispered back, “Who are the others?”
Ozzie shook his head. “Can’t tell from here.”
Jake stared at the back of Lettie’s head and tried to imagine the adventures they were about to share. He had yet to meet this woman, had never heard her name until the day before, but they were about to become well acquainted.
Lettie sat unknowing, her hands folded in her lap. That morning she had worked for three hours before being asked by Herschel to leave. On her way out, he informed her that her employment would be terminated as of 3:00 p.m. Wednesday, the following day. At that point, the house would be locked up and deserted until further orders from the court. Lettie had $400 in her checking account, one she kept away from Simeon, and she had $300 in a pickle jar hidden in the pantry. Beyond that, she was broke and had slim prospects for meaningful work. She had not spoken to her husband in almost three weeks. Occasionally, he would return home with a paycheck or some cash; usually, though, he was just drunk and needed to sleep it off.
Soon to be unemployed, with bills and people to feed, Lettie could have sat there listening to the organ and fretted over her future, but she did not. Mr. Hubbard had promised her more than once that when he died, and he knew his death was imminent, he would leave a little something for her. How little, or how much? Lettie could only dream. Four rows behind her, Jake thought to himself, If she only knew. She had no idea he was there, or why. She would later claim she recognized his name because of the Hailey trial, but she had never actually seen Mr. Brigance.
In the center, on the row directly in front of the casket, Ramona Dafoe sat with Ian to her left and Herschel to her right. None of their children, Seth’s grandchildren, had been able to make the drive. Their lives were just too busy; not that their parents had pushed too hard. Behind them was a row of relatives so distant they had to introduce themselves in the parking lot, and their names were quickly forgotten. Seth Hubbard’s parents had been dead for decades. His only sibling, Ancil, was long gone. There had never been much family to begin with and the years had decimated the rest.
Behind the family, and throughout the dim sanctuary, there were several dozen other mourners—employees of Seth’s, friends, fellow church members. When Pastor Don McElwain stepped to the pulpit precisely at 4:00 p.m., he and everyone else knew the service would be brief. He led them in prayer and recited a quick obituary: Seth was born May 10, 1917, in Ford County, where he died on October 2, 1988. Preceded in death by parents so-and-so; two surviving children, some grandchildren, et cetera.
Jake spotted a familiar profile several rows up and to his left, a man in a nice suit. Same age, same law class. Stillman Rush, attorney-at-law, third-generation prick from a family of same, blue bloods from the big leagues of corporate and insurance law, or as big as they could possibly be in the rural South. Rush & Westerfield, the largest firm in north Mississippi, based in Tupelo with offices coming soon to a shopping center near you. Seth Hubbard mentioned the Rush firm in his letter to Jake, and also in his handwritten will, so there was little doubt Stillman Rush and the other two well-dressed gentlemen with him had come to check on their investment. Typically, the insurance boys worked in pairs. It took two to perform even the most mundane legal tasks: two to file papers in court; two to answer a docket call; two for an uncontested hearing; two to drive here and there; and, of course, two to jack up the billing and pad the file. Big law firms vigorously worshipped inefficiencies: more hours meant more fees.
But three? For a quick funeral out in the boonies? This was impressive, and exciting. It meant money. There was no doubt in Jake’s hyperactive mind that the three had turned on their meters when they’d left their offices in Tupelo and were now sitting over there pretending to mourn at $200 an hour per man. According to Seth’s final words, a Mr. Lewis McGwyre had drafted a will in September of 1987, and Jake figured he was one of the three. Jake did not know McGwyre, but then the firm had so many lawyers. Since they prepared the will, they naturally assumed they would probate it.
Tomorrow, he thought, they’ll drive over again, at least two but maybe another trio, and they’ll take their paperwork to the offices of the Chancery Court clerk, on the second floor of Jake’s courthouse, and they’ll smugly inform either Eva or Sara that they have arrived for the purposes of opening the estate of Mr. Seth Hubbard for probate. And either Eva or Sara will suppress a grin while appearing confused. Papers will be shuffled, questions asked, then a big surprise—you’re a bit late, sirs. That estate has already been opened!
Either Eva or Sara will show them to the new filings, where they will gawk at the thin, handwritten will, one that specifically revoked and denounced the thick one they so cherished, and the war will begin. They will curse Jake Brigance, but once they settle down they will realize that the war could be profitable for all the lawyers.
Lettie wiped a tear and realized she was probably the only person crying.
In front of the lawyers were some business types, one of whom turned around and whispered something to Stillman Rush. Jake thought this might be one of the higher-ups who worked for Seth. He was particularly curious about Mr. Russell Amburgh, described in the handwritten will as once the vice president of Seth’s holding company and the man with the knowledge of the assets and liabilities.
Mrs. Nora Baines sang three stanzas of “The Old Rugged Cross,” a somber, surefire tearjerker at any funeral, but at Seth’s it failed to provoke emotion. Pastor McElwain read from Psalms and dwelled on the wisdom of Solomon, then two teenage boys with pimples and a guitar strummed and hummed through something contemporary, a strained song Seth would not have appreciated. Ramona finally broke down and was comforted by Ian. Herschel just stared at the floor in front of the casket, never blinking, never moving. Another woman sobbed loudly in response.
Seth’s cruel plan was to withhold knowledge of his last will until after the funeral. In his letter to Jake, his exact words were: “Do not mention my last will and testament until after the funeral. I want my family to be forced to go through all the rituals of mourning before they realize they get nothing. Watch them fake it—they’re very good at it. They have no love for me.” As the service dragged on, it became apparent that there was little faking going on. What was left of his family didn’t care enough to even fake it. What a sad way to go, thought Jake.
At Seth’s instructions, there were no eulogies. No one spoke but the pastor, though it was easy to get the impression there might be no volunteers if they opened up the mike. The pastor finished with a marathon of a prayer, one obviously designed to burn some clock. Twenty-five minutes after he started, he dismissed them with the invitation to walk next door to the cemetery for the interment. Outside, Jake managed to dodge Stillman Rush and the lawyers. Instead, he bumped into the nearest man in a business suit and said, “Excuse me, but I’m looking for a Russell Amburgh.”
The man politely pointed and said, “Right there.”
Russell Amburgh was standing ten feet away, lighting a cigarette, and he heard Jake’s inquiry. The two shook hands grimly and gave their names. Jake said, “Could I have a moment alone?”
Mr. Amburgh half shrugged and said softly, “Sure, what’s up?”
The crowd was drifting slowly in the general direction of the cemetery. Jake had no plans to watch the burial; he was on another mission. When he and Amburgh were far enough away not to be heard, he said, “I’m a lawyer in Clanton, never met Mr. Hubbard, but I received a letter from him yesterday. A letter, along with his last will and testament in which he names you as his executor. It is imperative that we talk as soon as possible.”
Amburgh stopped cold and jammed the cigarette into a corner of his mouth. He glared at Jake, then glanced around to make sure they were alone. “What kinda will?” he said, exhaling smoke.
“Handwritten, last Saturday. He was clearly contemplating his death.”
“Then he was probably out of his mind,” Amburgh said, sneering, the first rattle of a saber in the coming war.
Jake had not expected this. “We’ll see. I guess that will be determined later.”
“I was a lawyer once, Mr. Brigance, a long time ago before I found honest work. I know the game.”
Jake kicked a rock and looked around. The first mourners were nearing the front entrance of the cemetery. “Can we talk?”
“What’s in the will?”
“I can’t tell you now but I can tell you tomorrow.”
Amburgh cocked his head back and glared down along his nose. “How much do you know about Seth’s business?”
“Let’s say nothing. In his will he writes that you have a good knowledge of his assets and liabilities.”