Sycamore Row

Page 12


Lettie, almost whispering, said, “Very sorry about that, Mr. Brigance.”
“No problem. Look, Ms. Lang, there is a very important matter we need to discuss as soon as possible, preferably tomorrow in my office. It’s about Mr. Hubbard and his last will and testament.”
Lettie bit her bottom lip as she stared wild-eyed at Jake. Tell me more.
Jake continued: “The day before he died, he made a new will, one that he dropped in the mail so I would receive it after his death. It appears to be a valid will, but I’m sure it will be contested by his family.”
“Am I in his will?”
“You certainly are. In fact, he left a sizable portion of his estate to you.”
“Oh God.”
“Yes. He wants me to be the lawyer for his estate, and I’m sure that will be contested too. That’s why we need to talk.”
Her right hand covered her mouth as she mumbled, “Oh my Lord.”
Jake looked at the house where the light from its windows cut through the darkness. A shadow moved beyond it, probably Simeon circling around. Jake had the sudden desire to hop in the old Saab and cut a trail quickly back to civilization.
She asked, nodding, “Should I tell him?”
“That’s up to you. I would have included him but I’ve heard stories about his drinking. Didn’t know what shape he’s in right now. But, to be honest, Ms. Lang, he’s your husband and he should come with you tomorrow. That is, if he’s in good shape.”
“He’ll be in good shape, I promise.”
Jake handed her a business card and said, “Anytime tomorrow afternoon. I’ll be in my office waiting.”
“We’ll be there, Mr. Brigance. And thank you for comin’ here.”
“It’s very important, Ms. Lang, and I felt like I needed to meet you. We could be in for a long, hard fight together.”
“I’m not sure I understand.”
“I know. I’ll explain it tomorrow.”
“Thank you, Mr. Brigance.”
“Good night.”
After a quick, late supper of grilled cheese and tomato soup, Jake and Carla cleared the table and cleaned the dishes (there was no dishwasher), and eventually settled in the den, which began where the kitchen left off, some six feet away from the dining table. Three years (plus) in tight living quarters required a constant reassessment of priorities and attitudes, along with a vigilance against edginess. Hanna helped tremendously. Small children care little for the material things that so impress adults; as long as both parents are doting, little else matters. Carla helped her with spelling and Jake read her stories, and as they tag-teamed through the evening they also caught up with the daily papers and the cable news. At 8:00 p.m. on the dot, Carla gave her a bath, and thirty minutes later Hanna was tucked snugly into bed by both parents.
Alone at last and wrapped together under a quilt on the rickety sofa, Carla said, “Okay, what’s up?”
Jake, flipping through a sports magazine, replied, “What do you mean ‘What’s up?’ ”
“Don’t play dumb. Something’s up. A new case maybe? A new client who can pay a decent fee, or perhaps even a huge fee that might rescue us from poverty? Please.”
Jake flung the quilt onto the floor and jumped to his feet. “Well, as a matter of fact, my dear, there’s a good chance we’ve just stiff-armed poverty.”
“I knew it. I can always tell when you sign up a good car wreck. You get twitchy.”
“It’s not a car wreck.” Jake was thumbing through his briefcase. He pulled out a file and handed her some papers. “It’s a suicide.”
“Oh that.”
“Yes, that. Last night I told you about the unfortunate demise of Mr. Seth Hubbard, but what I didn’t tell you was that before he died he did a quickie will, mailed it to my office, and designated me as the lawyer for his estate. I probated it late this afternoon. It’s now public record, so I can talk about it.”
“And this is the guy you never met?”
“A guy you never met but you went to his funeral this afternoon?”
“You got it.”
“Why did he pick you?”
“Brilliant reputation. Just read the will, please.”
One glance and she said, “But it’s handwritten.”
“No kidding?”
Jake re-entangled himself with his wife on the sofa and watched her intently as she read the two-page will. Slowly, her mouth dropped open, her eyes widened, and when she finished she looked at Jake in disbelief and mumbled, “ ‘Perish in pain’? What a jerk.”
“Evidently so. Never met the man, but Harry Rex handled his second divorce and he doesn’t think much of Mr. Hubbard.”
“Most people don’t think much of Harry Rex.”
“This is true.”
“Who’s Lettie Lang?”
“His black housekeeper.”
“Oh my gosh, Jake. This is scandalous.”
“I sure hope so.”
“Does he have money?”
“Did you read the part where he says, ‘My estate is substantial’? Ozzie knew him and seems to agree. I’m driving to Temple early in the morning to meet with Mr. Russell Amburgh, the executor. I’ll be a lot smarter by noon.”
She sort of waved the two sheets of paper and asked, “Is this valid? Can you make a will like this?”
“Oh yes. Wills and Estates 101, taught for fifty years by Professor Robert Weems at the Ole Miss Law School. He gave me an A. As long as every word is written by the deceased, and signed and dated, it’s a real will. I’m sure it’ll be contested by his two kids, but that’s where the fun starts.”
“Why would he leave virtually everything to his black housekeeper?”
“I guess he liked the way she cleaned his house. I don’t know. Maybe she did more than clean.”
“He was sick, Carla, dying of lung cancer. I suspect Lettie Lang cared for him in a lot of ways. Obviously, he was fond of her. His two kids will lawyer up and howl about undue influence. They’ll claim she got too close to him, whispered in the old guy’s ear, and maybe more. It’ll be up to the jury.”
“A jury trial?”
Jake was smiling, dreaming. “Oh yes.”
“Wow. Who knows about this?”
“I filed the petition at five this afternoon, so the gossip hasn’t started. But I reckon by nine in the morning the courthouse will be alive.”
“This’ll blow the top off the courthouse, Jake. A white man with money cuts out his family, leaves it all to his black housekeeper, then hangs himself. Are you kidding?”
He was not. She read the will again as her husband closed his eyes and thought about the trial. When she finished, she placed the two sheets of paper on the floor, then glanced around the room. “Just curious, dear, but how are your fees determined in a case like this? Forgive me for asking.” She sort of waved a loose arm as she took in the narrow room, the flea market furniture, the cheap bookshelves sagging and overloaded, the fake Persian rug, the secondhand curtains, the stack of magazines piled on the floor, the general shabbiness of renters with better taste but no way to prove it.
“What? You want nicer digs? Maybe a duplex, or a double-wide?”
“Don’t start with me.”
“The fees could be substantial, not that I’ve considered the subject.”
“Sure. The fees are based on actual work, billable hours, something we know so little about. The attorney for the estate gets to punch the clock each day and actually get paid for his time. This is unheard-of for us. All fees must be approved by the judge, who in this case is our dear friend, the Honorable Reuben Atlee, and since he knows we’re starving he’ll probably be in a generous mood. A big estate, a pile of money, a hotly contested will, and we just might avoid bankruptcy.”
“A pile of money?”
“Just a figure of speech, dear. We shouldn’t get greedy at this point.”
“Don’t patronize me,” she said as she looked into the twinkling eyes of a hungry lawyer.
“Right.” But Carla was mentally packing boxes and preparing to move. She had made the same mistake a year earlier when the law offices of Jake Brigance attracted a young couple whose newborn died in a Memphis hospital. A promising case of medical malpractice wilted under the scrutiny of expert review, and Jake had no choice but to settle for nuisance value.
She asked, “And you went to see Lettie Lang?”
“I did. She lives out from Box Hill in a community called Little Delta; not too many white folks around. Her husband is a drunk who comes and goes. I didn’t go in the house but I got the impression it’s crowded in there. I checked the land records; they don’t own the place. It’s a cheap little rental, similar—”
“Similar to this dump, right?”
“Similar to our home. Probably built by the same hack, who no doubt went bankrupt. But, anyway, there are only three of us here and probably a dozen in Lettie’s house.”
“Is she nice?”
“Nice enough. We didn’t talk long. I got the impression she’s a fairly typical black woman for these parts, with a houseful of kids, a part-time husband, a minimum-wage job, a hard life.”
“That’s pretty harsh.”
“Yes, but it’s also pretty accurate.”
“Is she attractive?”
Under the quilt, Jake began massaging her right calf. He thought for a moment, then said, “I couldn’t really tell; it was getting dark in a hurry. She’s about forty-five, seemed to be in fairly good shape, certainly not unattractive. Why do you ask? You think sex could be behind Mr. Hubbard’s last will and testament?”
“Sex? Who mentioned sex?”
“That’s exactly what you’re thinking. Did she screw her way into his will?”
“All right, sure, that’s what I’m thinking, and that’s what the entire town will be buzzing about by noon tomorrow. This has sex written all over it. He was a dying man and she was his caregiver. Who knows what they did?”
“You have a filthy mind. I love it.”
His hand moved to her thigh but there it was blocked. The phone rang, startling both of them. Jake walked to the kitchen, answered it, then hung up. “It’s Nesbit, outside,” he said to her. He found a cigar and a box of matches and left the house. At the end of the short driveway, by the mailbox, he lit the cigar and blew a cloud of smoke into the cool, crisp evening air. A minute later, a patrol car turned onto the street and rolled to a quiet stop near Jake. Deputy Mike Nesbit grappled his overweight self out of the car, said, “Evenin’ Jake,” and lit a cigarette.
“Evenin’ Mike.”
Both blowing smoke, they leaned against the hood of the patrol car. Nesbit said, “Ozzie’s found nothin’ on Hubbard. He ran a search through Jackson and came up dry. Looks like the ol’ boy kept his toys somewhere else; ain’t no records in this state except for his house, cars, acreage, and the lumber yard up near Palmyra. Beyond that, not a trace. I mean nothin’. No bank accounts. No corporations. No LLCs. No partnerships. A couple of insurance policies where you’d expect to find them, but that’s all. Rumors that he did business in other states, but we ain’t got that far yet.”