Sycamore Row

Page 13


Jake nodded and smoked. By now, he was not surprised. “And Amburgh?”
“Russell Amburgh is from Foley, Alabama, way down south close to Mobile. He was a lawyer there until he got himself disbarred about fifteen years ago. Commingling client funds, but no indictment. No criminal record. Freed from the legal profession, he went into the timber business and it’s safe to assume that’s where he met Seth Hubbard. As far as we can tell, everything’s on the up-and-up. Not sure why he moved to a dead-end place like Temple.”
“I’m driving to Temple in the morning. I’ll ask him.”
An elderly couple walked by with an elderly poodle. They exchanged pleasantries without slowing down. When they were gone, Jake blew more smoke and asked, “Any luck with Ancil Hubbard, the brother?”
“Not a peep. Nothin’.”
“No surprise.”
“It’s funny. I’ve lived here all my life, never heard of Seth Hubbard. My dad’s eighty, lived here all his life, and he’s never heard of Seth Hubbard.”
“There are thirty-two thousand people in this county, Mike. You can’t know all of them.”
“Ozzie does.”
They had a quick laugh. Nesbit flipped his cigarette butt into the street and stretched his back. “Guess I need to get home, Jake.”
“Thanks for stopping by. I’ll talk to Ozzie tomorrow.”
“You do that. See ya.”
He found Carla in the empty bedroom, sitting in a chair facing the window with a view of the street. The room was dark. He entered quietly, then stopped, and when she knew he was listening she said, “I’m so sick of seeing police cars in front of my house, Jake.”
He took a deep breath and a step closer. This conversation was too familiar, and a wrong word could send it spiraling down. “So am I,” he said softly.
“What did he want?” she asked.
“Not much, just some background on Seth Hubbard. Ozzie’s been asking around but hasn’t found much.”
“He couldn’t call you tomorrow? Why does he have to drive over and park in front of our house so everyone can see that the Brigances can’t make it through the night without the police showing up again?”
Questions with no answers.
Jake bit his tongue and eased out of the room.
Russell Amburgh hid behind a newspaper in a booth in the rear of The Café. He was not a regular, nor was he well known in the small town of Temple. He had moved there because of a woman, his third wife, and they stayed to themselves. He also worked for a man who valued discretion and secrecy, and this suited Amburgh fine.
He secured the booth a few minutes after 7:00, ordered some coffee, and started reading. On the subject of Seth Hubbard’s will or wills, he knew nothing. Though he had worked for Mr. Hubbard for almost a decade, he knew little about his private life. He could put his finger on most of the man’s assets, certainly not all, but he had learned early on that his boss loved secrets. And he liked to play games, and hold grudges, and keep people guessing. The two had traveled extensively together throughout the Southeast as Mr. Hubbard pieced his holdings together, but they had never been close. No one was close to Seth Hubbard.
Jake walked in at exactly 7:30 and found Amburgh back in a booth. The Café was half-full, and Jake, the foreigner, got some looks as he walked through it. He and Amburgh shook hands and exchanged pleasantries. Based on their conversation the day before, Jake was expecting a cool reception and grudging cooperation, though he was not overly concerned with Mr. Amburgh’s initial reactions. Jake had been directed by Seth Hubbard to do a job, and, if he was challenged, the court would stand behind him. Amburgh, though, seemed relaxed and sufficiently receptive. After a few minutes of football and weather, he got down to business. “Has the will been probated?” he asked.
“Yes, as of 5:00 p.m. yesterday. I left the funeral and hurried back to the courthouse in Clanton.”
“Did you bring me a copy of it?”
“I did,” Jake said, without reaching for a pocket. “You are named as executor. It is now a public record, so you can have a copy.”
Amburgh showed both palms and asked, “Am I a beneficiary?”
He nodded grimly and Jake could not tell if this was expected. “I get nothing in the will?” Amburgh asked.
“Nothing. Is this a surprise?”
Amburgh swallowed hard and glanced around. “No,” he said unconvincingly. “Not really. With Seth, there are no surprises.”
“You’re not surprised he killed himself?”
“Not at all, Mr. Brigance. The last twelve months have been a nightmare. Seth just got tired of the pain. He knew he was dying. We knew he was dying. So no, no real surprise.”
“Wait till you read the will.”
A waitress blew by, barely slowing long enough to top off both cups of coffee. Amburgh took a sip and said, “Tell me your story, Mr. Brigance. How did you know Seth?”
“Never met him,” Jake said. He rattled off the short version of why he was now sitting at the table. Amburgh listened intently. He had a small round head that was slick on top, and his nervous habit was to start above the eyebrows with his right hand and sweep back, as if the few thick strands of dark hair needed to be continually plastered down. He wore a golf shirt, old khakis, and a light windbreaker, and looked more like a retiree than the businessman from the funeral.
Jake was saying, “Is it safe to assume you’re his most trusted lieutenant?”
“No, not at all. In fact, I’m not sure why Seth wants me involved in this. I can think of others who were closer.” A long sip of coffee, then, “Seth and I didn’t always get along. Several times I thought about leaving. The more money he made, the more risks he took. More than once I became convinced Seth was determined to flame out in some glorious bankruptcy, with the loot hidden offshore, of course. He became fearless, and it was frightening.”
“Now that we’re on the subject, let’s talk about Seth’s money.”
“Sure. I’ll tell you what I know, but I don’t know everything.”
“Okay,” Jake said calmly, as if they were back on the weather. For almost forty-eight hours he had been consumed with the burning question of what did Seth possess? Finally, he was about to hear it. He had no legal pad, no pen at the ready, just a cup of black coffee before him.
Amburgh glanced around again, but no one was listening. “What I’m about to tell you is not well known. It’s not confidential, but Seth did a good job of keeping things hidden.”
“It’s all about to come out, Mr. Amburgh.”
“I know.” He took a sip of coffee as if he needed fuel, then leaned in a bit lower. “Seth had a lot of money, and he made it all in the past ten years. After his second divorce, he was bitter, angry at the world, broke, and also determined to make some money. He really liked his second wife, and after she ditched him he wanted revenge. To Seth, revenge meant making more money than what she got in the divorce.”
“I know her lawyer very well.”
“The big fat guy, what’s his name?”
“Harry Rex Vonner.”
“Harry Rex. I’ve heard Seth cuss him a few times.”
“He’s not the only one.”
“That’s what I hear. Anyway, Seth got his house and land, and he borrowed heavily against them to buy a big lumber mill near Dothan, Alabama. I was working there, buying timber, and that’s how I came to know Seth. He got it cheap, good timing. This was late 1979, the price of plywood spiked, and we were doing pretty well. We had a good hurricane season, lots of damage, lots of demand for plywood and lumber. He borrowed against the mill and bought a furniture factory near Albany, Georgia. The place made these oversized rocking chairs you see on the front porches of Griddle restaurants, coast-to-coast. Seth negotiated a contract with the chain and overnight they couldn’t make the rocking chairs fast enough. He pledged the stock, borrowed some more, and bought another furniture factory near Troy, Alabama. About that time he found a banker in Birmingham who was trying to grow his small bank into something much bigger, and he was aggressive. He and Seth were on the same page, and the deals came one after the other. More factories, more lumber mills, more timber leases. Seth had a nose for sniffing out businesses that were undervalued or in trouble, and his banker rarely said no. I warned him against so much debt, but he was too reckless to listen. He had something to prove. He bought an airplane, kept it in Tupelo so no one around here would know, and stayed in the air.”
“Does this have a happy ending?”
“Oh yes. Over the past ten years or so, Seth bought about three dozen companies, primarily furniture plants in the South, some of which he moved to Mexico, but also lumber yards and sawmills, along with thousands of acres of timber. All with borrowed money. I mentioned the one banker in Birmingham, but there were others. The bigger he got the easier it became to borrow more. As I said, it was at times frightening, but the guy never got burned. He didn’t sell a single thing he bought, just held on, looking for the next deal. Deals and debts were like an addiction to Seth. Some men gamble, some drink, some chase women. Seth loved the smell of somebody else’s money as he bought another company. He also liked women.
“Then, sadly, he got sick. It was about a year ago when the doctors told him he had lung cancer. He was ripping along at full speed until he went to the doctor. They told him he had a year, max. Needless to say, he was devastated. Without consulting anyone, he decided to sell out. A few years ago, we found the Rush law firm in Tupelo, and Seth finally had some guys he could trust. He hated lawyers and fired them as fast as he hired them. But the Rush firm convinced him to consolidate everything into one holding company. Last November, he sold the holding company to a leveraged buyout group in Atlanta for $55 million. He happily repaid his debts, to the tune of $35 million.”
“He netted twenty?”
“He netted twenty, give or take. There were a few other loose ends, including me. I had some stock in the holding company and so I walked away in good shape. I retired at the end of last year. I don’t know what Seth has done with the money since then, probably buried it in the backyard. Plus, he accumulated other assets that he kept out of the holding company. There’s a cabin in the mountains of North Carolina, and quite a few other assets. There’s probably an offshore bank account or two.”
“I can’t say for certain, Mr. Brigance. Just things I’ve heard over the years. As I said, Seth Hubbard loved his secrets.”
“Well, Mr. Amburgh, you as his executor and I as his lawyer have the job of tracking down all assets.”
“Shouldn’t be too hard. We’ll need access to his office.”
“And where is that?”
“At the lumber yard near Palmyra. That was his only office. There’s a secretary there, Arlene, who runs the show. I spoke to her Sunday night and suggested that she keep everything locked up until she hears from the lawyers.”