Sycamore Row

Page 19


“I’ll try.”
“Did you call him Mr. Hubbard, Mr. Seth, or just Seth?”
Deliberately, she said, “When it was just the two of us, I called him Seth because that’s what he wanted. If anybody else was around, I always called him Mr. Seth or Mr. Hubbard.”
“What did he call you?”
“Lettie. Always.”
He quizzed her about Seth’s last days, his illness, treatments, doctors, nurses, appetite, daily rituals, and her employment. She knew almost nothing about his business and said that he kept his papers locked up tight around the house; most had been moved to his office over the past few months. He never discussed business with her, or in her presence. Before he got sick, and afterward when he felt well, he traveled a lot and preferred to be out of town. His home was quiet, lonely, and not a happy place. Often she would arrive at 8:00 a.m. with nothing to do for the next eight hours, especially if Seth were out of town. When he was there, she cooked and cleaned. When he was sick, and dying, she stayed by his side. She fed him, and, yes, she bathed him and cleaned up after him when necessary. There had been dark periods, especially during the chemo and radiation, when he was bedridden and too weak to feed himself.
Jake delicately explained the concept of undue influence. The legal assault on the handwritten will would be an assault on Lettie, with allegations that she was too close to Seth, had too much influence; that she manipulated him into including her. For Lettie to prevail, it would be important for her to prove otherwise. As they talked, and as she began to relax, Jake could envision her deposition in the near future, in a room full of hyped-up lawyers all clamoring for the floor and the chance to grill her about what she and Mr. Hubbard did and did not do. He already felt sorry for her.
When she was composed and under control, he said, “I need to explain the relationships here, Lettie. I am not your lawyer. I am the lawyer for Mr. Hubbard’s estate, and in that capacity it’s my job to advocate in favor of this will and to follow its terms. I have to work with the executor, and we’re assuming it will be Mr. Amburgh, to do certain things the law requires, such as notifying potential creditors, protecting assets, preparing an inventory of everything he owned, and so forth. If the will is contested, and I’m sure it will be, then it’s my job to go into court and fight to uphold this will. I’m not your lawyer because you are a beneficiary of the will—the same as his brother, Ancil Hubbard, and the same as his church. However, you and I are on the same side here because we both want this will to prevail. Does this make any sense?”
“I suppose. Do I need a lawyer?”
“Not really, not at this point. Don’t hire a lawyer until you need one.” The vultures would soon be circling and the courtroom would get crowded. Drop $20 million on the table and get out of the way.
“Will you tell me if I need one?” she asked innocently.
“Yes, I will,” Jake said, though he had no idea how he would give such advice. He poured more coffee and noticed she had not touched hers. He glanced at his watch. They had been together for thirty minutes and she had yet to ask about the size of the estate. A white person wouldn’t have made it five minutes without such an inquiry. At times she seemed to absorb each word, and at times she seemed to deflect them, as if overwhelmed.
She cried again and wiped her cheeks.
“Are you curious about how much?” Jake asked.
“I figured you’d tell me sooner or later.”
“I’ve seen nothing in the way of financial statements. I’ve not been inside his office, though that should happen soon. But, according to Mr. Amburgh, Seth Hubbard recently sold his company and cleared about $20 million. Mr. Amburgh thinks this is probably sitting in a bank somewhere. Cash. Plus there are a few other assets, maybe some real estate here and there. One of my jobs is to locate everything and inventory it for the court, and for the beneficiaries.”
“And I’m one of those—a beneficiary?”
“Oh yes, very much so. Ninety percent.”
“Ninety percent of twenty million?”
“Yes, give or take.”
“Oh my God, Jake.” She reached for the tissues and collapsed again.
Over the next hour, they managed some progress. Between her emotional meltdowns, Jake laid out the basics of estate administration—time, the people involved, court appearances, taxes, and lastly, the transfer of assets. The more he talked, though, the more confused she became, and he suspected that much of what he was saying would be repeated soon. He dumbed down the issues involved in a will contest and made cautious predictions as to what might happen. Knowing Judge Atlee and his distaste of lingering cases and slow lawyers, Jake believed a trial, assuming there was one, would take place within the next twelve months, probably sooner. With so much at stake, the losing party would certainly appeal, so tack on two more years before a final outcome. As Lettie began to grasp the ordeal and how long it might take, her resolve stiffened and she gathered her emotions.
Twice she asked if there was any way to keep it all quiet. No, Jake explained patiently, that would not be possible. She feared Simeon and his family of outlaws and wondered if she should move away. Jake had no advice on that matter, but he had already envisioned the coming chaos in her life as kinfolks materialized and new friends came out of the woods.
After two hours, she reluctantly left. Jake escorted her to the front door where she looked through the glass, across the sidewalk and the street, as if she preferred to stay inside where she knew it was safe. She had been jolted by the will, then overwhelmed by the law, and at that moment Jake was the only person she trusted. Her eyes were wet again when she finally stepped out.
“Are those tears of joy or is she scared to death?” Roxy asked after Jake closed the door.
“Both, I would say.”
She waved a pink phone message slip and said, “Doofus Lee called. He’s hot on the trail.”
“Oh come on.”
“Not kidding. Said he might stop by this afternoon and poke around in Seth Hubbard’s dirty laundry.”
“What’s dirty about it?” Jake asked as he took the slip.
“Everything’s dirty to Doofus.”
Dumas Lee wrote for The Ford County Times and was famous for screwing up the facts and barely dodging libel suits. While sloppy and easily avoidable, his errors were usually minor and harmless and had never risen to the level of outright defamation. He butchered dates and names and places but had never seriously embarrassed anyone. He had an ear for the street, an uncanny nose for picking up a story immediately after it happened, or while it was unfolding, and though he was too lazy for prolonged digging he could be counted on to stir things up. He preferred to cover the courthouse, primarily because it was across the street from the newspaper’s offices and many of its records were public.
He strode into the law offices of Jake Brigance late Wednesday afternoon, took a chair near Roxy’s desk, and demanded to see the lawyer. “I know he’s here,” he said with a killer smile that Roxy ignored. He liked the ladies and labored under the permanent illusion that every woman was eyeing him.
“He’s busy,” she said.
“So am I.” He opened a magazine and began whistling softly. Ten minutes later, Roxy said, “He’ll see you now.”
Jake and Dumas had known each other for years and never had a problem. Jake was one of the few lawyers around the square who had never threatened to sue him, and Dumas appreciated it.
“Tell me about Seth Hubbard,” he said, pulling out his notepad and uncapping his pen.
“I assume you’ve seen the will,” Jake replied.
“Got a copy. They’re everywhere. How much is he worth?”
“Nothing. He’s dead.”
“Ha-ha. His estate then.”
“I can’t say anything, Dumas, at this time. I don’t know much and I can’t say anything.”
“Okay, let’s go off the record.” With Dumas, nothing was off the record, and every lawyer, judge, and clerk knew it.
“I’m not off the record. I’m not on the record. I’m not talking, Dumas. It’s that simple. Maybe later.”
“When are you going to court?”
“The funeral was yesterday, okay? There’s no rush.”
“Oh really? No rush? Why did you file your petition twenty minutes after the funeral was over?”
Jake paused, nailed, busted, great question. “Okay, maybe I had a reason to rush my petition.”
“The old race to the courthouse, huh?” Dumas said with a goofy smirk as he scribbled something on his pad.
“No comment.”
“I can’t find Lettie Lang. Any idea where she is?”
“No comment. And she will not talk to you, or any other reporter.”
“We’ll see. I tracked down a guy in Atlanta, writes for a business magazine, said an LBO group bought a holding company owned by Mr. Seth Hubbard for fifty-five million. Happened late last year. Ring a bell?”
“No comment, Dumas,” Jake said, impressed that the notoriously lazy reporter had been working the phones.
“I’m not much when it comes to business, but you gotta figure the old guy had some debts, you know? No comment, right?” Jake nodded, yes, no comment. “But I can’t locate his banks. The more I dig, the less I learn about your client.”
“Never met the man,” Jake said, then wished he hadn’t. Dumas wrote it down.
“Do you know if he had any debts? Mr. Amburgh clammed up, then he hung up.”
“No comment.”
“So if I say that Mr. Hubbard sold out for fifty-five million and don’t mention any debts because I have no sources, then my readers will get the impression that his estate is worth a lot more than it really is, right?”
Jake nodded. Dumas watched him, waited, then scribbled. Shifting gears, he asked, “So the great question, Jake, is, Why would a man who’s worth millions change his will the day before his suicide, screwing his family with the update and leaving everything to his housekeeper?”
You got it, Dumas. That is the great question. Jake kept nodding but said nothing.
“And perhaps number two might be, What did Seth and his little brother witness that left such an impression that Seth mentions it decades later? Right?”
Jake replied, “That’s indeed a great question, but I’m not sure it’s number two.”
“Fair enough. Any idea where Ancil Hubbard is these days?”
“None whatsoever.”
“I found a cousin in Tupelo who says the family has assumed he’s been dead for decades.”
“I have not had time to search for Ancil.”
“But you will?”
“Yes, he’s a beneficiary under the will. It’s my job to locate him if possible, or find out what happened to him.”
“And how will you go about this?”
“I have no idea. Haven’t really thought about it yet.”
“When’s the first court date?”
“It has not been set.”