Judge Atlee calmly said, “You need to keep researching, Mr. Sistrunk. Our probate laws give supreme deference to the wishes of the person who wrote the will. Mr. Hubbard clearly stated his intentions with regard to the attorney he wanted. There will be no change in that regard. Any other requests you may have should be dealt with by proper motion; that is, once you have associated a lawyer recognized by this court and are duly before it.”
Jake began to breathe normally again, though he was still shaken by the brazenness of Sistrunk and his ideas. And his greed. There was little doubt he had signed up Lettie to some form of contingency agreement that gave him a cut of her take. Most plaintiffs’ lawyers took one-third of a settlement, 40 percent of a jury verdict, and half where the case was appealed. An ego like Sistrunk, and, admittedly, one with a history of winning, would doubtless be at the top end of those percentages. And if that were not enough, he was craving another pile of cash to be earned by the hour as the probate attorney.
Judge Atlee was finished. He picked up his gavel, said, “We’ll meet again in thirty days. Adjourned,” and slammed it onto the surface of his bench.
Lettie was immediately engulfed by her attorneys, who whisked her away, through the railing of the bar and to the front row where she was circled by her family and other clingers. As if her life were in danger, they huddled around, stroking her, cooing, offering encouragement. Sistrunk was admired and congratulated for his bold assertions and positions, while Kendrick Bost kept an arm on Lettie’s shoulder as she whispered gravely to her loved ones. Cypress, her mother, sat in a wheelchair and wiped tears from her cheeks. What an awful thing they were putting the family through.
Jake was in no mood for small talk, not that anyone tried to engage him. The other lawyers broke off into small pockets of conversation as they repacked their briefcases and prepared to leave. The Hubbard heirs clung together and tried to avoid glaring at the blacks who were after their money. Jake ducked through a side door and was headed for the back stairs when Mr. Pate, the ancient courtroom deputy, called, “Say, Jake, Judge Atlee wants to see you.”
In the small cramped room where lawyers gathered for coffee and judges held their off-the-record meetings, Judge Atlee was removing his robe. “Close the door,” he said when Jake walked in.
The judge was no raconteur, no teller of tall legal tales, no jokester. There was little bullshit and rarely was there humor, though, as a judge, he had an audience eager to laugh at anything. “Have a seat, Jake,” he said, and both sat at a small desk.
“What an ass,” Judge Atlee said. “That might work in Memphis, but not here.”
“I think I’m still stunned.”
“Do you know Quince Lundy, lawyer down in Smithfield?”
“I’ve heard of him.”
“Older guy, maybe even semiretired. He’s done nothing but probate work for a hundred years, really knows his stuff, and straight as an arrow. Old friend of mine. File a motion suggesting Quince and two others—you pick ’em—as the substitute executor, and I’ll appoint Quince. You’ll get along fine with him. As for you, you’re on board until the end. What’s your hourly rate?”
“I don’t have one, Judge. My clients work for ten bucks an hour if they’re lucky. They can’t afford to pay a lawyer a hundred.”
“I think one fifty is a fair rate in today’s market. You agree?”
“One fifty sounds fine, Judge.”
“Okay, you’re on the clock at one fifty an hour. I’m assuming you have the time.”
“Good. Because this will eat up your life for the near future. Every sixty days or so, file a petition and ask for attorney’s fees. I’ll make sure you get paid.”
“There are a lot of rumors about the size of the estate. Any idea what’s true?”
“Russell Amburgh says it’s at least twenty million, with most of that in cash. Hidden out of state. Otherwise, everyone in Clanton would know exactly.”
“We’d better move fast to protect it. I’ll sign an order giving you the authority to take possession of Mr. Hubbard’s financial records. Once Quince Lundy is on board, you guys can start digging.”
Judge Atlee took a long sip of coffee from a paper cup. He looked through a dirty window, seemed to gaze upon the courthouse lawn, and finally said, “I almost feel sorry for that poor woman. She’s lost all control, surrounded by people who smell money. She won’t have a dime when Sistrunk gets finished with her.”
“Assuming the jury finds in her favor.”
“Will you request a jury, Jake?”
“I don’t know yet. Should I?” The question was far out-of-bounds, but at the moment it didn’t seem so. Jake braced himself for the reprimand, but instead Judge Atlee managed a tight grin as he continued staring at nothing outside. “I’d rather have a jury, Jake. I don’t mind making tough decisions. That goes with the job. But, in a case like this, it’ll be nice to have twelve of our good and faithful citizens in the hot seat. I’d like that, for a change.” His grin became a smile.
“I don’t blame you. I’ll make the request.”
“You do that. And Jake, there are a lot of lawyers out there and few that I really trust. Don’t hesitate to stop by and say hello and drink coffee if something needs to be discussed. I’m sure you appreciate the significance of this case. There’s not much money around here, Jake, never has been. Now, suddenly, there’s a pot of gold, and a lot of people want some of it. You don’t. I don’t. But there are plenty of others. It’s important that you and I stay on the same page.”
Jake’s muscles relaxed for the first time in hours, and he breathed deeply. “I agree, Judge, and thanks.”
“I’ll see you around.”
Dumas Lee owned the front page of The Ford County Times on Wednesday, October 12. The hearing the day before was evidently the only news in the county. A bold headline announced, BATTLE LINES DRAWN OVER HUBBARD WILL, and Dumas kicked off the lead story in his finest tabloid fashion: “A courtroom full of expectant heirs and their eager lawyers squared off yesterday in front of Chancellor Reuben Atlee as the opening shots were fired in what promises to be an epic battle for the fortune of the late Seth Hubbard, who hung himself on October 2.”
A photographer had been busy. In the center of the front page was a large photo of Lettie Lang as she was walking into the courthouse, with both Booker Sistrunk and Kendrick Bost tugging at her as if she were an invalid. Under the photo, she was described as “Lettie Lang, age 47 of Box Hill, former housekeeper of Seth Hubbard and presumed beneficiary under his last, handwritten, and suspicious will, accompanied by her two lawyers from Memphis.” Next to it were two smaller, candid shots of Herschel and Ramona, also walking somewhere near the courthouse.
Jake read the paper at his desk early Wednesday morning. He sipped coffee, read every word twice looking for mistakes, and was surprised to see Dumas got his facts straight for a change. But he cussed him for using the word “suspicious.” Every registered voter in the county was a potential juror. The majority would either read the paper or hear someone talking about it, and out of the gate Dumas had declared the will to be suspicious. The scowling, smirking faces of the well-dressed intruders from Memphis didn’t help matters either. As Jake stared at the photo, he tried to imagine a jury of nine whites and three blacks trying to find sympathy for Lettie as $20 million hung in the balance. They would find little. After a week in the courtroom with Booker Sistrunk, they would see through his intentions and void the will. A jury might grow to dislike Herschel and Ramona, but at least they were white and weren’t being led by a shyster with the appeal of a TV preacher.
Jake reminded himself that they were, for the moment, on the same team, or at least the same side of the courtroom. He vowed to quit. If Judge Atlee allowed Sistrunk to stay in the game, Jake would withdraw and go look for an ambulance to chase. Anything would be better than a brutal trial in which he was destined to lose. He needed the fees but not the headaches.
There was a commotion downstairs, then footsteps. There was an unmistakable rhythm and clatter to the way Harry Rex climbed the old wooden stairs to Jake’s office. His steps were slow and heavy and each seemed determined to shatter boards. The stairwell shook. Roxy called after him, protesting. Badly overweight and pathetically out of shape, he was almost gasping when he kicked open Jake’s door and began with a friendly “Damn woman’s gone crazy.” He tossed a copy of the newspaper onto Jake’s desk.
“Morning Harry Rex,” Jake said as his friend collapsed in a chair and worked on his heavy breathing, each gasp a bit softer, each exhalation delaying cardiac arrest.
“She tryin’ to piss off everybody?” he asked.
“It sure looks that way. You want some coffee?”
“Got a Bud Light?”
“It’s nine o’clock in the morning.”
“So? I’m not goin’ to court today. On days off, I’m startin’ earlier.”
“Do you think you’re drinking too much?”
“Hell no. With my clients, I’m not drinkin’ enough. Neither are you.”
“I don’t keep beer in the office. Don’t keep it at home.”
“What a life.” Harry Rex suddenly reached forward, grabbed the newspaper, held it up, and pointed to the photo of Lettie. “Tell me something, Jake, what does the average white person in this county say when he sees this photo. You got a black housekeeper, who’s lookin’ all right, and she somehow got herself inserted into the old boy’s will, and now she’s hired these slick African lawyers from the big city to come down here and grab the money. How does this play over at the Coffee Shop?”
“I think you know.”
“Is she stupid?”
“No, but they got to her. Simeon has kinfolks in Memphis, and somehow a connection was made. She has no idea what she’s doing and she’s getting bad advice.”
“You’re on her side, Jake. Can’t you talk to her?” He tossed the paper back onto the desk.
“No. I thought I could, then she hired Sistrunk. I tried to speak to her in court yesterday, but they were guarding her too closely. Tried to speak to the Hubbard kids, too, but they weren’t too friendly.”
“You’re a popular man these days, Jake.”
“I didn’t feel too popular yesterday. But Judge Atlee likes me.”
“I heard he wasn’t too impressed with Sistrunk.”
“No, he wasn’t. The jury won’t be either.”
“So you’re askin’ for a jury?”
“Yes, His Honor wants one, but you didn’t hear it from me.”
“I did not. You gotta figure out a way to get to her. Sistrunk’ll piss off everybody in the state and she won’t get a dime.”