Sycamore Row

Page 25


“I’m sorry.”
“You’ll probably find his books in good order. Seth kept good records of everything, and as he got sicker he spent more time organizing everything.”
“When did you last see him?”
“The Friday before he died. He was not feeling well and he left around 3:00 p.m. Said he was going home to rest. I heard he wrote that last will here. Is that right?”
“That appears to be correct. Did you know anything about it?”
She paused for a moment and seemed unable, or unwilling, to answer. “Can I ask you a question, Mr. Brigance?”
“Whose side are you on? Are we supposed to trust you, or do we need our own lawyers?”
“Well, I don’t think more lawyers is a good idea. I am the attorney for the estate, chosen by Mr. Hubbard, and instructed by him to make sure his last will, the handwritten will, is honored and followed.”
“And that’s the will that gives everything to his maid?”
“Basically, yes.”
“Okay, what’s our role in this?”
“You don’t have a role in the administration of his estate. You might be called as a witness if the will is contested by his family.”
“As in a trial, in a courtroom?” She took a step back and seemed frightened.
“It’s possible, but it’s too early to worry about it. How many people here worked with Seth on a daily basis?”
Arlene wrung her hands and collected her thoughts. She leaned back and situated herself on the corner of her desk. “Me, Kamila, and Dewayne. That’s about it. There are some offices on the other side, but those guys didn’t see much of Seth. To be honest, we didn’t see much of him either, not until the past year when he was sick. Seth preferred to be on the road, checking his factories, his timber, running after his deals, flying to Mexico to open another furniture plant. He really didn’t like to stay at home.”
“Who kept up with him?”
“That was my job. We talked every day by phone. I made some of his travel arrangements, but he usually preferred to do that himself. He was not one to delegate. He paid all of his personal bills, wrote every check, balanced every account, kept up with every dime. His CPA is a guy in Tupelo—”
“I’ve spoken to him.”
“He has boxes of records.”
“I’d like to speak to you, Kamila, and Dewayne later, if possible.”
“Sure. We’re all here.”
The room had no windows and poor lighting. An old desk and chair indicated that it once might have been used as an office, but not recently. A thick layer of dust covered everything. One wall was lined with tall, black, metal file cabinets. Another wall had nothing but a 1987 Kenworth Truck calendar, hanging by a nail. Four imposing cardboard boxes were stacked on the desk, and that’s where Jake began. Careful to keep things in order, he flipped through the files in the first box, noting what was in them but not exactly crunching the numbers. That would come later.
The first box was labeled “Real Estate,” and it was filled with deeds, canceled mortgages, appraisals, tax bills, tax assessments, paid invoices from contractors, copies of checks written by Seth, and closing statements from lawyers. There were records for Seth’s home place on Simpson Road; a cabin near Boone, North Carolina; a condo in a high-rise near Destin, Florida; and several parcels of what appeared at first glance to be raw land. The second box was labeled “Timber Contracts.” The third was “Bank—Brokerage,” and Jake’s interest rose somewhat. A Merrill Lynch portfolio in an Atlanta office had a balance of almost $7 million. A bond fund at UBS in Zurich was valued at just over $3 million. A cash account at the Royal Bank of Canada on the island of Grand Cayman had $6.5 million. But all three of these rather exotic and exciting accounts had been closed in late September. Jake dug deeper, followed the trail that Seth had carefully left behind, and soon found the money sitting in a bank in Birmingham, earning 6 percent annually and just waiting for probate: $21.2 million, cash.
Such figures made him dizzy. For a small-town lawyer living in a rented house and driving a car with almost 200,000 miles on the odometer, the scene was surreal: he, Jake, poking through cardboard boxes in a dusty, semi-lit storage room in a prefabricated office building at a backwoods sawmill in rural Mississippi, and casually looking at sums of money that greatly exceeded the combined lifetime earnings of every lawyer now working in Ford County. He started laughing.
The money was really there! He shook his head in amazement and suddenly had a profound admiration for Mr. Seth Hubbard.
Someone rapped on the door and Jake almost jumped out of his skin. He closed the box, opened the door, and stepped outside. Arlene said, “Mr. Brigance, this is Dewayne Squire. His official title is vice president, but in reality he just does what I tell him.” Arlene managed a laugh, the first one. Jake and Dewayne exchanged a nervous handshake while shapely Kamila watched close by. The three employees stared at him, obviously wishing to discuss something important. Dewayne was a wiry, hyper sort, who, as it turned out, chain-smoked Kools with little regard for where his fumes drifted.
“Can we talk to you?” asked Arlene, the unquestioned leader. Dewayne fired up a Kool, his hands palsy-like as he arranged the cigarette. Talk, as in a serious conversation, not just a chat about the weather.
“Sure,” Jake said. “What’s on your mind?”
Arlene thrust forward a business card and asked, “Do you know this man?” Jake looked at it. Reed Maxey, Attorney-at-Law, Jackson, Mississippi. “No,” Jake said. “Never heard of him. Why?”
“Well, he dropped by last Tuesday, said he was working on Mr. Hubbard’s estate, and that the court was concerned about the handwritten will that you’ve filed or whatever it’s called; said the will is probably invalid because Seth was obviously doped up and out of his mind when he was planning to kill himself and at the same time writing that will; said that the three of us would be crucial witnesses because we saw Seth the Friday before the suicide and it would be up to us to testify as to how doped up he was; and, to boot, the real will, the one prepared by real lawyers and such, leaves some money to us as friends and employees; so, he said, it would be in our best interests to tell the truth, tell how Seth lacked—what was the term—”
“Testamentary capacity,” Dewayne said from deep within the menthol fog.
“That’s it—testamentary capacity. He made it sound like Seth was crazy.”
Stunned, Jake managed to maintain a grim face and give away nothing. His first reaction was anger—how dare another lawyer step into his case, tell lies, and tamper with witnesses. There were so many ethical violations Jake couldn’t think of them all. His second reaction, though, was more restrained—this lawyer was a fraud, a fake. No one would do this.
He kept his cool and said, “Well, I’ll have a talk with this lawyer and tell him to butt out.”
“What’s in the other will, the real one?” Dewayne asked.
“I haven’t seen it. It was prepared by some lawyers in Tupelo, and they have not yet been required to show it.”
“Do you think we’re in it?” Kamila asked without the slightest effort at subtlety.
“Don’t know.”
“Can we find out?” she asked.
“I doubt it.” Jake wanted to ask if such knowledge might affect their testimony, but he decided to say as little as possible.
Arlene said, “He asked a lot of questions about Seth and how he was acting that Friday. He wanted to know how he was feeling and all about his medications.”
“And what did you tell him?”
“Not much. To be honest, he was not the kind of person I wanted to talk to. He was shifty-eyed and—”
“A real fast talker,” Dewayne added. “Too fast. At times I couldn’t understand him and I kept thinking, This guy’s a lawyer? Hate to see him in court, in front of a jury.”
Kamila said, “He got pretty aggressive, too, almost demanding that we tell our stories a certain way. He really wanted us to say that Seth was unbalanced because of all the drugs.”
Dewayne, smoke pouring from his nostrils, said, “At one point he placed his briefcase on Arlene’s desk, upright, in an odd position, and made no effort to open it. He’s trying to tape this, I said to myself. He’s got a recorder in there.”
“No, he wasn’t too smooth,” Arlene said. “We believed him at first, you know. Guy comes in wearing a nice dark suit, says he’s a lawyer, hands over his card, and seems to know a lot about Seth Hubbard and his business. He insisted on talking to the three of us at the same time, and we didn’t know how to say no. So we talked, or, rather, he talked. We did most of the listening.”
“How would you describe this guy?” Jake asked. “Age, height, weight, so on.”
The three looked at each other with great reluctance, certain that there would be little agreement. “How old?” Arlene asked the others. “I’d say forty.”
Dewayne nodded and Kamila said, “Yes, maybe forty-five. Six feet, thick, I’d say two hundred pounds.”
“At least two hundred,” Dewayne said. “Dark hair, real dark, thick, kinda shaggy—”
“Needed a haircut,” Arlene said. “Thick mustache and sideburns. No glasses.”
“He smoked Camels,” Dewayne said. “Filters.”
“I’ll track him down and find out what he’s up to,” Jake said, though by then he was fairly certain there was no lawyer named Reed Maxey. Even the dumbest of lawyers would know that such a visit would lead to sure trouble and an ethics investigation. Nothing added up.
“Should we talk to a lawyer?” Kamila asked. “I mean, this is something new for me, for us. It’s kinda scary.”
“Not yet,” Jake said. He planned to get them one-on-one and hear their stories. A group talk might sway the narrative. “Perhaps later, but not now.”
“What’ll happen to this place?” Dewayne asked, then noisily filled his lungs.
Jake walked across the open space and roughly yanked open a window so he could breathe. “Why can’t you smoke outside?” Kamila hissed at the vice president. It was obvious the smoking issue had been roiling for some time. Their boss had been dying of lung cancer and his office suite smelled like burned charcoal. Of course smoking was permitted.
Jake walked back, stood before them, and said, “Mr. Hubbard, in his will, directed his executor to sell all of his assets for fair value and reduce everything to cash. This business will continue operating until someone buys it.”
“When will that happen?” Arlene asked.
“Whenever the right offer comes along. Now, or two years from now. Even if the estate gets bogged down in a will contest, Mr. Hubbard’s assets will be protected by the court. I’m sure word is out in these parts that this business will go on the block. We might get an offer in the near future. Until then, nothing changes. Assuming, of course, that the employees here can continue to run things.”