Sycamore Row

Page 3


“I did what?” Prather asked. The deputy had an annoying habit of dropping a loud, loaded question over breakfast and following it up with silence. He knew the details and the dirt, and he was always fishing to see if anyone else had something to add.
“The past tense. You asked ‘Did I know him?’ not ‘Do I know him?’—which would of course indicate he’s still alive. Right?”
“I suppose.”
“So what happened?”
Andy Furr, a mechanic at the Chevrolet place, said loudly, “Killed himself yesterday. Found him hangin’ from a tree.”
“Left a note and everything,” added Dell as she swooped by with a coffeepot. The café had been open for an hour, so there was little doubt Dell knew as much about Seth Hubbard’s passing as anyone.
“Okay, what did the note say?” Jake asked calmly.
“Can’t tell you, sweetie,” she chirped. “That’s between me and Seth.”
“You didn’t know Seth,” Prather said.
Dell was an old tart with the quickest tongue in town. She said, “I loved Seth once, or maybe it was twice. Can’t always remember.”
“There have been so many,” Prather said.
“Yeah, but you’ll never get close old boy,” she said.
“You really don’t remember, do you?” Prather shot back and got a few laughs.
“Where was the note?” Jake asked, trying to reverse the conversation.
Prather stuffed a load of pancakes in his mouth, chewed for a while, then replied, “On the kitchen table. Ozzie’s got it now, still investigatin’ but not much to it. Looks like Hubbard went to church, seemed fine, then drove back onto his property, took a stepladder and a rope and did the deed. One of his workers found him around two yesterday afternoon, swingin’ in the rain. All dressed up in his Sunday best.”
Interesting, bizarre, tragic, but Jake found it difficult to have any concern for a man he’d never met. Andy Furr asked, “Did he have anything?”
“Don’t know,” Prather said. “I think Ozzie knew him but he’s not sayin’ much.”
Dell refilled their cups and stopped to talk. With a hand on one hip she said, “No, I never knew him. But my cousin knows his first wife, he had at least two, and accordin’ to the first one Seth had some land and money. She said he laid low, kept secrets, and didn’t trust anybody. Also said he was a nasty sonofabitch, but then they always say that after the divorce.”
“You oughtta know,” Prather added.
“I do know, old boy. I know so much more than you.”
“Is there a last will and testament?” Jake asked. Probate work was not his favorite, but a sizable estate usually meant a decent fee for someone in town. It was all paper shuffling with a couple of court appearances, nothing difficult and not too tedious. Jake knew that by 9:00 a.m. the lawyers in town would be slinking around trying to find out who wrote Seth Hubbard’s last will.
“Don’t know yet,” Prather said.
“Wills ain’t public record, are they Jake?” asked Bill West, an electrician at the shoe factory north of town.
“Not until you die. You can change your will at the last minute, so it would be useless to record it. Plus, you might not want the world to know what’s in your will until you’re dead. Once that happens, and once the will is probated, then it’s filed in court and becomes public.” Jake looked around as he spoke and counted at least three men he had prepared wills for. He made them short, quick, and cheap, and this was well known in town. It kept the traffic moving.
“When does probate start?” Bill West asked.
“There’s no time limit. Usually the surviving spouse or children of the deceased will find the will, take it to a lawyer, and a month or so after the funeral they’ll go to court and start the process.”
“What if there’s no will?”
“That’s a lawyer’s dream,” Jake said with a laugh. “It’s a mess. If Mr. Hubbard died with no will, and left behind a couple of ex-wives, maybe some adult children, maybe some grandchildren, who knows, then they’d probably spend the next five years fighting over his property, assuming of course he does have assets.”
“Oh, he’s got ’em,” Dell said from across the café, her radar as always on high alert. If you coughed she quizzed you about your health. If you sneezed she hustled over with a tissue. If you were uncharacteristically quiet she might pry into your home life, or your job. If you tried to whisper she would be standing at your table, refilling cups of coffee regardless of how full they happened to be. She missed nothing, remembered everything, and never failed to remind her boys of something they’d said to the contrary three years earlier.
Marshall Prather rolled his eyes at Jake, as if to say, “She’s nuts.” But he wisely said nothing. Instead, he finished off his pancakes and had to leave.
Jake was not far behind. He paid his check at 6:40 and left the Coffee Shop, hugging Dell on the way out and choking on the fumes of her cheap perfume. The sky was orange in the east as dawn unfolded. Yesterday’s rain was gone and the air was clear and cool. As always, Jake headed east, away from his office, and at a brisk pace as if he were late for an important meeting. The truth was that he had no important meetings that day, just a couple of routine office visits with people in trouble.
Jake took his morning stroll around the Clanton square, passing banks and insurance agencies and realty offices, shops and cafés, all tucked neatly together, all closed at this early hour. With a few exceptions, the buildings were two-story redbrick with wrought-iron laced terraces overhanging the sidewalks that ran in a perfect square around the courthouse and its lawn. Clanton wasn’t exactly prospering, but it wasn’t dying either like so many small towns in the rural South. The 1980 census put the population at just over eight thousand, four times that much for the entire county, and the numbers were expected to increase slightly after the next head count. There were no empty storefronts, nothing boarded up, no “For Lease” signs hanging sadly in the windows. He was from Karaway, a small town of twenty-five hundred eighteen miles west of Clanton, and Main Street there was decaying as merchants retired, cafés closed, and the lawyers gradually packed their books and moved to the county seat. There were now twenty-six around the Clanton square, and the number was growing, the competition steadily choking itself. How many more can we stand? Jake often asked himself.
He relished walking past the other law offices and gazing at their locked doors and dark reception rooms. It was a victory lap of sorts. In his smugness he was ready to tackle the day while his competition was still asleep. He walked past the office of Harry Rex Vonner, perhaps his closest friend in the bar, and a warrior who rarely arrived before 9:00, often with a reception filled with edgy divorce clients. Harry Rex had been through several wives and knew a chaotic home life, and for this reason he preferred to work late into the night. Jake walked past the hated Sullivan firm, home of the largest collection of lawyers in the county. Nine at last count, nine complete assholes Jake tried to avoid, but this was partly out of envy. Sullivan had the banks and insurance companies and its lawyers earned more than all the rest. He walked past the troubled and padlocked office of an old pal named Mack Stafford, unseen and unheard from now for eight months after apparently fleeing in the middle of the night with money belonging to his clients. His wife and two daughters were still waiting, as was an indictment. Secretly, Jake hoped Mack was on a beach somewhere, sipping rum drinks and never coming back. He’d been an unhappy man in an unhappy marriage. “Keep running, Mack,” Jake said each morning as he touched the padlock without breaking stride.
He passed the offices of The Ford County Times, the Tea Shoppe, which was only now coming to life, a haberdashery where he bought his suits on sale, a black-owned café called Claude’s where he ate every Friday with the other white liberals in town, an antiques store owned by a crook Jake had sued twice, a bank still holding the second mortgage on his home and tied up in the same lawsuit, and a county office building where the new district attorney worked when he was in town. The old one, Rufus Buckley, was gone, banished last year by the voters and permanently retired from elective office, or at least Jake and many others hoped so. He and Buckley had almost choked each other during the Hailey trial, and the hatred was still intense. Now the ex-DA was back in his hometown of Smithfield, in Polk County, where he was licking his wounds and scrambling to make a living on a Main Street crammed with other law offices.
The loop was over, and Jake unlocked the front door to his own office, which was generally considered to be the finest in town. The building, along with many others on the square, had been built by the Wilbanks family a hundred years earlier, and for almost that long a Wilbanks had practiced law there. The streak ended when Lucien, the last remaining Wilbanks and no doubt the craziest, had been disbarred. He had just hired Jake, fresh out of law school and full of ideals. Lucien wanted to corrupt him, but before he had the chance the State Bar Association yanked his license for the last time. With Lucien gone and no other Wilbanks around, Jake inherited a magnificent suite of offices. He used only five of the ten rooms available. There was a large reception area downstairs where the current secretary did her work and greeted clients. Above it, in a splendid room thirty feet by thirty, Jake spent his days behind a massive oak desk that had been used by Lucien, his father, and grandfather. When he was bored, a common occurrence, he walked to the double French doors, opened them and stepped onto the terrace, where he had a fine view of the courthouse and the square.
At 7:00 a.m., on schedule, he sat behind his desk and took a sip of coffee. He looked at his calendar for the day and admitted to himself that it did not look promising or profitable.
The current secretary was a thirty-one-year-old mother of four who’d been hired by Jake only because he could find no one more suitable. When she began five months earlier he had been desperate, and she had been available. She went by Roxy, and on the plus side Roxy showed up for work each morning around 8:30, or a few minutes thereafter, and did a somewhat passable job of answering the phone, greeting the clients, chasing away the riffraff, typing, filing, and keeping her turf somewhat organized. On the negative, and heavier, side of the ledger, Roxy had little interest in the job, viewed it as only temporary until something better came along, smoked on the back porch and smelled like it, nagged about the low salary, made vague but loaded comments as to how she thought all lawyers were rich, and in general was an unpleasant person to be around. She was from Indiana, had been dragged south in an Army marriage, and like many from the North had little patience with the culture around her. She’d had a superior upbringing and was now living in a backward place. Though Jake did not inquire, he strongly suspected her marriage was less than fulfilling. Her husband had lost his job due to dereliction. She wanted Jake to sue on his behalf but Jake declined, and this was still festering. Plus, there was about $50 missing from petty cash, and Jake suspected the worst.