Sycamore Row

Page 5


10. I give, devise, etc., 5% of my estate to the Irish Road Christian Church.
11. I direct my executor to sell my house, land, real property, personal property, and lumber yard near Palmyra, for market value, as soon as practical, and place the proceeds into my estate.
Seth Hubbard October 1, 1988
The signature was small and neat and quite legible. Jake wiped his hands again on his pants and reread the will. It covered two pages, and the handwriting was in near perfect lines, as though Seth had meticulously used a straightedge of some variety.
A dozen questions clamored for attention, with the most obvious being—Who in the world is Lettie Lang? A close second was—What, exactly, did she do to deserve 90 percent? Then—How big is the estate? If it is indeed sizable, how much will be eaten up in death taxes? This question was quickly followed with—How much might the attorney’s fees run?
But before he got greedy, Jake took another walk around the office, his head spinning and his adrenaline rising. What a wondrous legal brawl. With money on the line, there was little doubt Seth’s family would lawyer up and attack the last will with a fury. Though Jake had never handled a full-blown will contest, he knew such cases were tried in Chancery Court and often before juries. It was rare for a dead person in Ford County to leave much behind, but occasionally someone with a measure of wealth would pass on without proper estate planning, or with a suspicious will. These occasions were a bonanza to the local bar as the lawyers raged in and out of court and the assets evaporated in legal fees.
He gently placed the envelope and the three sheets of paper into a file, and carried it downstairs to Roxy’s desk. By now her looks had improved, somewhat, and she was opening the mail. “Read this,” he said. “And slowly.”
She did as he instructed, and when she finished she said, “Wow. Great way to start the week.”
“Not so for old Seth,” Jake said. “Please note that this arrived in the mail this morning, October 3.”
“So noted. Why?”
“The timing could be crucial one day in court. Saturday, Sunday, Monday.”
“I’m going to be a witness?”
“Maybe, maybe not, but we’re just taking precautions, okay?”
“You’re the lawyer.”
Jake ran four copies of the envelope, the letter, and the will. He gave Roxy a copy to enter into the firm’s newest case file, and he tucked two away in a locked drawer in his desk. He waited until 9:00 a.m. and left the office with the original and one copy. He told Roxy he was headed for the courthouse. He walked next door to Security Bank, where he placed the original in his firm’s lockbox.
Ozzie Walls’s office was at the county jail, two blocks off the square in a low-slung concrete bunker built on the cheap a decade earlier. A tumorlike appendage had been added later to house the sheriff and his staff and deputies, and the place was crammed with cheap desks, folding chairs, and stained carpet fraying at the baseboards. Monday mornings were usually hectic as the weekend’s fun and games were tidied up. Angry wives arrived to bail their hungover husbands out of jail. Other wives stormed in to sign papers to get their husbands thrown into jail. Frightened parents waited for details of the drug bust that caught their kids. The phones rang more than usual and often went unanswered. Deputies milled about choking down doughnuts and sipping strong coffee. Add to the usual frenzy the bizarre suicide of a mysterious man, and the cluttered outer office was especially busy that Monday morning.
In the rear of the appendage, down a short hallway, there was a thick door covered in white hand-painted lettering that read: OZZIE WALLS, HIGH SHERIFF, FORD COUNTY. The door was closed; the sheriff was in early on Monday, and on the phone. The caller was an emotional woman from Memphis whose child had been caught driving a pickup truck that was hauling, among other things, a sizable quantity of marijuana. This had happened the previous Saturday night near Lake Chatulla, in an area of a state park where illicit behavior was known to be common. The child was innocent, of course, and the mother was eager to drive down and retrieve him from Ozzie’s jail.
Not so fast, Ozzie cautioned. There was a knock at his door. He covered the receiver and said, “Yes!”
The door opened a few inches and Jake Brigance stuck his head through the crack. Ozzie smiled immediately and waved him in. Jake closed the door behind himself and eased into a chair. Ozzie was explaining that even though the kid was seventeen, he had been caught with three pounds of pot; thus, he could not be released on bond until a judge said so. As the mother railed, Ozzie frowned and moved the receiver a few inches from his ear. He shook his head, smiled again. Same old crap. Jake had heard it too, many times.
Ozzie listened some more, promised to do what he could, which was obviously not much, and finally got off the phone. He half stood, shook Jake’s hand, said, “Good mornin’, Counselor.”
“Mornin’ to you, Ozzie.”
They chatted about this and that and finally got around to football. Ozzie had played briefly for the Rams before blowing out a knee, and he still followed the team religiously. Jake was a Saints fan, like the majority of Mississippians, so there was little to talk about. The entire wall behind Ozzie was covered with football memorabilia—photos, awards, plaques, trophies. He’d been an all-American at Alcorn State in the mid-1970s and, evidently, had been meticulous about preserving his memories.
On another day, another time, preferably with more of an audience, say around the courtroom in a recess when other lawyers were listening, Ozzie might be tempted to tell the story of the night he broke Jake’s leg. Jake had been a skinny sophomore quarterback playing for Karaway, a much smaller school that for some reason kept the tradition of getting stomped each year in the season finale against Clanton. Billed as a backyard brawl, the game was never close. Ozzie, the star tackle, had terrorized the Karaway offense for three quarters, and late in the fourth he rushed hard third and long. The fullback, already wounded and frightened, ignored Ozzie, who crushed Jake as he desperately tried to scramble. Ozzie had always claimed he heard the fibula snap. In Jake’s version, he heard nothing but Ozzie’s growling and snarling as he pounced for the kill. Regardless of the version, the story managed to get retold at least once a year.
It was Monday morning, though, and the phones were ringing and both men were busy. It was obvious Jake was there for a reason. “I think I’ve been hired by Mr. Seth Hubbard,” he said.
Ozzie narrowed his eyes and studied his friend. “His hiring days are over. They got him down at Magargel’s, on the slab.”
“Did you cut him down?”
“Let’s say we lowered him to the ground.” Ozzie reached for a file, opened it, and took out three eight-by-ten color photos. He slid them across his desk and Jake picked them up. Front, back, right side—all the same image of Seth, sad and dead, hanging in the rain. Jake was shocked for a second but didn’t show it. He studied the grotesque face and tried to place him. “I never met the man,” he mumbled. “Who found him?”
“One of his workers. Looks like Mr. Hubbard planned it all.”
“Oh yes.” Jake reached into a coat pocket, pulled out the copies and slid them over to Ozzie. “This arrived in the morning’s mail. Hot off the press. The first page is a letter to me. The second and third pages purport to be his last will and testament.”
Ozzie lifted the letter and read it slowly. Showing no expression, he read the will. When he finished, he dropped it on the desk and rubbed his eyes. “Wow,” he managed to say. “Is this thing legal, Jake?”
“On its face, yes, but I’m sure the family will attack it.”
“Attack it how?”
“They’ll make all sorts of claims: the old guy was out of his mind; this woman exerted undue influence over him and convinced him to change his will. Believe me, if money’s at stake, they’ll unload both barrels.”
“This woman,” Ozzie repeated, then smiled and began to slowly shake his head.
“You know her?”
“Oh yeah.”
“Black or white?”
Jake suspected this and was not at all surprised, nor disappointed; rather, at that moment, he began to feel the early rumblings of excitement. A white man and his money, a last-minute will leaving it all to a black woman he was obviously quite fond of. A bitter will dispute played out before a jury, with Jake in the middle of it all.
“How well do you know her?” Jake asked. It was well known that Ozzie knew every black person in Ford County: those registered to vote and those still lagging; those who owned land and those who were on welfare; those who had jobs and those who avoided work; those who saved money and those who broke into houses; those who went to church every Sunday and those who lived in honky-tonks.
“I know her,” he said, careful as always. “She lives out from Box Hill in an area called Little Delta.”
Jake nodded, said, “I’ve driven through it.”
“In the boondocks, all black. She’s married to a man named Simeon Lang, pretty much of a deadbeat who comes and goes, off and on the wagon.”
“I’ve never met any Langs.”
“You don’t want to meet this one. When he’s sober, I think he drives a truck and runs a bulldozer. I know he worked offshore once or twice. Unstable. Four or five kids, one boy in prison, I think there’s a girl in the Army. Lettie’s about forty-five, I’d guess. She’s a Tayber, and there aren’t many of them around. He’s a Lang, and the woods are full of Langs, unfortunately. I did not know she was workin’ for Seth Hubbard.”
“Did you know Hubbard?”
“Somewhat. He gave me $25,000 under the table, cash, for both of my campaigns; wanted nothin’ in return; in fact, he almost avoided me my first four years. I saw him last summer when I was up for reelection and he gave me another envelope.”
“You took the cash?”
“I don’t like your tone, Jake,” Ozzie said with a smile. “Yes, I took the cash because I wanted to win. Plus, my opponents were takin’ cash. Politics is a tough business around here.”
“Fine with me. How much money did the old man have?”
“Well, he says it’s substantial. Personally, I don’t know. It’s always been a mystery. The rumor has been that he lost everything in a bad divorce—Harry Rex cleaned him out—and because of that he’s kept his business buried under a rock.”
“Smart man.”
“He owns some land and has always dabbled in timber. Beyond that, I don’t know.”
“What about his two adult children?”
“I talked to Herschel Hubbard around five yesterday afternoon, broke the bad news. He lives in Memphis, but I didn’t get much information. He said he would call his sister, Ramona, and they would hustle on over. Seth left a sheet of paper with some instructions on how he wanted to be handled. Funeral tomorrow at 4:00 p.m., at church, then a burial.” Ozzie paused and reread the letter. “Seems kinda cruel, doesn’t it, Jake? Seth wants his family to suffer through a proper mourning before they know he’s screwed ’em in his will.”