Excerpt from The Last Bequest

An Excerpt from The Last Bequest 
copyright by Lisa J Lickel

Chapter One

Judy Winters made divots in the lawn with her church shoes, the ones with the high heels she saved to wear once a week. She stopped her frenetic crisscross pacing under the clothesline to look at her trail. Hah! She could dethatch the entire yard if she kept walking. She needed a few minutes away from everyone in the house. Just a few minutes to grieve alone. And to think about poison.
Hand at her brow to shield the sun’s harsh light, Judy surveyed her late aunt’s farm. The half-acre surrounding the house sure could use work. What had Aunt Louise Jamison done these past two years to allow her once lovely yard to decline into crabgrass and thistles? Birds might enjoy the seeds. But only a recent lawn-mowing kept the dandelions from taking over. Judy brushed a tear off her cheek, wondered inanely who had mowed since Louise’s death. Certainly not one of her new “earth hugger” friends who’d probably convinced her that mowing was bad.
Judy had offered to visit last week when Louise acted suspiciously lethargic during their Thursday night phone call.
“Nothing to worry about,” her aunt assured her. “I don’t want you catching whatever bug I’ve come down with, Judy dear.”
Louise hadn’t answered the phone the next night. While Judy dithered whether to drive over anyway, she’d received the shocking phone call from her aunt’s solicitor, Gene Reynolds. “Sorry to inform you, Miss Winters, but your aunt, Louise Jamison, has died.”
Before Judy could catch a breath, Reynolds continued in his monotone, “The initial report indicates some kind of poisoning—not sure what kind.”
What was the saying? That Louise bought the farm? Judy shook her head. What a horrible way to occupy her thoughts with her closest living relative freshly buried.
“Your aunt had gotten into some of those odd nature food hippy granola crazes, you know,” Mr. Reynolds had said. No, Judy hadn’t known that. “She even tried to have me invest in some wheat juice thing for her. I told her I’d research it.”
Wheat juice wouldn’t have killed Aunt Louise. But—poison?  Louise’s condition at the time of death led the emergency room doctor and the sheriff to suspect a toxic substance of some kind. She’d obviously been sick and her skin was mottled, according to the doctor. But Louise was the smartest person Judy knew. Her demise couldn’t have been accidental, no matter what the doctor thought. Barry Hutchinson, the chief of police in Robertsville, agreed with Judy. But how to prove it? The autopsy report with toxicology screen would not be available for weeks.
Judy continued to meander through the yard. Walking might keep her from wailing in grief in front of all these people. Louise had been all the family she had ever known.
As she wandered to the back door, Gene Reynolds propelled himself toward her on feet that were much too dainty to hold up his great bulk. “Miss Winters, again our condolences.” He took her hand into his pudgy moist one. Judy steeled herself not to shudder. “I have the legal paperwork regarding Louise’s estate to go over with you, at your convenience.”
Reynolds’s pupils flickered just enough for her notice. He has something to gain. Sometimes Judy’s ability to decode body language came in handy. She’d picked up the trait in one of her continuing education courses and never seemed to be able to stop “ reading” people afterward.
Judy removed her hand from his. “Thank you.” Other friends followed Reynolds to seek her out before taking their leave. She accepted a shoulder squeeze from a neighbor, an offering of sympathy, and an invitation to church while Reynolds stood guard on her right.
She’d wanted to meet some of those people Louise gushed about, and wondered now if, in that last phone call, Louise had been making an excuse to keep her away.
When they were alone, Judy asked, “Would this afternoon work out for you, Mr. Reynolds? I don’t want to rush or seem greedy, but I have two weeks left of the school year in Lewiston, and need to get back to work.”
“Miss Winters, this afternoon would be fine. How about I go to the office, pick up the files and return, say in an hour or so? We can go over everything here.”
“Yes. I appreciate your time.” Judy watched him clasp his hands together before joining his stately blond wife in the driveway. He wants something, I can tell.
She said good bye to the last lingering guest, a woman dressed wildly in clashing plaids whose name Judy couldn’t conjure. She could hardly remember the names and faces of Louise’s many friends. If not for Graham Montgomery standing at her side all day until he had to leave for his own job, she didn’t know how she would have dealt with her aunt’s untimely and wholly unexpected death. Graham had not complained once about making small talk with strangers.
While she waited for Reynolds to come back, Judy continued to poke holes in the creeping charley under the clothesline. This was where they’d found Louise.
Mr. Reynolds said she’d been into natural foods. The news reported people always getting some sort of disease from sprouts and what not. But surely the doctor would have known that.
No one had removed the laundry Louise carried to the yard after apparently ingesting some lethal concoction. The basket still sat near the lilac bush, clothing dried and no doubt hopelessly wrinkled. A yellow twin sheet that Louise managed to pin up before her collapse snapped in the stiff breeze. At the resounding echo Judy heard a flutter of cackles from the chicken coop, built against the barn a few hundred yards behind her. Louise kept animals on her working farm. Not just the noisy colorful chickens, but cows, too. Judy visited occasional weekends, and even helped with chores under Louise’s watchful eyes, but she didn’t have the foggiest idea how to tend to their general day-to-day care.
She had given little thought to the farm since rushing to tiny Robertsville from her home across Wisconsin in Lewiston on learning of her former guardian’s death, Someone must be caring for the animals, she hoped.
Judy resumed her agitated pacing, shoving a bothersome brown wisp of hair behind her ear.
What was that in the laundry basket? Something moved. Judy narrowed her eyes. There it was again. A black tipped tail twitched from the depths of the willow carrier.
“Carranza! What are you doing in there?” Drat. Judy had forgotten about the ferocious cat Louise brought when she moved back here. Carranza obeyed only Louise, and then only when he felt like it. He lifted his head lazily in her direction and offered the malevolent stare she remembered well. She shivered.
“Carranza, please go away,” Judy said weakly, hoping the animal wouldn’t come her way. He flicked the ear with a bra strap draped around it. Then he shook his head and blinked before insolently licking an outstretched paw, claws extended.
Enough of that. No way was she going to get into a power struggle with a pet cat. Her class of eighth graders, maybe; felines, no. Judy turned her back. The air was redolent of fresh-cut alfalfa. Her aunt rented acreage to a neighbor, Red Hobart who grew it. Judy inhaled enough to feel dizzy with the fragrance she normally loved. Today the scent nauseated her, worried as she was about what Mr. Reynolds would tell her.
Walk! Heading toward the orchard, she almost tripped on an overturned bucket at the edge of the mown area. Sinking to her knees to better see what was buried there, Judy pushed aside the foxtails to discover a tiny rose plant with buds so large they would have tipped the slender stalks had they had not been held up by the sturdier weeds.
“Poor thing!” She yanked out some of the taller field daisies that blocked the sunlight from the roses. “That should help a little.”  She should really try to tidy all this up and get the yard in shape in case Mr. Reynolds had buyers lined up. If only she’d known, really taken a good look at how much Louise had needed help, she would have…would have what? Left her new job and come home like some little girl who couldn’t make it on her own? She was doing well, handling her independence. In fact, her principal had recently called her work exemplary. Her students needed her.
Judy leaned back on her haunches, face to the sun and listened. Catbirds in stereo with the tinny peaceful hum of distant cicadas took her mind off Lewiston and her job. She pushed herself to her feet to continue her inspection of the overgrown orchard. A flood of childhood memories of apple blossom petals falling like snow and picking fruit in the fall lulled assailed her.
A cloud scuttered overhead. Judy shivered. She rubbed her arms and checked her watch. Four thirty. Back in the main yard, she stopped in front of a gnarled stump. A single mossy branch dangled like a broken arm but bore a number of determined green leaves. Judy smiled and touched the deeply grooved brown bark. A bee bumbled nearby. She walked around to the other side where a weathered emblem appeared carved into the trunk and bent low to trace a misshapen heart.
“Can I help you, Miss Winters?”
Judy looked up from her vulnerable crouch and froze at the sight of a well-built young man in aviator sunglasses striding up the unkempt row. The man came to a halt at the edge of her personal comfort zone. She watched lines form between his eyes and realized her nervous smirk scored no points. Not a good way to make a first impression. Or second, since he apparently knew her name.
“I don’t think so,” she said in her most polite voice. Judy pushed herself up and held out her hand. “And you are?”
The man had his hands on his hips. He belatedly reached out to grab hers. “Hart Wingate. Mine’s the adjoining farm. I helped Louise, and her father before her, with chores. The police asked me to keep an eye out for strangers.”
Judy nodded. “Yes. My aunt mentioned she had someone in to help. I assumed she meant a hired hand. You don’t know what really happened here, do you?”
“No. I wish I did. And I don’t work for Louise. I helped her when she needed it. I don’t recall seeing you here before the funeral.”
Taken aback, Judy opened her mouth to reply that she hadn’t met him before, either, when they were hailed from the yard.
“Hello, there! So, you’ve met each other. Good.” Gene Reynolds, accompanied by Red Hobart who had changed to work coveralls from his funeral suit, stood waiting for Judy. “Red insisted on joining us, Judy. Says there’s an important clause in the will that affects him.”
“Hi, Red, Mr. Reynolds.” Judy answered. “So you both know Mr., ah, Mr.—”
“Wingate,” Hart supplied, helpfully.
“Sure, sure,” Red said. “Hart’s been great since even before Louise moved back home. Mowing, taking care of the cows. Harold couldn’t manage much anymore, you know. Was glad the girl came home to care for him.”
The girl? If Louise was a girl to Red, what does that make me? Judy squared her shoulders again. “Red, for pity’s sake, it wasn’t my fault Louise’s father had those bad lungs. Uncle Harold never said a word against Louise moving in to take care of me.”
Red folded his arms and spat to the side. Judy sighed, then slid a glance sideways at her neighbor. So, Hart had mowed. And did chores. That probably meant she owed him big time. Huh.
Judy whirled around to face Hart “Thank you for all of your help. Mr. Reynolds will advise me what to do next, and I’m sure, contact you. Good bye.”
Reynolds kept quiet after Judy’s little speech. She knew she’d sounded rude, but this was Louise’s farm, and that Wingate person said he had his own place next door. He must be busy enough with his own work without doing double duty.
Reynolds turned toward the house. “Shall we go, Judy?”
The big old American Gothic house seemed to leer at her. Without Louise, Judy felt like an intruder. Two years ago when Judy started her new job teaching eighth grade, Louise said Judy was now grown and no longer needed her.
Louise, Louise. You’re wrong. I need you now.
Judy was weary with decision making, meeting people she only vaguely remembered from her childhood, and trying to find a place to put all the food that arrived daily from well-meaning friends of her aunt.
People who identified themselves as being from the state crime lab or the sheriff’s department came twice before the funeral, asking permission to photograph and take samples from the barn, yard and kitchen. As a teacher, Judy would have been curious about the work if she hadn’t been overwhelmed by the reason for their presence. She’d gladly given them the contents of the refrigerator and pantry, hoping that whatever killed Louise had been accidental.
Judy took a critical look around the kitchen while Reynolds tossed a scuffed leather briefcase onto one of four chrome chairs and then rubbed his hands. He indicated the room with a generous sweep of his right arm. “Vintage nineteen fifty. People pay good money for this look nowadays. What you have here is original.”
She swiveled slowly. Reynolds found the light switch. An overhead chandelier garlanded with webs cast a hesitant forty-watt dent in the gloom. Judy noticed flies clustered in corners of the shadowy high ceilings. Why was it she only noticed the grunge through a guest’s eyes? Cavernous cupboards overwhelmed a tiny window over the sink. Reynolds pulled out a chair first for Judy, and then for himself, and began to unpack his case before sitting. Hobart hooked a seat of his own and straddled it backwards.
“Here we are,” Reynolds announced, as if they’d all come from the four corners of the earth. “First, let me tell you that it has been a pleasure serving your family, and I hope you and I will continue a long-term relationship.
“Louise was a truly honest, dedicated farmer and conservationist, greatly admired by all those in her circle. Upon her father’s death we drew up a trust to try and prevent some of the unfortunate issues we encountered with his passing.” Reynolds sorted through files. He halted long enough to zero in on Judy with his black-framed plastic glasses. “Harold passed intestate.”
Judy gulped back the giggle at Reynolds’s pronouncement and quirked an eyebrow in question.
“That means, he never bothered to put his estate in order,” the lawyer enunciated critically. “So let us begin.”
A half hour later, Reynolds’s raging torrent of forms slowed to a trickle. Judy was impressed with the amount of work that went into preserving the Jamison farmland. However, her aunt’s last wish left her in consternation: should she choose not to live on and farm the property for at least three years, it would pass to KOWPIE, a local grassroots organization specializing in protection of natural areas. Louise’s farm would serve as a district office.
“You’ve got to be kidding.” Judy couldn’t believe she’d heard correctly. “They call themselves cow pie?”
Reynolds frowned behind the glasses. “I believe…ah, yes. Here. It stands for Keep Our Woods Pristine In Essence. But of course there are always ways to get around this little hiccup in your inheritance,” Reynolds said. “Our office also handles real estate, you know, and I can tell you without reservation that I have a number of qualified offers on the table from nice people who are eager to make you comfortable. So comfortable you need never worry about money again if you accept the appropriate deal.”
He pulled a manila folder from his case. “I warned your aunt against those nutjob nature freaks. I’ve heard rumors about guns and bombs. They run some sort of military-style training camp to show how regular folks can create fortresses on their property. Huh—make sure no honest, decent people can build a new home for themselves wherever they please? This is America! Anyone can build wherever he wants. Promising to care for the earth. The earth is here to take care of us, I say.”
Judy stared at her twining fingers resting on the speckled tabletop. “Do you know any of those people? How did they get Aunt Louise to sign her property over to them like that? What if I decide I can’t live here?”
“No, I don’t know them. And I can’t begin to understand how Louise would have dealt with such riff-raff.” Reynolds punctuated the word with a sharp grimace. Judy noticed something else about Reynolds’s expression; a twitch of wiry black nose hair, gone in an instant. He’s lying. Why would he lie?
She closed her eyes, recalling the sound of Louise’s voice during a previous visit. “I practically had to call the police the last time. Those land-hungry grubbers drove right up my driveway, pounded on the door bold as brass. Man in a suit told me he wanted to buy just a little of my land. I’m sick and tired of those fools. Strangers. From Chicago. Imagine, anyone just waltzing around the neighborhood asking to buy a stranger’s land. A person can’t even expect privacy on his own property anymore.”
Judy focused on the lawyer. “Thank you, Mr. Reynolds. I don’t think my aunt wanted that.” Reynolds’s little black pupils flickered with greater wattage than all the bulbs of the chandelier. Judy felt certain Reynolds included himself as one of those nice people who would like the right to develop her farm into neat little subdivisions. Probably with a playground and a gas station and a dog park. Carranza’d love that. “What about Mr. Hobart’s claim?”
Hobart hadn’t said a word during the whole presentation. Judy would have forgotten his presence if not for the emanation of machine grease and manure competing with alfalfa coming from his person. Somehow, that smell made the kitchen feel more like home than Reynolds’s musky cologne.
Red Hobart’s family farm sprawled over four hundred acres across the country lane. Judy had heard the Hobart name mentioned by Louise and her father Harold for as long as she could remember. The Hobarts and Jamisons had lived and farmed together for generations.
“See, Miss Judy,” Hobart began in his rural drawl, “the Hobarts did a favor for the Jamisons long time ago. Long time. In exchange for this favor, the Jamisons promised that southwest forty to the Hobarts whenever this here farm passed from Jamison hands.” Judy folded her arms. She could hear the next line. Hobart’s mouth formed the words, as if he chewed on a long stem of grass. “You, ma’am, are not a Jamison.” He ducked his head to pinch an ant crawling up his bib, and then targeted her again in his sights. “No offense.”
Judy had been more offended by the “ma’am.” She hated being “ma’am’d.”
“Now, Red, strictly speaking, that’s not true,” Reynolds cut in. “Miss Winters, here, is a Jamison relation on her mother’s side.”
“So far back it don’t matter. Hardly more’n a drop.”
“Nevertheless, you are not entitled to that forty based on this clause, which says, and I quote, ‘If said property passes out of the hands of any Jamison heirs or such heirs do not farm said property, the southwest quarter of the southwest quarter of section twenty-one shall be given to descendants of Clem Hobart to be used for his own purposes in gratitude for aid given during dangerous times.’ End quote.”
“Right.” Hobart pounded the table. “And I claim my promise now. If Missy Winters here ain’t gonna farm, I got my rights to that forty.”
Judy leaned forward, placing herself between the two men who’d subconsciously moved closer to each other during their exchange. “Please! Mr. Reynolds, Mr. Hobart. I haven’t decided for sure yet, but I may stay here the summer while I work on my master’s degree. I want time to consider all the ramifications of my actions. Since I see that rental payment for the cropland covers the taxes, and my needs are few, I should be able to take enough time to make a good decision. One that will benefit everyone involved.”
Reynolds fixed Hobart with a glinty glare. “Judy may need to make some decisions soon regarding renters.” He addressed Judy next. “If you recall what I showed you earlier and take note of the due date, you’ll see that the rent payments are in arrears. Have been for a while, as a matter of fact.”
Hobart eyeballed Reynolds back. Judy studied them both, fascinated. Until she realized they were talking about money Red owed her. How much? And why is he desperate for forty measly acres?
Reynolds didn’t give an inch. “Louise was too easygoing in those matters. We can talk more about that later.”
Hobart blinked first. He took his leave with stiff formality, even tipping his John Deere cap in Judy’s direction as she saw him out. When Judy returned to the table, Reynolds indicated three sets of keys. “Here are the keys the police put in my hands after the sheriff completed the initial investigation.”
Judy had used her own key when she first arrived and had never considered who closed up the outbuildings after Louise’s body was removed.
“As you can see, these are marked for the house, these, the barn, and these, here,”— Reynolds jiggled an old-fashioned ring with extra-large keys— “are for the garage and car. Harold had a nice Monte Carlo that your aunt drove, I believe. Anyway, it’s all yours now.”
“Thank you.” Another thought occurred to her. “Mr. Reynolds?”
The balding man looked up and peered at her through his plastic bifocals. He blinked. Judy was reminded of a picture of an owl in glasses she’d once seen.
“Well, I wondered whether you knew if anyone else had any keys. Any of the neighbors?”
Reynolds cleared his throat. “That, I wouldn’t know.” He looked back down at the papers in his hands. “I nearly forgot this last item. The stock report.”
“Stocks?” Judy said. “I didn’t know Louise owned any company stocks.”
Mr. Reynolds looked at her over the top of his reading glasses. “Animals.”
Judy felt her cheeks warm. “Oh. Just before you came, out there in the orchard…that man—”
“Hart Wingate.”
“Right. He said he’d been doing chores. Louise told me she had some help, but I didn’t pay attention at the time,” Judy said. She lowered her gaze to the chipped tabletop. “I assumed my aunt had a handyman or something. Mr. Wingate is renting Bryce Edwards’ farm, isn’t he?”
“That’s right. I’ve been working with Country Properties LLC for some time, trying to encourage Edwards to sell now that he’s moved into town.”
“What’s Country Properties?” Judy asked.
“Developers. Of course, any zoning change out here has to go through the town board. This farm is out of city jurisdiction, young lady. The board president, Slim Hobart, Red’s cousin, and I don’t always see eye to eye on coming changes. I strongly recommend you make a deal quickly. It’s your land now. You don’t have to listen to Hobart or the KOWPIE folks.”
Or you? Judy eyed him. Reynolds began to straighten out the papers on the table. “Just remember, this is one hot property.”
Judy was more than ready to end the discussion about her inheritance. She wanted to look at the papers. Alone. She didn’t particularly care for his little smile, little eyes, and bulging belly that rolled over his pants. “Thank you. Anyway, where do I sign then, about taking over title?”
“Right here, young lady.” Reynolds pointed to the yellow stickers attached at the proper lines. “And, here,” he shuffled some more papers, watching her intently. “And, here.”
When Judy finished, she extended the stick pen. “Well, all right. Mr. Reynolds. I appreciate the house call, and all. Um, who should I call about taking care of the…stock when I’m gone?”
“Best to ask Wingate. He knows the place, been doing it regular already.” Reynolds stuffed papers into the worn calfskin case. He nodded down toward the Formica tabletop. “There’s my card. Call me when you’re ready to sell.”
Judy stood on the drive long after his taillights disappeared. Purple twilight gradually made shadows of the fence posts. A flock of sparrows settled on power lines across the road. She had never felt so alone. At the sound of footsteps crunching in the gravel behind her, she tensed before turning around.
“Oh, you scared me,” she said, letting her shoulders slump when she recognized her neighbor. “I apologize for sounding rude earlier. I really am grateful for all you’ve done to help us out.”
 “No need to apologize,” Hart Wingate replied. “If you need anything, don’t hesitate to let me know.”
“As a matter of fact, I wonder…if you have time. That is, would you consider continuing to do the chores while I’m gone? Or help me find someone I can hire? I have to go home for a couple of weeks, for my job. But I think I’ll come back.”
“You’re a teacher, right?”
Judy nodded. “Yep. School’s out first Friday in June.”
They regarded the roosting birds for a quiet moment. “I’m happy to help. Louise and I worked together with the cattle. When you return I’d like to discuss our agreement with you. Louise was an interesting woman. We had some good conversations, and she taught me a lot about respecting our heritage.” He smiled briefly. “Even though she managed to ruffle some feathers by her obsession with recycling, I’ll miss her.”
Judy didn’t recall her aunt talking about a cattle deal in the papers she’d just signed, but decided she was too exhausted to think about it now. Three years she’d need to give. Could she do that? What about her job? And what did Hart mean, Louise obsessed with recycling? How could sorting one’s aluminum and newspaper be considered obsessive? She and Louise naturally did that at home in Lewiston. Didn’t anyone believe in recycling in the country?
“Aunt Louise gave up a lot to raise me. She never married or had children of her own, spent her adulthood raising me. She barely got to spend any time back here before she died. Being cut down at fifty-four is no reward for the sacrifice she made on my behalf. It all happened so fast, I hardly know how to feel.
“All my aunt wanted was to come back here and live out a peaceful life. I need to know why she died. Maybe just for my own satisfaction. Maybe so nothing like this happens to anyone else.”
Hart seemed lost in thought. “I can’t help you there. I am angry, I admit, but I don’t know what I can do to help.”
Judy hugged her elbows tight. “That’s all right. I shouldn’t be bothering you about my personal business anyway. I’ll check into your cow deal. Don’t worry.”
“Don’t let me keep you from phoning your boyfriend, or anything like that.”
“I don’t have a boyfriend,” Judy heard someone say in her voice. What? She blinked. Graham was her boyfriend, wasn’t he? Why would she deny it? She cleared her throat. “At least, I’ve only been dating someone for a couple of months. Graham’s been great. A shoulder for me to lean on when I needed him.”
“Apparently Louise didn’t see it that way. I was here last week when he showed up. She ordered him to turn right around and leave.”