Battle of Wills

By Marolyn Caldwell All Rights Reserved ©

Mystery / Fantasy

Chapter 16

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Lorie stretched when she woke at daybreak. She snuggled closer to Jeff’s muscular body, relaxed now in sleep. It was a treat to see it, to feel it with her fingertips, to become one with it in the dance of love. He was an athlete the likes of which she’d never seen. She thought how many people of his era must have been equally fit. They didn’t have all the labor-saving devices she and her family had. They had to walk, to ride animals and care for them, to carry heavy loads, to build their own homes and raise their own food. A jarring revelation entered her thought-pattern. Some people didn’t appreciate doing those things for themselves. Perhaps that’s where the terrible idea of slavery got its start.

He opened his beautiful eyes. “Give me a kiss, Wife.” She giggled and complied. And once more the slow erotic dance commenced.

“I love you so much.”

“Enough to give me a fat little baby?” His voice was wistful.

“I wish,” she answered softly. “But how could we, not knowing … ?”

His voice was tinged with sadness. “I know. It would not be fair to you, when … .”

“Maybe we shouldn’t think about it,” she said softly. “The future may not be to our liking.”

“There’s that odor again.” He sat up, sniffing at the air. “Bacon. That and coffee are the only things that take precedence over my lovely Lorie.”

“Not likely!” She grabbed his arms, wrestled him back down to the bed and lowered herself slowly onto his hard beautiful body. “Carpe diem, mister.”

Both the bacon and the coffee were cold when they finally came down to the kitchen.

Carol, well dressed as usual in slacks and a lacy white overshirt, discovered them in the kitchen, making toast and talking. “Our meeting is at 9:30 a.m. in Randolph City,” Carol said. “That’s an hour’s drive. You kids have about fifteen minutes to be ready. Get a move on.”

“Yes ma’am, General Carol.” Jeff rose sharply from his chair, clicked the heels of his shiny black shoes and gave her a quick salute. She laughed. He was wearing his suit trousers and a white shirt with the blue tie. “Correct uniform of the day?”

“You look spectacular, Rich. Who did your tie? Ah yes, our Lorie. She always had to do Marsh’s ties when he was a kid. Maybe she’ll remind you how to tie them. Don’t forget the dark glasses. And bring your jacket.”

Lorie was wearing white slacks again and a summer blouse swirled with blended colors that had caught Jeff’s eye. Her jewelry and make-up were understated. He told her she looked astonishing. She told him he looked smashing.

Before they left Phil Barnett’s house, every one of them, including the doctor—who had managed to move enough appointments to be with them—put a bag of work clothes, sturdy shoes or moccasins, and black jackets and hats into the trunk of the car.

They entered the courtroom just as the 9:30 chime sounded. As before, the judge was sitting at the big polished table rather than the podium. “Good morning,” he said, looking up at them. He smiled briefly.

Rolf Maratti and his lawyer, Arthur Ehrlich, were already seated at the table. Maratti had a stack of papers in front of him, which he was leafing through. Arthur Ehrlich smiled warmly at Carol and Lorie. When he saw Jeff, however, he frowned. “Who is this?”

“My fiancé. Rich Jefferson. He’s from Atlanta.”

“Good mornin’, sir.” Jeff reached for Ehrlich’s hand. “Sorry about the glasses, but I have an eye condition that makes it necessary.” Ehrlich pulled back. “Oh, it’s not catchin’,” Jeff said. “It’s just mighty annoyin’. Too much light is painful to me.” Ehrlich shook hands briefly.

Rolf Maratti was watching Jeff’s every move. “Your name is Richard Jefferson?”

Jeff nodded. “Very nice to meet you, sir.” He reached his hand toward Maratti, who took it quickly and as quickly released it.

“You’re with her?” Maratti asked.

“She’s goin’ to be my wife very soon.” Jeff put his arm around Lorie’s shoulders and smiled at her. “Honey,” he said in one of the broadest drawls she had ever heard, “let’s go sit in that row of chairs and get out of their way, shall we?”

“Of course, darling.”

Lorie watched with intense interest as Sue and Sid Bailey, clad in business attire and appearing very businesslike, walked into the room about two minutes late. Judge Cragin frowned at them. Pointedly ignoring the frown, Sue seated herself directly across the table from the judge, which situated her next to Arthur Ehrlich. Her husband sat down at her other side. She pulled out her copy of Jon Randolph’s most recent will and slapped it down on the table in front of her.

“Is your lawyer present?” Judge Cragin looked up at her.

Sue looked around, frowning darkly. “Do you see him, Sandy? I don’t see him. And I’m damned if I ever want to see him again!”

“And why is that?” Cragin said sharply.

We’ve had some words,” Sue snapped, “and we’ve discharged Mr. Purdy. We’re going to do this without a lawyer—certainly not that unreliable son-of-a-bitch!” She looked directly at Cragin, scowling.

The judge should have reacted with much more surprise, Lorie thought, to the profanity that had issued from Sue Bailey’s mouth, but she saw no reaction at all. He seemed instead to be examining the faces of the people assembled at the table: the Baileys—with their obvious anger. Maratti and his lawyer—both sitting with carefully frozen expressions. His eyes shuttered. His jaw tightened. “I’ve read over both of these wills. One of them,” he nodded at Maratti, “is quite specific. It gives all of Jon Randolph’s properties, except one or two small bequests—to his two sons: Thomas S. Randolph, and Rolf Maratti, legally adopted. If one or the other of these sons is deceased and without heirs, all of his property goes to the living son. It’s pretty clear that means all of his property goes to you, Mr. Maratti. Is that your understanding?”

Maratti turned to Ehrlich. “Art, is this our understanding?”

“It is, Judge Cragin.”

“The will is signed and witnessed by two people whose names are written in blue ink, thereby proving this is not a photocopy. This is a legal and valid will.”

“Are those people still living?” Sue asked. “The witnesses?”

“It doesn’t matter,” the judge said, not looking at her. “They signed, and that’s all that’s required.”

He then turned to face Sue directly. “I’ve looked at the copy of the will you presented to me, Mrs. Bailey. It’s more current than Mr. Maratti’s will, that’s true, but it’s not the original.”

“Dammit, you know we haven’t even had a chance to search for the original, Sandy. We have one of the witness who signed the original willing to testify that this is the same document he looked at when Jon Randolph signed it. And we’re looking for the second witness. Give us a break!”

“The witness doesn’t have to know what’s in the will.” Judge Cragin said with a visible display of impatience. “All he has to do is testify that the will was signed by the testator. Georgia law is very specific on that point. This photocopy may have borne Jon Randolph’s true signature, but no witnesses have signed it, and by law, that’s required. I’m going to have to rule your will invalid.”

Sue sat for a moment, genuinely puzzled. “Rule? We thought we were just discussing things here. Informally. You’re making a ruling? Give us a chance to find the original will, at least.”

“If you haven’t found it by now, you won’t find it. There’s no point in putting off the inevitable. A written order will be drafted this afternoon.”

Sue rose to her feet. “We’ll sue!”

“It won’t do you any good. The laws are quite clear.”

Without another word, Sue picked up her papers and swept out of the room, followed by her obviously outraged husband. Maratti and Ehrlich watched them leave and then looked at each other. Lorie noted raised eyebrows.

“You’re free to move ahead,” Judge Cragin told Rolf Maratti. “It shouldn’t take long once an executor is appointed.”

“Thank you, Judge Cragin,” Arthur Ehrlich said. He signaled Maratti and they, too, picked up their papers and left the room, followed in short order by the judge, who retreated to his quarters without a glance behind him.

“Well,” Carol said, “that was short and sweet.”

“Very interesting,” Lorie said.

“Maratti gets it all,” Phil said with quiet fury.

“Almost,” Jeff said just as quietly, “as if it were planned well in advance.”

Carol got on the phone with Ewen Taylor, saying, “Plan B is now activated.”

Lorie couldn’t believe Sue had actually used profanity. She knew Sue’s anger was part of the game plan—to give their lawyer, Will Purdy, a way out—but even mild profanity, coming from her, had been a little risky. If Cragin had known her well—or had been a truly discerning judge—he would have realized Sue Bailey was playing a game. His focus, however, had been somewhere else.

On the other hand, Lorie’s focus had zeroed in on the judge’s handling of what had been billed as an “informal discussion.” Would the judge be even-handed in his treatment of the two parties, as any judge worth his salt would be? He could have suggested there was still time to search for the original copy of Jon Randolph’s latest will. He could have facilitated the search by allowing Randolph House to be opened. Why didn’t he? The answer was obvious.

He knew the original will would never be found.

“He’s working with them,” she said to Jeff. “And he’s trying to move everything along as fast as he can. Something very powerful is forcing his hand. I hope we can discover what it is.”

They discussed the encounter at length when they met at the Baileys’ house fifteen minutes later. Lorie was seated across from her aunt and next to Jeff at the long kitchen table. She reached for a cookie to go with her coffee.

“I just checked with my lawyer back home,” Carol said. “He tells me Judge Cragin was way out of line. He couldn’t make a ruling on something that hadn’t even gone through the court process. But he could easily have signed an order letting the Baileys into Randolph House to search for the will, especially since there was proof it existed. It was well within his discretion to do that.”

Sue was genuinely angry. “They’re in a big hurry, aren’t they?”

Lorie said softly, “Because something happened they didn’t anticipate.”

“Also,” her aunt went on, “he felt the judge had no business reading the provisions of Maratti’s will to everyone in the courtroom, even if we all knew what it said already. Theoretically, that’s private until all the principals have been notified. I suspect he simply wanted us to know that Maratti is the new owner in town, the only principal, and there’s nothing we can do about it.”

“So,” Sid Bailey said, “does that prove to us without a doubt that Judge Cragin is in on the conspiracy?”

Carol grimaced. “Unless he’s stupider than he looks.”

“He may be under some pressure,” Phil suggested, “as Will Purdy was.”

Sue looked around at her husband. “How’d I do on the ‘hate Will Purdy’ score?”

“Great!” her husband said with a quick grin. “I could have given you some more colorful words to use, though.”

She winced.

“The most important thing,” Carol put in, “is that no one is going to come to you to find out where Will Purdy is.”

Carol’s phone rang. “Mac, what’s up?” There was a pause. “Up by the road? Good god, that’s at least a mile and a half from the South Wind. Maybe two.” Again Carol was silent. Finally she said, “That poor fellow. Old bones, but no body. Well, that’s good.”

Jeff’s quick glance at Lorie was one of alarm.

The phone conversation continued with perfunctory answers on Carol’s end and concluded with her saying, “We lost without ever taking it to court. So Plan B is going into effect immediately.” A pause. “Sure, we can use all the help we can get. I’ll call you later with the specifics.”

“What did he say?” Under the table, Lorie gripped Jeff’s hand.

“They found the matching hospital slipper.” Carol shook her head. “It was at the edge of the northbound side of the highway, down by the bridge over the Chattahoochee. That’s a couple of miles south of the South Wind hotel. There’s clear evidence, Mac says, that someone either jumped or was thrown out of a vehicle there. He thinks, in view of the frayed ends on those pieces of rope, that it was an escape attempt. Anyway, bloody tracks lead down into the ravine and north toward the South Wind. They’ve looked up and down the ravine from there all the way to the South Wind, and Randy even arranged for search dogs. They’ve found no bloody body, alive or dead—only some old bones they’re thinking date back to Civil War times. They’re going to check whether the blood is the same as the blood trail Jeff left behind at the hotel.” She looked hard at him. “They’re looking at you, Jeff. Do you remember anything at all that might lead you to believe that escapee was you?”

Jeff’s face had blanched. “I don’t remember any of it. And I was in a Rebel uniform when I came up out of the ravine.”

“You could have been re-captured and dressed in an appropriate costume,” Phil said quietly. “Randy has been suggesting that all along. I didn’t quite buy into the line that they’re trying to intimidate Carol, but Randy knows how much a part of the Preston-Randolph story the Mannings are. And our bad guys just might know it, too. Carol, between this and those people who were following you, I do think you have to take Randy’s suspicions more seriously.”

“I don’t know what anyone would want with me,” Carol said, frowning. “I’m just the interfering Northerner. I know nothing!” And to Jeff, “Don’t worry, hon. The incident they’re looking at could be completely unrelated. The DNA in both cases is being sent to a lab. We’ll have to wait until those tests are run, and often that takes a great deal of time.” She turned back to Phil. “What bothers me is the name on that sweatshirt. ‘Maratti’?”

“It indicates to me,” Phil said, “that Rolf Maratti might be vulnerable. Does he have children?”

“I really don’t know,” Carol said.

“When we met him at the hotel, he said he had a number of heirs,” Sue reminded them. “And that usually means children. But I haven’t really been keeping track, since he’s not a blood relative.”

“Perhaps we should have the detectives run a background check on him.”

Lorie said softly, “I suspect they already have,”

“Wouldn’t it be ironic,” Phil said, “if our Jeff Preston is related to Maratti.”

Jeff’s hand tightened on hers. “Then why . . ?” she began. She stopped. She had told no one she’d seen the painting in the hidden room. Its provenance might complicate an already complicated situation.

“’Why’ what, honey?” Carol asked.

“Uh, Mr. Taylor said he’d seen a picture at Randolph House that looked a lot like Jeff.”

“That’s true,” Carol said. “But he also said he hadn’t seen it for some time. Memory gets distorted over the years.”

Phil cut the speculation off. “Let’s just wait until we get the results of the DNA tests. Right now it’s better to focus on what we’re planning to do next.”

Jeff’s hand dropped away gently and he sat at the table for a time in silence. Lorie began to feel uneasy. “How soon can we get our equipment into the house?” he said suddenly, to her vast relief. He’d been calculating, planning. “Lorie, can you find me a pad of paper, please? And a pen and some ink? We need to keep them off guard—to act immediately, before they can mount a defense.” Lorie turned to Sue, eyebrows raised. They hurried to find what he needed, including a ballpoint pen.

“The next scheduled appointment for Clark’s Lawn Service is this afternoon,” Sue told him when she saw he was devising a time schedule. She frowned. “That’s cutting it awfully close. Is Mr. Taylor ready?”

Carol called to find out. When she hung up, she was smiling. “They are ready and eager.”

Sue put in a call to the lawn service. “Ginny, can we use one of your extra trucks today to bring the equipment I was telling you about into Randolph House?” Her face brightened. “Thanks, Ginny. Warn that talkative crew of yours to keep mum about this. I know they’re all relatives of yours, so we can trust them. What time are they scheduled to go in?” She turned around and said to Jeff, “Two this afternoon. Just to be sure, they called the judge for permission. They usually have four trucks to do the service. This time five. The guards won’t know the difference.”

He started writing. Checking the clock, he said, “It will be tight. It’s quarter to eleven right now. That means we have to coordinate with Mr. Taylor to get the equipment here at least within the next two hours. Is that at all possible?”

Carol called Taylor again and immediately reported back: “Ewen has found a small airfield about fifteen miles from here, at one of the private resorts. He gave me the coordinates so we can go pick them up. He already has permission to land and his ETA is about twelve-thirty.” Jeff made more notes. “The equipment was assembled at his cabin,” Carol went on, “so no one but select people know about it. He’s bringing everything including his crew in the helicopter. We’ll meet him there. Let’s get going, girls and boys. Time to change into your work clothes.”

Lorie brought the bags of clothing in from the car. She glanced at Jeff. He was still writing, thinking, writing again. He looked up at her, too serious by half. She understood the feeling. A resolution was close. What might that mean for the two of them? He smiled sadly. She saw resignation in his beautiful eyes, and knew—whatever happened—it was not their choice to make. So much more was at stake than their own personal desires.

There was work to be done and in a hurry. She retrieved the laptop from Phil’s car and pulled up the satellite map. With Carol calling off coordinates, it was easy to locate the airfield. The satellite view showed it to be on a flat piece of land next to a lake. A long runway lay between the lake and the slope of a mountain range. Easy for a fixed-wing plane; more than enough for a helicopter.

Carol was still running the operation. “Sid, can you take your minivan out to pick up Ewen’s people? Did you check with him about what kind of equipment he’s bringing? Is there enough room in the back end?”

“Yes, yes and yes. If we take the back seats out, it should work,” Sid replied. “Phil can help me.”

“I’ll take the Town Car to carry people,” Phil said. “Ewen tells me he’s bringing three, besides himself.”

“That leaves the rest of us in the classic clunker.” Lorie had become aware that Sue often used their antique car for local tasks. “There’s an old empty service station at Walker’s Crossroads, about ten miles from here—know where that is?” She looked at her husband and he nodded. “That’s going to serve as our staging area. Ginny’s trucks will meet us there. She has a key to the old garage. It’s where she sometimes stores equipment. Call to alert us when you’ve transferred everything from Ewen’s helicopter into your cars and we’ll probably all reach the crossroads about the same time.”

Phil frowned. “Are we all planning on going into the house?” he asked Carol, who was lacing up her hiking boots. “Honey, that’s dangerous!”

“You’re a fine one to talk, Dr. Philip Barnett,” Carol said to him with a wry smile. “Right there on the front lines yourself, big guy!”

Lorie didn’t know when she’d been so proud of her courageous aunt, and all the loyal people who had been friends of Jon Randolph Third.

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