Battle of Wills

By Marolyn Caldwell All Rights Reserved ©

Mystery / Fantasy

Chapter 9

Sue Bailey rose to her full height—not so much—and dignity—in spades. “Mr. Arthur Ehrlich,” Sue said sternly, with perfect composure despite the tears still glistening in her eyes. “We have more right to be here than you do. I’ve worked with Jon Randolph for years. You had no right to seal the house without giving us notice.” Now her voice became as testy as his. “Nor did you and Mr. Maratti have cause to destroy the monument. It’s been here for well over a century. It’s part of the history of this community.”

He looked startled. “Monument?”

She pointed to the evidence.

He stepped forward. The stern visage softened in an instant to one of genuine distress. “I can’t imagine who would want to do that. Certainly not Mr. Maratti!”

“Then who?”

He shook his head. “I don’t know.” Ehrlich turned to Sue, the tone of his voice now completely transformed. “Mrs. Bailey, I must apologize for my rude outburst. I simply didn’t recognize you. I know you and your husband have been working with Mr. Randolph for many years and I’m genuinely sorry for your loss.” He stepped forward and took Sue’s plump little hand gently in both of his big ones. As he did so, Lorie’s initial evaluation of the man began a subtle shift. That small gesture and the expression of regret in his dark eyes made her consider he might not be the villain some were assuming him to be.

Surprised, Sue pulled the worn tissue from her pocket and again blotted at tears. In a more subdued tone she said, “Mr. Ehrlich, this is my cousin, Carol Kendall. And her niece, Lorena Manning. They’ve come from Illinois for the funeral.”

“And the reckoning I expect,” Ehrlich said with a sigh, offering his hand to each in turn. “Whose grave was desecrated here, if I may ask?”

“It’s not a grave,” Sue Bailey said. “It was a monument.”

“To Mr. Randolph’s parents?”

“No. It’s much older than that.” Sue carefully lowered herself to her knees beside one of the broken pieces of stone and with some effort, and a quick assist by Lorie, rolled it over. “You can’t read it now,” she pointed to the mud-smeared inscription, “but this stone was placed here well over a century ago by Mr. Jon’s grandmother to honor the man who built the house. Her brother. Jefferson Richard Preston.”

A magic name, Lorie thought. A force to be reckoned with. A man very much missed. Even now. Maybe someone deserving more than just two-lines on his tombstone. If he had a tombstone.

“Why would anyone break it?” Ehrlich asked, clearly puzzled. “Senseless vandalism. I wish we had placed a lock on the gate as well as the house.”

At that, Sue’s expression hardened. “Why didn’t you warn us you were locking up the house? We deserve a chance to move personal belongings at the very least.”

“An order was presented to the judge,” he said almost apologetically. “And he signed it. I thought you would have been notified.”

“Who asked for the order?”

“Mr. Maratti did,” he admitted. “He had his reasons.”

“What reasons?” Sue’s voice rose.

“Mrs. Bailey, why don’t we discuss this when we meet with Mr. Purdy this afternoon?”

“Is the judge going to be there also?”

“I don’t believe so.”

“Which judge would sign an order like that?” Sue’s voice was rising again. She came to her feet in full indignation.

“Sandy Cragin.”

Sue went silent. Then querulously, “Why Sandy? He was Jon’s friend. He’s a friend of ours. He should know better.”

“It was necessary.” Lorie had the perception Ehrlich wanted to say more, but realized that legal ethics precluded further discussion. “Ladies, I must get back to town. I apologize for the question, but could you please tell me when the funeral is being held? I’d like to be there.”

“Tomorrow morning,” Sue answered. “At the Community Church on Main Street. It’s a memorial service as Jon wanted to be cremated. I had hoped we could scatter his ashes here, but perhaps we’ll have to rethink.”

An expression of genuine regret crossed the big man’s face. “I hope we can work something out,” he said gently. “Please bear with us. And if you don’t mind, could I rely on you to pull the gate shut when you leave? I’ll arrange for a lock right away to make sure something like this doesn’t happen elsewhere on the property. And I’ll personally make sure you get a key.”

Tense and silent, Sue stared at him. She sighed. Her shoulders relaxed. “Of course. I didn’t think it would be necessary, but obviously it is. Thank you,” she said and then inquisitively, “Where is your car?”

“It’s in the parking lot now. I was driving out in the fields behind the house to check the status of the property. I see there’s a nice-sized airfield back there.”

“You could have asked me about the status of the property.” Sue’s tone was sharp. “I keep the records. And I have surveyor reports.”

“I’m sorry. I was just following orders. But next time, Mrs. Bailey, I assure you I will keep you in the loop.”

He turned and left.

“Took it out to the fields, indeed,” Sue sniffed. “Looking for fresh land to develop most likely.”

Lorie’s attention shifted to the column of broken granite at her feet. She knelt and with a wad of tissues, and occasionally her fingernail, scraped away at the grass and soil driven into the markings by the impact of the stone with the ground. She read aloud softly, “To my beloved brother Jefferson Richard Preston—1837-1864.” She looked up at Carol. “He was twenty-seven when he died.” She felt a tremor deep inside.

“No verse?” Sue asked.

“Not here.”

“Maybe we can find it.” Carol was looking around. With effort, she turned over a larger piece. “Here it is.”

Lorie joined her and again read aloud. “’So young, so fair of form and face. We weep, for we’ll not see him more. Gone is his smile, his wit, his grace. He’s left to seek a brighter shore.’ ” She thought about the brilliant smile and quick wit of the man she knew as Jefferson Richard Preston and the words became suddenly too personal. What if she hadn’t been able to save him three nights ago, the night she’d met him? Before she got to know him. She saw now the danger she’d been warned about by all her supervisors. Too much empathy for her own good. Getting too close to patients. She turned away, tears welling in her eyes. That old bugaboo—sudden tears! Not at all professional. She didn’t want Carol to see.

Her aunt continued reading. Lorie strained to hear the soft voice. “’He was our anchor and our guide. He brought us courage, healed our pain. Remember him with love and pride. We will not see his like again.’ ” Carol looked up at Sue. “We’ll have another monument commissioned. If we can’t place it here, we’ll find a suitable spot. They’re not going to get away with this!”

“But we don’t know who they are.”

“We’ll root them out, Sue.” Carol stood and put her arms around her cousin. “Let’s get back to town and find something to eat. I need something in my gut to build up a proper head of steam.”

“So that’s Mr. Arthur Ehrlich,” Lorie said as they walked back across the lawn to the parking area. “Is that the guy you described as a Sicilian bandit?”

Sue nodded. “Very scary.”

“No, he’s not,” Lorie said, wondering why anyone would think so. “He’s big and all that. But he doesn’t have a hooked nose. It’s just a little large. He’s Jewish. Larger than some, I think. But—I’m sure he’s a lot nicer person than you were led to believe.”

“Jewish?” Sue said, frowning at Lorie. “Then why is everyone saying he’s Mafiosi.”

“Where do these rumors get started anyway?” Carol put in, obviously irritated. “We’re going to have to get very aggressive about tracking down half-truths and untruths. They’re not helpful.”

They met Sue’s husband back at the house. Grey-haired Sid Bailey was a tall spare man with a pleasant narrow face and a high forehead. Casually dressed in tan slacks, his white sport shirt open at the collar, he had prepared a quick meal for everyone, ham sandwiches with lettuce and fat tomato slices and everything that went with them. He paused when they walked in, iced tea pitcher in his hand. “Hi, ladies,” he said in a surprisingly deep voice. “I understand you had some problems out at the house.” He spotted Lorie. “Glad to meet you at last, young lady. Come join us and let’s get an update on the unfolding disaster.”

“Oh, Sid.” Sue gazed up at him as she seated herself at the table. “I just turned all watery. I wasn’t tough at all. I’m so ashamed.”

“She behaved herself admirably,” Carol said proudly.

Sid bestowed a genuinely loving glance on his spouse. “She always does,”

Between Carol and Sue the story was soon told. Sid sat stoic, listening to each in turn, asking occasional questions. At the conclusion of the narrative he remained still. Lorie noticed a red flush creeping up his cheeks. Suddenly he rose from the bench, strode across the kitchen, yanked open the door and disappeared outside, closing the door securely behind him. Lorie heard loud words coming from the back porch. Most were unintelligible, but some were very clear.

“I won’t let him swear inside,” Sue whispered.

“He’s doing it very well,” Carol whispered back. “I haven’t heard some of those words before. Maybe I should take notes.”

“Okay,” he said in a modulated voice when he finally reappeared. “We’ve got an early meeting with Will at the hotel. Let’s go meet the lawyers.”

“Let’s go,” Sue said, a satisfied smile on her face. She fished a set of keys from her purse and led the way out to the garage where sat the family minivan beside a well-buffed vintage car much more in keeping with the historic nature of the town. They took the van.

The meeting, Sue told them, was to take place at the Imperial Hotel. “The only hotel in town,” she explained. “By default—the best. And the worst. Take your pick.” It was located on Main Street in the heart of downtown between one of the local banks and a dry goods store, both, Lorie decided, restored to look like something off a movie set. Delightful and decidedly tourist-worthy—to her eyes at any rate.

The Imperial was still undergoing renovation as part of the “historic town” district. Scaffolding and paint-spattered drop cloths littered the lobby. Updated air conditioning was being installed and high ceilings were being refurbished. Some day it would be a showplace. Not today.

The desk clerk, a harried young woman with a deeply tanned face, dark eyes and frizzy blond hair, looked up, saw Sid Bailey and smiled. “Hi, Sid, what’s up?”

“Afternoon, Judy,” he said. “Is Will Purdy here yet? We’re meeting with him in the Victorian Room.”

“He’s up there, Sid. Look, I heard what happened to the Major’s monument. That’s a crime. I’d sue if I was you.”

“How on earth did she hear about that?” Lorie overheard Sue whisper to her husband as they walked along the darkened corridor to an elevator at the end. “We didn’t tell anyone. And I don’t think Arthur Ehrlich would have gone around tattling. He was very upset.”

“Remind me to ask her later,” he answered.

“We have to find out,” Carol declared firmly. “If someone is out there bragging, we need names. Things are getting out of hand here.”

They came out of the elevator on the second floor and walked halfway back along the corridor to a room with a heavy double door. One of the doors was open and they entered a large parlor furnished Victorian style—dark woodwork, heavy pieces of furniture, elaborate ornamentation. An old couch upholstered with colorful needlepoint sat against the far wall. Another wall was dominated by a massive glass-fronted bookcase filled with ancient volumes.

A man rose dispiritedly from the depths of an overstuffed armchair near the couch. If there was such a thing as a “medium man,” Lorie thought critically, Purdy was it. Medium in height, medium in weight, medium in age, medium in looks, probably medium in intellect, but she would hold that judgment in abeyance until she knew more about him. He was wearing a dark suit which might fit, she thought, if he added a few pounds. His salt and pepper hair hadn’t been cut any time in the past month. His tie was lopsided and his shoes didn’t quite seem to match. Her overwhelming impression of him was that he was acutely distraught.

“Hi, Sid. Afternoon, Sue.” He reached for their hands. He frowned at Lorie. “Who … ?” he began, but Sue interrupted curtly before he could say another word.

“Will Purdy, this is my cousin Carol Kendall. And our niece Lorie Manning. They are here for the funeral and anything you have to say can be said in their presence.”

“Please be seated,” Purdy said, recoiling from her intensity. “What’s the nature of this meeting?”

“We were locked out of the house this morning,” Sue said, her voice rising. “Did you know about that?”

“I’m afraid I did.”

“Why the hell didn’t you tell us?” Sid said, rather more loudly than his wife.

“I called this morning,” he said softly, “but no one was home.”

“Both Sid and I have cell phones,” Sue snapped, “and you have the numbers.”

“I’m sorry, Sue,” Will Purdy said. “I would have fought it, but as I understand it everything has to be secured until there is a complete accounting of the estate assets. It’s only fair to the heirs, especially when they’re coming from far places.”

“No one’s coming from far places,” Sid Bailey grumbled under his breath. “They’re here already.”

“I work at the house, Will,” his wife said. “Work! Do you know what that word means? The house is my office.” Again her voice rose. “How am I supposed to conduct business when my office is locked up tighter than a drum?”

“And where is the will, Will?” Sid’s voice had turned menacing. “We know there was a will.”

“I looked everywhere,” Purdy protested weakly. “Everywhere. I know Mr. Jon talked about a will, but I don’t think Mike ever had it typed up. I haven’t even found copies.”

“Claptrap!” Sue erupted. “Mr. Jon indicated to me that everything was signed, sealed and delivered.”

Purdy spoke as if he were profoundly tired. “I’m sorry, Sue. Until I find any sign of the will—even a copy of it—I have nothing to work with.”

Sue crossed her arms in front of her and stared at the lawyer as if her gaze would propel a beam of fire and burn him to a crisp. He took a quick step backwards.

Her husband had left the room. He was talking to himself in the hallway. Lorie recognized a few of the words from his earlier recitation.

A moment later Sid returned, accompanied by two men. One was Arthur Ehrlich, who reached for Sue’s hand, then Carol’s, then Lorie’s. He smiled at her and she thought the smile was a little sad. “So nice to see you again, Mrs. Kendall, Miss Lorie.” He turned to Will Purdy and acknowledged him. But Lorie noticed that his hospitality did not extend in Purdy’s case to a handshake.

It was the third person, however, who dominated the room from the moment he stepped through the doorway. He was not as tall as Lorie had expected him to be from all the comments she had heard about him. He looked younger than she had envisioned as well, although he had to be well into his sixth decade. His was a commanding figure, however—slender, straight, and neat. His skin had the same Mediterranean richness as Ehrlich’s. His full head of hair was black, streaked with gray at the temples. His eyes were a beautiful shade of brown, lashes and eyebrows luxuriant. His face was clean shaven, his nose long and straight, his lips beautifully shaped. With the exception of Jefferson Preston, he was one of the most handsome men Lorie had ever seen. She didn’t know why that fact was so jarring. Had she been expecting to see a villain? What might a villain look like, anyway?

He seated himself gracefully on the Victorian couch, crossed his legs, adjusted the crease of his dark blue trousers, and looked directly into Lorie’s eyes. “And who do we have here?” There was only a hint of an accent in his voice.

She already knew what to do. She approached him deferentially, smiled and reached for his hand. “Lorena Manning. I’m Mrs. Kendall’s niece.” His eyes widened a fraction. He obviously knew the Manning name. “I’m delighted to meet you at last, Mr. Maratti. I just wish it had been a happier occasion.” His handclasp was firm, but brief.

He turned quickly to Carol. “Mrs. Kendall. How nice to see you again.” Again he extended his hand without rising.

“Hello, Rolf. Please call me Carol. I’m so sorry Mr. Jon is gone.” Taking her cue from Lorie her aunt spoke warmly, extending both hands. He blinked. This time Lorie was not surprised.

He had not been expecting the smiles nor the sympathy. His return smile was instinctual—and quickly suppressed. Interesting. While he seemed intent on maintaining his superiority, it didn’t appear to be in his nature. He really was playing a role. Why?

Still seated, he turned to Sue Bailey and offered his hand. “Mrs. Bailey. I remember meeting you and your husband a few years ago at some occasion for my stepfather.”

“His eightieth birthday party,” Sid grumbled, loudly enough for everyone in the room to hear. “And his ninetieth.”

“Let me tell you,” he said, ignoring Sid’s comments, “why I decided to join you today.” When Ehrlich tried to stop him, he waved his hand. “Art, this is between friends.” He turned back to the Baileys. “I understand you are having trouble producing Jon Randolph’s current will.”

Sue spoke over Purdy’s attempted response. “We know a will was written. Your stepfather spoke about it many times to both of us. I was going to look for it out at the house, but someone put locks on the doors.”

“The locks were necessary,” Maratti said smoothly, “but I regret your not having been notified. I’ve also been informed that damage has been done in the garden.” Lorie noticed the tone of his voice changing ever so slightly as he spoke of damage, as if he were more disturbed by the incident than he wanted to let on. “The judge has suggested that guards be employed and for my part I’ve agreed to it. They will patrol day and night. You can be assured that nothing else will be damaged.”

“Guards?” Sid burst out.

“If you need anything during this time,” Maratti said, “just ask my friend, Art, who is a firm advocate on your behalf. He will make sure you are escorted into and out of the mansion. You can retrieve anything you like so long as it’s your own personal property or related to the day-to-day business you are handling for the estate. In the meantime … ” and now the tone of his voice went a half step lower as if he had something very important to divulge. Lorie glanced at Carol and raised her eyebrows.

“What?” Carol mouthed.

“Something big,” she mouthed back silently and then realized Maratti was looking straight at her. Frowning.

His eye still focused on her, Maratti went on more slowly, almost as if he didn’t want to say what he had to, “ … in the absence of a current will I have in my possession an original will which my stepfather wrote many years ago. I regret to say I took it with me when I left his home. I was seventeen and not too bright. However, it’s signed and witnessed and I have been assured that it is perfectly legal. Mr. Ehrlich will file the will for probate this afternoon. In the absence of another document invalidating this particular will, it should stand. It leaves everything he owned to his named sons and their heirs. I am the only one of his named sons surviving—and I have a number of heirs.”

Lorie glanced at Will Purdy. He seemed strangely non-reactive. His mouth had formed the shape of an O.

The silence in the room spoke for itself.

Maratti looked at Sue. Then at Sid. “Please contact Mr. Ehrlich and he will make arrangements for you to retrieve your personal possessions and any business files you have been working with. I have a room in this hotel in case you need to get hold of me. Thank you, ladies and gentlemen. We will meet again.” He rose, made a summoning gesture to Arthur Ehrlich, looked Lorie squarely in the eyes, frowned, whirled and left the room. Ehrlich trailed dutifully behind him without saying a word.

The silence lingered.

“How did you know it would be something that important?” Carol said to Lorie quietly.

“The tone of his voice changed.”

“I think,” her aunt said, still very quietly, “that you are unusually perceptive, young lady!”

“Well,” Sue said, “there goes the idea of finding a love child.” She glared at Purdy. “Did you know anything about this?”

As if he were in shock, he remained very still. After a moment he said, “I’ve been trying to prepare for dispersal of property to blood relatives in the absence of a will. So you can inherit something, Sue. And your kids. I’m afraid this doesn’t leave me much wiggle room.”

“Zero,” Sid said. “Unless you can find that other will. Folks, let’s go home.”

But once they were seated in the minivan, Lorie’s aunt Carol had another idea. “Let’s go right to Phil’s place. I’d like you to meet the twenty-first century Jefferson Preston. Let’s try to figure out where he came from.”

“Great idea,” Sid turned the car toward the highway out of town. “We need to get some fresh air. Far away from this town.”

Sue leaned back with a deep sigh. “It’s been a rough day all around. Who invited Maratti to our meeting?”

“What’s his game?” Lorie asked.

“Game?” Carol frowned. “You really think he’s playing a game?”

“He’s playing something very close to the chest.”

“Besides the will? If it’s proved legal he gets it all. I don’t see that we have a chance now.”

Very little conversation took place in the Bailey’s minivan as it journeyed southward toward Marietta. Carol had called ahead to alert Phil to the change of plans.

He had a pot of coffee ready when they entered the kitchen from the back porch. “Welcome, friends,” he said. “Come sit and unwind. Tell Uncle Phil all about it.”

“Very grim,” Carol said, standing for a long moment in the circle of his arms. “A bad day all round.”

Lorie busied herself bringing cups, saucers, and cutlery to the table, as well as cream and sugar. The doctor handed her a plate of freshly baked peanut butter cookies and said to her softly, “He likes to cook.”

“Is he awake?” Carol said. “I’d like the Baileys to meet him.”

Phil laughed. “I finally tore him away from the computer long enough to do a little shopping. Then he made the cookies. And now he’s doing some reading in my study. He seems to think it’s easier to read from the printed page than from a computer screen. I can’t say I disagree.” He called down the hallway and a moment later Jeff Preston entered the kitchen, the picture of health. Taller than anyone in the room except Sid Bailey, he was wearing custom-fitted blue jeans and a white woven-shirt over the tight bandages that did nothing to conceal his muscular torso. On his feet were soft leather moccasins. His blond hair was finger-tousled, his blue eyes shining with cordiality.

When he saw Lorie those eyes burst to life. Lifting her hand gently to his lips he held it there a long moment before releasing it. The warmth of his greeting flooded her with—what? A passionate desire to be alone with him in a secluded place! Oh my goodness, she thought, this isn’t right! She had been warned repeatedly about the empathy she experienced with her patients, but this was something very different. Very dangerous. He released her hand, gave her a conspiratorial wink and mouthed, “carpe diem.” He moved to greet Carol with a quick hug and a peck on the cheek and then zeroed in on the Baileys who by this time were totally mesmerized by his charm. They rose to greet him and shake his hand.

“By god, you must be Jon’s kin,” Sid Bailey exclaimed. “I’ve seen that face somewhere, I swear.”

“I’ve seen it, too, and I know exactly where.” Sue took his hand in both of hers. “It’s great-great-grandma Sara’s face! And her eyes sure enough. You are kin all right. And you and my son Jimmy—almost like two peas in a pod. Don’t you see it, Sid?”

Lorie was startled by Sue’s words, although even she had begun to assume Jeff was a blood relative. To have it confirmed so affirmatively was somewhat of a shock.

“Would there be old pictures at the house?” Phil asked. “Taken before you folks moved here?”

“Yes, dammit,” Sid said, and Lorie’s initial alarm turned to amusement when she spotted Sue’s warning glance at her husband. “The house is locked up tighter than Ft. Knox,” Sid continued. “We can’t get in to work or anything except with an escort.” Between the two of them, with occasional comments from Carol, they related the whole sorry tale of the morning’s encounter with Arthur Ehrlich to the meeting with Rolf Maratti in the afternoon.

“What house are you speaking of?” Jeff said into the silence when they quit speaking.

“Randolph House,” Sue said. “It’s where Jon Randolph lives in Randolph City.”

“Did it ever have another name?”

“Well, before Mr. Jon moved back there with Maria and Rolf it was called Oak Hill Plantation. Is that what you mean?”

“Oak Hill?” His eyebrows rose with his quick smile. “And the town was also called Oak Hill, I presume?”

“Randolph City?” Sid said. “Sure. Jon became so much a part of the town they officially changed its name years back in gratitude for his generosity.”

“Does the summer kitchen still stand at the plantation?” Jeff asked, his voice very animated now. “And the boxwood maze?”

“Yes.” Sue’s voice held a question.

“What do you want to find at Oak Hill? Write out a list. Tell me where the items are. We can go in the back way tonight. Lorie and myself.” He looked at Lorie, now grinning broadly.

Was he serious?

When she looked around her, she saw other faces staring at Jeff in astonishment. For a long while no one said a word.

“You’ve been there?” Carol asked.

“Many times in years past. If the plantation’s traditions have been honored I’ll be able to find my way around quite easily.”

“Then you know a lot more than we do about it,” Sue said. “There will be guards.”

“That is of no importance. What do you wish to find?”

“The will,” Sid said after a long silence, “would be helpful.”

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