Damned if I can figure it out! There was never any love lost between us, my uncle and me. Why would the old bastard who never missed a chance to point out that he thought I was bound for hell in a hand basket if I didn't mend my ways, name me as sole heir in his will? Unless all he left behind was a pile of debts.
His attorney sat on the other side of the thick glass in the visitor's area of the county jail. I was the one on the prisoner's side. On the phone we used to speak to each other, he assured me it was all true, that when I was released in three days, I'd be picked up outside and driven to his office to sign all the necessary documents to take possession of my uncle's property. There were, of course, certain conditions he'd explain later. No surprise there; everything my uncle ever did or said had conditions attached to it, one way or another.
I kept asking if he was absolutely sure he had the right guy, if it wasn't one of my cousins he should be talking to.
"Look, Mr. Davies," he said for about the third time, "Your uncle, Samuel Ansel Davies, was very insistent that you, and only you, were his chosen heir. There isn't another 'Jesse' in your family tree; not living, anyway. I know that because I checked."
Again, he held that page of the will up to the glass so I could read it for myself. "I know it's you because when he made that change in his will just before he died, he advised me that you were currently serving a six-month stretch in the county lockup for aggravated assault, so, yes, I'm absolutely positive you're the one. What time are you being released?"
Well, I guess it wouldn't hurt anything to at least see what was on the table. "I think they kick us out at nine in the morning."
"Good! I'll be waiting outside the gate to take you to my office."
He hung the phone on the hook and walked out, leaving me sitting there shaking my head in disbelief. What the hell was Uncle Sam up to? I'll bet he came up with a way to bust my balls from the grave. It'd be just like him to take a parting shot, make sure he got in one last dig.
True to his word, three days later, Johnny Spencer, my late uncle's attorney was standing outside the gate waiting for me when I walked through. We climbed into his Mercedes S-Class sedan and headed downtown to his office. I'd never sat in a hundred thousand dollar car before, and probably never would again. On the way, I kept bugging him with questions, but I didn't learn any more than I already knew. He said we couldn't discuss any details until we got to his office where he could record the conversation. I didn't like the sound of that. The standard police warning, 'Anything you say can and will be used against you.' oozed into my brain.
His offices were what you'd expect of a successful attorney; not like the work-a-day cubicle my moron of a public defender holed up in. But then, you get what your pay for, and I never paid him a dime. In return, he gave me exactly nothing in the way of a credible defense at my trial. Like an idiot, I took his advice to not testify in my own behalf. Well, nobody else did, either. When the deputy led me out of the courtroom in cuffs, I'd come to the conclusion my attorney had to be in the DA's pocket. But it was all water under the bridge now, so there was no sense whining about it.
Spencer grabbed a handful of messages as we passed by his secretary's desk and proceeded through a massive oak door into his inner sanctum. The place reeked of money.
As he occupied his throne behind a desk big enough to roller skate on, he waved his hand at a leather wingback chair and said, "Have a seat, Jesse. Would you like a cup of coffee?"
"Uh, sure. Black, please."
He pushed a button on his phone console and said, "Jeannie, two coffees, black, please." Then he placed a small recording device between us, pushed the 'record' button, leaned back and began, "I take it you never spent much time with your uncle. How much do you know about him?"
I shrugged, "Not a lot, I guess; just that he lived in that old farmhouse after Grandpa died, and leased out the fields to his neighbors. I remember he and Dad argued like hell over the property 'til Uncle Sam paid him a few thousand for his share. I think he dabbled in the stock market some, but I don't know if he ever made any money doing it. As far as I know, he kept to himself and lived off his social security and whatever he got from the leases."
The secretary came in and set a big mug of coffee in front of each of us. I took a sip of the best coffee I'd tasted since taking up residence in our county facility. I mumbled my thanks to her shapely backside as she turned to go back to her office.
Spencer slurped his coffee and asked, "What kind of relationship did you have with your uncle, Jesse?"
"Could you be more specific?"
"Well, when Dad died, Uncle Sam came to the house and said he was gonna take me under his wing and see that I was brought up right. I said 'Like hell, you are!' and that's as good as it ever got between us."
"And how did your mother feel about that?"
"Mom hadn't drawn a sober breath in years, so I doubt she felt much of anything. She was already pretty much toast by that time, but I wasn't gonna just walk out on her to go live with Uncle Sam. Anyhow, she didn't last another year. I was eighteen when she died, so Uncle Sam couldn't make me do anything I didn't want to."
"Did he ever approach the subject again?"
"Couple of times. Last time, maybe two years ago, he tracked me down and asked me to move in with him, to help him work the farm, raise beans and onions. I told him I had better things to do."
"Did I what?"
"Did you have better things to do? Did you already have a job?"
"Um, just some part-time construction jobs, hustling pool, that kind of stuff. I just couldn't get very excited about being a farmer."
"Yes, that pretty much matches the story Sam gave me, too. Tell me about how you wound up in County."
"Is there some reason you need to know, or are you just being nosey?"
He chuckled, "Well, since you asked, Mr. Attitude, I'd like to know what kind of person I'm going to be dealing with over the next few years; that is, if you accept the terms of the will. Besides," he added, nodding at the recorder, "I need your version for the record."
"Fair enough. It's pretty simple, really. I was shootin' some pool in a bar, and this asshole was giving the waitress a bunch of shit. Every time she walked by him, he'd reach out and grab her ass. She told him about a dozen times to knock it off, but he wouldn't. Then the next time he did it, she turned around and smacked him up side his head with a bar tray. Knocked him clean out of his chair! So, we're all standing around laughing at him, kinda glad he got what he deserved, when he came up off the floor with murder in his eyes and made a run at her. I reached out and snatched him by his collar and slammed his face against the wall. When he took a swing at me, I broke my cue stick over the top of his head. That settled him down for good and he wound up spending some time in the hospital with a skull fracture. The cops called it aggravated assault and ran me in. That's about it."
Spencer looked confused, "And the judge gave you six months for that? Did you have a prior record of assaults?"
"Hell no! That's the first and only time I was ever arrested."
"Where in hell was your attorney? If you're telling me the truth, your actions were justified, and you shouldn't have gotten any more than a hundred-dollar fine for disturbing the peace!"
"Where was my lawyer? The moron was sitting right beside me, picking his nose and scratching his fat ass. He was useless."
"Jeez, I guess! I can't imagine why the judge was suck a prick!"
"Maybe because I'm black?"
I'm really only about a quarter black, kind of a light brown. Dad was white and Mom was mixed. Only reason folks don't see me as a white man is my curly black hair, maybe a little bit of 'tude, as well.
Spencer sighed, "I hope that wasn't it, but you may be right. If you are, I apologize on behalf of 'whities' everywhere."
I got back to the subject at hand. "So why's he doing this? Uncle Sam, I mean. I must have at least four or five cousins out there somewhere who are - or were - a lot closer to him than I was."
Spencer reached over and picked up a sealed envelope, tossing it to me across his desk. "Read it later. It might have some answers. Or not. I don't have any idea what's in it. He just said to give it to you, so I have."
I stuck it in my jacket pocket. "At County, you mentioned conditions?"
"Well, it's all very complicated, and it'll take us some time to work through the details, but here's the gist of it: First of all, your uncle did a lot more than dabble in the stock market. He made millions."
That set me back on my heels. I was inheriting millions!?
Spencer read my mind ... or my shock ... or my greed. He laughed and added, "Now, before you go out shopping for that Lamborghini, let me advise you that you have zero access to those millions, at least, until you've fulfilled the conditions of the will. Until then, I control the purse strings."
He leaned forward on his elbows, folded his hands together and started laying it out, "The basic conditions are these: For the next five years, you'll be living off an allowance of fifty grand a year. You'll live in your uncle's house. You will complete your GED. You will not marry. During that time, you can opt to work the farm or you can learn another trade. You can even go to college, if you want."
"Yeah? Last I heard, a college education is gonna run about thirty grand a year, easy. That doesn't leave a lot of money for gasoline and groceries."
"Any educational expenses would be paid for over and above your allowance."
"Oh? Well in that case, I guess I'll have to give it some thought. I still don't get it, though, why he did this."
"Frankly, Jesse, I don't either, but getting it isn't my job. I'm being paid to see that the conditions of your uncle's will are carried out ... to the letter. If they're not, if you violate even a single clause of the contract, then the whole deal is forfeit and everything goes to the next in line."
"And who's that?"
"That's none of your business. Shall we proceed with the details, or do you want to bail now and save me the trouble of having to babysit you through the next five years? And you can take my word, if you agree to this thing, you're going to be on a tight leash."
I laughed, "Mr. Spencer, I get the impression you like me about as much as Uncle Sam did."
"Given that you're heir to all his wealth, I'd suggest he liked you a lot more than you seem to think. Anyway, my personal feelings toward you are entirely irrelevant."
"Ya think? Seems to me, if you're gonna be looking over my shoulder for five years, your personal feelings are entirely relevant."
"I'll try to control myself. So, are you in or out?"
I didn't have to think about it too hard. It wasn't like I was looking at a rosy future, otherwise. The best I could hope for was some kind of a shit job and cops being way too interested in my personal affairs, now that I had a felony record. Getting out of the city was way up there on my agenda, anyway, so sure, why not? It's not like Uncle Sam was gonna be there to make my life miserable.
"You're a helluva salesman, Mr. Spencer. I'm in."
"Then, let's get to it, shall we?"
We spent the next hour going over the details of my uncle's will and the terms of the contract. By the time we got through it all, I was thinking my life would be less regulated if I were a raw recruit in the Army, but the thought of those rewards at the end of five years put a damper on my need for independence. After I finished signing and initialing all the paperwork, Spencer handed me a set of keys to my uncle's Tundra, parked in a garage down the street.
He also gave me the keys to the old house, and two barrel keys on a silver chain, the purpose of which he couldn't really explain. "Your uncle said you were to wear these around your neck at all times, kind of like dog tags. He said you'd eventually figure out what they were for." He anticipated my question and added, "Hey, I have no idea!"
Then he counted out five hundred in cash to get the truck out of hock, pick up some groceries and a few other odds and ends I'd be needing. As I left his office, he patted me on the back and said, "I wish you luck, Jesse. You're first allowance check should arrive in about a week. I suggest you use some of that five hundred to open a bank account somewhere so we can do it by direct deposit. I'll be checking in from time to time to help you deal with any issues that might crop up."
"Where's that truck, again?"
"The garage is two blocks west on the right side of the street. Can't miss it."
"I'll trade you straight across for that S-Class."
The silver-gray tundra was four years old, but it had just been washed, and looked brand new. When I cranked it up, the odometer read just over eighty-six hundred miles, so I guess it was almost new. The tab for storage and the cleanup was almost a hundred bucks, but at least the tank was full.
I knew anything I'd left behind in my old apartment when I went to jail would have long since been stolen, given away or hocked by my ex-roommates, so I didn't even bother to go by. I just headed out to the farm, twenty-three miles south of the city. I hadn't even seen the old place since I was about twelve, so the mental picture I had was of an old two-story frame about to collapse into a pile of firewood.
I drove right by it the first time because I didn't see anything that looked familiar. I thought I must have turned onto the wrong dirt road, so I turned around and drove back until I came to a property surrounded by a high stone wall with a big iron gate in front of it. There was a Sheriff's deputy in one of their green Suburbans parked on the side of the road, so I pulled over to ask directions.
The guy lowered his window as I approached. "Can I help you?"
"Yeah, I'm looking for the Davies property."
"You found it."
I took a step back and looked through the gate. And there it was, on the hillside among the trees, about a hundred yards up a gravel drive. It looked so much bigger and nicer than I remembered it, like it had been torn down and rebuilt from scratch. As it turns out, it had been.
I looked back at the deputy and asked, "You know how to open the gate?"
"Yup. You got some ID?"
I showed him my driver's license. He checked it against a piece of paper on a clipboard and said, "You'll need your key."
"Yeah, your key. You're the man I've been waiting for, and you're supposed to have keys to the place."
"Um, let me check." I pulled the house keys out of my pocket and walked over to the gate. There was a metal plate with a key slot in the middle of it, set in the stonework of one of the pillars. The first two keys didn't fit, but the third one did. I turned it, but nothing happened. I heard a 'whirring' sound and looked up to see a security camera mounted on top of the other pillar, it's little red eye blinking away. I looked over at the deputy and shrugged.
He leaned out the window and said, "That just unlocks the mechanism. Now, you have to push the opener in your truck."
There were two remote openers attached to the driver's side sun visor. I leaned in the door and pushed the button on the one marked 'G-1" and nothing happened. When I pushed the one marked 'G-2', the gate began sliding to the side. As I climbed back into the truck, the deputy honked, waved and drove away. I drove up the long driveway to my new home.
I'll be damned! I thought as I stood in front of the place. It looked a little bit like the old place in that it was a two-story frame, but that's where the resemblance ended. The porch wrapped around three sides. The windows were large and framed by forest greed shutters. The double front doors were oak decorated with ovals of etched glass. Everything about it said 'expensive'. The place had to be at least five thousand square feet, probably more than double what the old house was!
I unlocked the front door, stepped inside and looked around. It looked like someone had recently scrubbed and polished the inside of the place 'til it practically shone. It even smelled nice, like scented candles had been burning. I wondered if I had maid service. And was she cute?
All the furniture was old in style, but new in appearance, and obviously high-quality stuff. If I had to guess at a motif, it would be 'old English manor house', with dark wood paneling on the walls, expensive-looking rugs, a large, stone fireplace with a marble mantel, carved walnut tables. There was a formal dining room with a massive table with ornately carved legs and sixteen upholstered chairs, plus two matching sideboards. I guessed he must've thrown some big dinner parties. That didn't really fit because, as far as I knew, he wasn't the socializing type.
The kitchen broke the motif by sporting everything new and shiny. The appliances were all oversize, and they looked like they'd been bought yesterday. There was an industrial sized refrigerator, and the stove was a Wolfe, with six burners and a griddle. There was one similar to it in the kitchen at the jail. Being detailed to food services during my stay, I'd scrambled mountains of powered eggs on it over the last six months.
I ran up the polished oak stairs and checked out the four bedrooms and the study, all as nicely furnished as the downstairs. I picked the biggest bedroom as my own, of course, because it had an attached bath, complete with a large, round tub with water jets. Yeah, this was gonna be sweet!
Maybe I misjudged you, Uncle! I never thought you had this much class.
I went back downstairs and through the kitchen to the back door. There were three buttons next to the doorsill. I looked out the window and saw a three-bay garage in back. I assumed each of the buttons was for one of the doors. I pushed all three and went out to take a look.
In one bay, I found a Honda ATV, a riding lawnmower and about every other lawn-care tool you could imagine. There was a workbench along the back wall with loads of power tools. Hanging off the wall was about any size wrench, screwdriver or any other hand tool you'd ever need. In the next bay, there was a five-foot by twelve-foot utility trailer, and lying beside it was a stack of hardwood planks, oak and walnut, I think. Looks like Uncle Sam was into wood working; something else I didn't know about the old boy. I shook my head in wonder and headed back inside.
On the way back to the house, I saw a large rectangular thing attached to the back wall. When I read the metal plate on the side, I learned that all the air coming into the house was sucked through a HEPA filtering system. I guess the old man must have suffered from some kind of respiratory disease.
The house was built and furnished for a really big family. I couldn't help but wonder why, since it was way more than a single old curmudgeon like Uncle Sam would ever need. If he was gonna tear down the old place and rebuild, why would he go with something so upscale, so oversized? Who was he trying to impress?
The last area of the house I checked out was the basement. It turned out to be the real living room. It was completely open, maybe sixty feet to a side, and there were six, eight-inch diameter oak columns supporting two eight by twelve-inch support beams under the main floor of the house. On one wall was a flat-screen TV, probably seventy inches. There was a freestanding fireplace in the middle of the room, probably underneath the one between the living room and dining room. On the other side of the open space was a top-of-the-line pool table and a rack of high-quality cue sticks. Several casual chairs and a couple of comfy-looking couches were scattered around the space. There was even a wet bar, but it wasn't stocked. Very nice! Very nice! Good old Uncle Sam didn't stint when it came to quality and personal comfort.
But there was one object that looked completely out of place; a large vending machine against the natural stone wall. I walked over and looked at the selection, already deciding to have the machine removed because it looked downright ugly, considering the high quality of the rest of the furnishings. There were only three choices of drinks; bottled water, bottled sweet tea and Miller Lite. I guess Uncle Sam had simple tastes in beverages.
Yeah, this will definitely have to go.
I figured I could haul it away on that utility trailer, and wondered how hard it would be to move. I grabbed hold to try to pull it away from the wall, but I couldn't budge it an inch! I put my shoulder to it and tried to shove it sideways. Nothing! It's like the damn thing was either bolted to the wall or the floor. Maybe I'd just leave it, for now.
I hadn't eaten since a crappy breakfast of powdered eggs, a little dab of fruit cocktail and some burnt toast at the jail, and my stomach was begging for attention. I checked out the fridge and kitchen cabinets for something to snack on, but there was nothing, zip, not even a can of beans. I needed to go grocery shopping.
I jumped in the Tundra for a run into the little town of Springdale, probably six or seven miles down the road. The gate was closed again, so I figured it must be on a timer.
Once in town, I decided to take care of some other things, as well. My first stop was the local bank, where I opened a checking account with a hundred bucks. I'd call Spencer with the account and the routing numbers so he could start the automatic deposits of my checks. According to my calculations, the monthly allowance should be $4,166.67, unless there were deductions.
My next stop was the Walmart for groceries and something to wear. Along with a lot of easy-to-prepare food, I bought some jeans, shirts, underwear, socks and a pair of hiking boots. As I walked past the electronics department, it occurred to me that I hadn't seen a phone in the house. I stopped and bought a cheap cell phone and a hundred minutes of service.
Between the truck, the bank account and the shopping, I'd already dropped over four hundred and fifty bucks. There was less than fifty dollars left over from the five hundred, plus the sixty-four dollars that was in my wallet when I went to jail. I hoped Spencer was right about the check arriving in a week, because I was already on a tight budget. Well, at least I had food and a roof over my head. And Jesus, what a roof!
Back at the house, I made myself a couple of turkey and Swiss cheese sandwiches and went down to the basement to watch some TV. I set my plate on the coffee table, and walked over to the vending machine to get a Miller Lite. I pushed the button for my selection, but nothing happened.
Shit! I thought, Don't tell me I have to actually feed this thing real money!
There was a coin slot and a dollar slot. I didn't have any change, so I tried to slide a dollar bill into the slot. Nothing. I kicked the machine, but that didn't solve my problem, either.
Well, fuck me!
I was about to get a glass of water from the bar, when I remembered the little barrel keys hanging around my neck. Vending machines used barrel keys, didn't they? I slipped the chain over my head and fitted one of the keys into the keyhole.
Click! It opened. I reached into the slot for a can of beer. There was only the one beer. In fact, there was only one bottle of water and one bottle of tea, and they were all warm. Apparently, the machine was either turned off, or it wasn't meant to be used. I was about to close the door when I saw another keyhole. I wondered if it was a power switch to turn the machine on, or maybe a cash box.
I fitted the second key into the slot and turned. Click! I heard an electric motor turn on, and the whole damned machine started sliding toward me!
"Crap!" I took a couple of steps back and watched to see where the hell it was going. The vending machine moved about a foot from the wall, stopped, then slid sideways another four feet. I was looking into a tunnel!