Chapter 1: Meeting the distribution committee
I'm Brian Driver, age thirty, the owner of several small businesses and real estate in a small upper state New York town. I've never been married,
but I am the father of two children. Mary, the children's grandmother, lives with us.
I've been estranged from my family since I arrived here, nearly eight years ago. I left home because of a girl. She jilted me. My parents never forgave me for abandoning them, and when I disappointed them by fathering a child out of wedlock, they tried to turn my siblings against me.
Until last night, when my mom called with an assignment for me, I hadn't stopped to think how important my family is to me. I couldn't turn her down; she gave the orders and I agreed to follow them. I'm sure that one day we will have a good laugh about the absurdity of that conversation. She was so focused on giving me my instructions that she didn't ask about her grandson or if I was well.
I didn't have a chance to tell her that since I've been here, I've worked my ass off providing for my family, loved one woman, and have earned some recognition in the community I now call my home. Had she inquired, I would have confessed that I've done some things that I'm not proud of.
It's dark at this time of day ... four AM, a good time to reflect on where I've been and where I'm heading.
Where I've been is thirty years of growing up, going to school, falling in love with someone who said she loved me, but didn't, moving east, gaining employment, and meeting neighbors who would take me in and make me a member of their family.
At the center of the people that I counted as my family, was Margaret (Peggy) Mendon Stover, a widow, who for six years, kept me centered, grounded, and anxious to please her.
Another person that gave me reason to get up every morning was Peggy's daughter. Amanda and I connected from the first moment we met, and I would have remained loyal to her even if her mother had rejected me. Fortunately, Peggy not only accepted me, she became my lover, business partner, and she bore me a son. She also permitted me to adopt Amanda, which bound us together for life. Even if her mother would not consent to marriage, Amanda and I shared a special bond.
Peggy was ambitious, and for six years, we prospered. Through her stewardship, our small company grew; making members of our community take notice.
That's not to say that our lives were without strife. Time after time, we experienced death among family and acquaintances. Each time death struck someone down, it became my responsibility to try to explain it to Amanda. Because of our special bond, she accepted what I told her, but the deaths took their toll on her. Amanda became old before her time.
The reason for Peggy's sudden death was impossible for me to explain, and Amanda discovered that I was not the authority she'd always held me up to be. There was the same level of trust between us, but Amanda changed. She became my confidant, my advisor, taking on more responsibility than an eight-year-old should have to bear.
Peggy not only left me with two children to raise, something I was capable of doing, she left me with a complicated group of companies to run, something I was ill-equipped to oversee.
Eventually, through trial and error, and with the help of friends, I was able to get things under control. There was nothing magical about the way it happened. I did some things that I was not proud of. I also got lucky, making friends with one of my advisors. In addition to Henrietta, I received advice from my dead wife, Amanda, and Marian, a young woman who is positioning herself to become my wife.
As I accept the temporary assignment that my parents have bestowed on me, I'm leaving the company in good hands. John Larkin is young, but everything is in place for him to be successful. I have full confidence in his ability and decision making skills. My bookkeeper, Mrs. Nelson, will keep me informed on every facet of the business.
What lies ahead? My instructions are to get everything that my father has coming to him from an aunt, that until last night, I'd never heard of before. Aunt Elsie was preceded in death by Uncle Mackey Peoples, her husband of over a half century. That's all I was told about the two elderly people I was suddenly referring to as Aunt Elsie and Uncle Mackey.
Shouldn't I have been told more? As I drove the last fifty miles, I wondered if Aunt Elsie resembled my father. What did Uncle Mackey look like? What did he do for a living? Had either of them done anything to impact mankind? Was there money involved in the estate? If so, how much money was there? And finally, what had I let my parents get me involved in?
The mortuary was not easy to find, and after getting directions, I arrived late. I was told that the service had been short, and burial was already in progress. I drove to the cemetery as quickly as possible, and saw people getting into their cars.
On the hillside, there was a bright green canopy, with a few mourners sitting on folding chairs. That's when I realized that I was not dressed properly. It had been my intention to change into my suit before entering the service, but circumstances being what they were, I was still wearing the short pants, a short-sleeved shirt with the tail hanging outside of my pants, and sneakers. Anxious to join the mourners, I got out of my truck, and sauntered up the hill.
As I climbed the hill, I noticed there was a breeze that was ruffling the fringe on the canopy. In the distance, the sea was splashing against the rocks, causing white foam to linger until the next wave broke it up. If it hadn't been for the glum expressions on the mourners' faces, the landscape would have been quite pleasant.
The mourners were wearing dark clothes. One of them, hat in hand, obviously a man of God, stepped out to greet me. I was forming an apology for the way I was dressed when he stopped me.
"You must be Mr. Driver. I'm Stewart Martin, the Peoples' Attorney. If you will furnish two forms of identification to my assistant, you may be seated for the reading of the will. Ms. Whitney, will you record Mr. Driver's information?"
I glanced below, noting how another wave was making the white foam break up. My mind was blank, but if I'd had a thought, I would have welcomed the interruption. Her voice was that soothing. Ms. Whitney was also quite lovely.
"Mr. Driver, do you have two forms of identification?"
I produced my driver's license, and watched her record the information. I saw that she was wearing a black outfit. The jacket had a single button, and the skirt had two slits that exposed dark stockings. Her blouse was lavender, with frills at the bust line. My eyes were fixed on her lips when she looked at my picture, and verified that I was a match before handing my license back.
"Mr. Driver, do you have another form of identification?"
"I don't know," I said, searching my wallet.
I heard Mr. Martin tell the group that I was representing my father, Raymond Driver, Elsie Peoples' nephew. "He's driven a long distance on very short notice," the attorney added, to explain the reason I was dressed casually.
I offered Ms. Whitney a business card. In addition to proclaiming that Brian Driver was the president of Driver Markets, Incorporated, it gave the street address, e-mail address, website, and telephone and fax numbers for the business. She frowned, and asked if I had something with my picture on it. I didn't. She asked if she could keep the business card, and I told her that she could.
Mr. Martin was telling the others that my father's share of the estate was forty-four percent, the same percentage as Mr. Arthur Peoples, who was being represented by Ms. Kindle, his daughter, was entitled to receive. In addition to Ms. Whitney, there were three other females in the group. I wondered which one was Ms. Kindle.
Mr. Martin then introduced the others. Ms. Dickens represented the friends of the public library, which was to receive three percent of the proceeds from the estate. Ms. Dickens identified herself by smiling at me. She wore her hair short, parted in the center, with bangs that hid about one-half of her forehead. I estimated her age to be in the upper thirties, and suspected her marital status was single.
Mr. McMahan represented the church where the elderly couple worshiped. He waved to me, something that was unnecessary since he was the only other male present. In addition to thinning hair, his other distinguishing feature was a gap between his front teeth. I assumed that the church was to also receive three percent.
Ms. Meriwether represented the food pantry, and Mr. Martin stipulated that its percentage was three percent. She nodded to me. I nodded back, noting that Ms. Meriwether had long, bleached-blond hair, ample breasts, and appeared to be in her early thirties. I wondered how she became selected to represent the food pantry. From the looks of her gaudy jewelry, she'd married well. Was her husband an important member of the community, an office-holder perhaps? Or, had she performed some illicit task at the back of the food pantry? It was fun to picture Ms. Meriwether on her knees, earning her right to participate in the distribution of Uncle Mackey's and Aunt Elsie's assets.
Now that I knew that Ms. Dickens represented the public library, and Ms. Meriwether represented the food pantry, I was able to identify Ms. Kindle, the one I perceived to be my adversary. She glanced my way, but her expression was indifferent, like she considered me to be an insignificant nuisance, an insect that she could flick away without expending any effort. Her stare could have melted an igloo.
Still, there was something about Ms. Kindle that held my attention. Like Ms. Whitney's lips, I was captivated by the way Ms. Kindle's blond hair framed her slender face, the way her shoulders filled out her jacket, and the way her breasts stood proudly, even in the heat of the August day. A set of rings was attached to her left hand like they were a part of her. I wondered if she ever took them off.
I raised my hand and Mr. Martin encouraged me to speak. "I make the total to be ninety-seven percent. Is someone absent?"
"You are quite right, Mr. Driver. As counsel, and overseer of the funds, my fee is the elusive three percent. However, I will not vote on the decisions you make. My assistant will get you started, and she will look in from time to time to see that everything is running according to the way Mr. and Mrs. Peoples stipulated in the trusts, but Ms. Whitney will serve only as a guide. She has no voting rights.
"Just one final word," he continued. "Mr. Driver and Ms. Kindle are from out of town, and they are entitled to receive living expenses from the estate. But please keep in mind that Mackey and Elsie were fugal people. They would want you to settle their affairs as quickly, and as economically, as possible. All expenditures will be voted on by the group, with the decision ruled by the majority."
I realized, as the meeting was adjourned, that the actual will had not been read. The participants had been introduced, and the percentage of the estate that their organization would receive was quoted, but the flowery language that usually gives the reasons for the award of a specific item or a certain percentage, had been omitted.
I glanced at the way the waves were bouncing off the rocks. They seemed less forceful than before. Was the tide changing?
The others were on their way down the hill when Mr. Martin got my attention. "Mr. Driver, there is a man who has been the next door neighbor to the Peoples for a number of years. I've found Mr. Hubert to be ... ah ... helpful. He knows the property intimately. I would suggest that you accept his help ... ah ... guardedly."
"Ah ... okay," I said, and seeing that was all he had to say on the subject, I thanked him for the information. There were a dozen questions I would have liked to ask him, but I didn't want to be left behind.
As we walked down the hill, I overheard Ms. Dickens, Ms. Meriwether, Mr. McMahan, and even Ms. Whitney, offer Ms. Kindle a ride to the house. I think that we were all surprised when she accepted Mr. McMahan's offer.
Not knowing where we were going, I followed the four cars. After a few minutes, we came to a stop in front of a very plain looking house. White paint was peeling from the clapboards, the roofline looked crooked, and the front windows were clouded. Above the door, there was a black sign that read: 'Circa 1797.'
Another structure stood in back of the house. It reminded me of the barn that Peg and I had replaced when we first went into business together. In other words, it looked dilapidated.
I followed the four women and Mr. McMahan to the side door. Ms. Whitney inserted a key, and the door made a squeaking sound as it swung open.
Inside, we were met with hot, stale air, darkness, and filth. The interior reminded me of Mr. Bennett's house, except that Uncle Mackey's and Aunt Elsie's house was darker. After trying the light switch, and concluding that the electricity had been turned off, I offered to get a flashlight from my truck.
"I think we should meet at the gazebo, and let the house air out," Ms. Whitney suggested, and everyone agreed with her. We opened two doors, and the only window that I was able to budge, and we retired to the gazebo.
It was a hot afternoon, but the shaded gazebo was comfortable. There were bench seats around the perimeter, and everyone had plenty of room.
Ms. Whitney began the meeting by saying we needed to elect a chairman of the group. Mr. McMahan nominated Ms. Kindle to the position. Ms. Meriwether nominated me. A show of hands elected Ms. Kindle. The vote was ninety-one to six. Ms. Dickens and Ms. Meriwether frowned when I voted for Ms. Kindle to be the chair.
Ms. Kindle looked around at the other members of the distribution committee before giving us assurance that she knew how to run a meeting. She didn't come out and say that she was an accomplished parliamentarian.
"I'm a paralegal by profession," she began.
That was good enough for me, and watching the expressions on the ladies' faces, I could see that they felt the same way. Even Ms. Whitney seemed impressed. Mr. McMahan voiced his concurrence. "I knew you were a professional, Ms. Kindle."
Ms. Kindle looked taken aback for a moment. "Let's move right along. What's the first order of business?"
"I move that we have the utilities turned on," I said, and Ms. Meriwether was quick to second the motion.
"Let's not forget the Peoples' desire that we operate as economically as possible," Ms. Dickens said.
"Perhaps we should consider the utilities separately," Ms. Kindle said. "Who's in favor of having the electricity turned on?"
I raised my hand, and saw that Ms. Meriwether had her hand up, too. But she was the only one siding with me. It looked like the vote was going to be forty-seven for, and fifty against turning on the electricity. I stated my argument before Ms. Kindle could ask for the 'against' vote.
"Uncle Mackey and Aunt Elsie also specified that we were to finish this assignment as promptly as possible. I do some of my best work at night, but I can't work in the dark."
"There are plenty of candles in the pantry."
It was a male's voice, and it had come from neither Mr. McMahan nor me. A man holding a set of hedge clippers stepped out from the far side of the gazebo. "Excuse me, I couldn't help overhearing. I'm Charles Hubert, the next door neighbor. I've been meaning to trim the shrubbery since my dear friends departed this earth. Mackey always kept a good supply of candles. I can show you where they're kept if you plan to use them."
'Ah, the helpful neighbor that Mr. Nelson warned me about, ' I thought.
"Thank you, Mr. Hubert. That sounds like we've alleviated Mr. Driver's issue of not being able to work in the dark," Ms. Kindle said, sounding quite pleased with herself. Mr. Hubert looked pleased, too. "I suppose the next utility would be the telephone. Does anyone feel the necessity to resume telephone service for the short time it will take to dispose of the real estate, furnishings, and to make the distributions?"
"Most people have cell phones," Ms. Dickens said, and I watched Mr. McMahan nod his head to agree with her. From the way Ms. Kindle had phrased the question, I was going to be outvoted.
"I brought my laptop computer, and I'll need a land line to communicate with my family and my business."
I wasn't surprised when Ms. Dickens spoke up. "I hope you're not asking the estate to pay for your business expense."
"My family includes my father, whose interest in the estate is the reason I'm here. He's asked that I keep him advised as to the decisions that are made here. But with respect to my business, you are correct, Ms. Dickens. I'll have the telephone connected at my expense," I said, already planning to keep the phone number a secret. If it was to be my line, I was going to make sure that none of the others used it.
"Mr. Driver, I just remembered that I may need a land line for my laptop also. If it's all right with you, I'll share the cost?" Ms. Kindle asked. I nodded to indicate that we would share the telephone line.
"Water?" she asked, shortening her call for a vote to simply naming the utility.
I waited this one out to see if anyone with a sound mind would deny the occupant of a dwelling the very essence of life itself. The show of hands proved me wrong. Ms. Dickens hand remained at her side.
"That's ninety-four votes for, three opposed to the estate paying for the water to be turned on. The motion carries," Ms. Kindle said.
"The water comes from a well. It takes electricity to pump it," Mr. Hubert offered.
I'd forgotten about him. He stepped from the shrubbery and tipped his hat in a happy-to-be-of-service pose.
Ms. Kindle cleared her throat. "Shall we revisit the electricity question?"
This time, the vote was ninety-four to three, with Ms. Dickens still declaring that electricity and water were expenses the estate should avoid.
I smiled at Ms. Dickens, not to gloat, but to show her that I held no hard feelings toward her. She dropped her eyes to the floor of the gazebo, raised them, and smiled timidly. Did I have an ally?
There was still the issue of heating the water. Mr. Hubert supplied the information without being asked. "Natural gas is the only other utility, unless you're planning on re-connecting the cable."
"I'm not planning on watching television, but I would like to have hot water," I said.
Ms. Dickens raised an objection, which was shot down by Ms. Meriwether, who likened anyone who tried to clean without hot water to someone that lived in a cave. The vote on natural gas carried, ninety-four to three.
The question arose as to who would call the utility companies to order the services be turned on. I volunteered, saying that I had my cell phone with me. There were no objections, and Ms. Whitney told me that she would fax each company to assure them that I had been authorized to act for the estate.
"Give me time to get back to my office. I'll let you know as soon as I've sent the faxes," she said. I gave her my cell phone number.
"I move that we adjourn this meeting. I need to clean a place to spread my sleeping bag," I said, and Ms. Meriwether seconded my motion.
"Wait!" Ms. Kindle said. "I have one request. Can someone suggest a moderately priced motel? By the way, I'm going to need a ride to and from."
"You're not... ," Ms. Dickens began, becoming speechless for a few seconds. "You're not suggesting for a second that the estate is going to foot the expense of a motel, moderately priced or not?"
"Mr. Martin was quite specific regarding the estate paying for living expenses. You just heard Mr. Driver say he's going to make a space for his sleeping bag. You don't expect me to occupy the same house with a complete stranger, do you?" Ms. Kindle's face looked drained as she finished her speech.
"Mr. Martin was also quite specific about keeping those expenses to a minimum," Ms. Dickens said, and I was beginning to think that I had an ally.
Ms. Kindle looked at each member of the group, trying to assess the way they were leaning on the topic of what were reasonable expenses. She looked to Ms. Whitney for help, and seeing that the attorney's assistant was not giving any, she turned to me. I stared back at her, blankly, and I believe that she could read my mind, but she called for the vote anyway.
"Who is in favor of my seeking accommodations in a moderately priced motel?"
In addition to her own hand, Mr. McMahan's hand shot up. Ms. Kindle looked at me, pleading for me to raise my hand. I knew that my forty-four votes would have sealed the deal, and that she would probably side with me in future decisions. I shook my head, and watched her shoulders slump in defeat.
"This meeting is adjourned," she said, heading for the house.
"When's the next meeting?" Mr. McMahan asked, but he may as well have been talking to the ground. Everyone was getting up to leave.
"I'll call you," Ms. Whitney mouthed, and I nodded my understanding.
"Let's meet tomorrow at nine AM," I suggested, and everyone agreed, except Ms. Kindle, of course, who was half-way to the house.
As the others drove off, I went to my truck, parked it in the driveway, and brought my few possessions into the house. The quality of the air was only slightly improved.
Not seeing or hearing Ms. Kindle, I walked from room to room. The kitchen was large, and had been updated at some point in the last decade. The cabinet-top was marble, the flooring was tile, and the appliances were not old. A small table and two chairs sat next to a window that overlooked the back yard. The pantry was spacious. I turned my flashlight on, and found a broom, a dust mop, and a candle.
As I walked from the kitchen to the living room, I realized that the kitchen ceiling had been lowered, probably at the time of the update. The ceiling was two feet higher in the living room, and the wide-pine flooring squeaked. The furniture consisted of large, leather-covered pieces, bookshelves along one wall, and a game table, suitable for chess or cards, with two straight-backed chairs.
The next room had a high ceiling, a dining table with eight chairs, a hutch, and a serving cart. I was looking at the china inside the hutch when I heard the floor squeak. Knowing I hadn't moved, the squeak had to be coming from upstairs. Ms. Kindle must have decided to leave the first floor to me, and claimed the upstairs for herself.
I heard the upstairs flooring squeak again as I found a bathroom that doubled as a laundry. The shower, bathroom fixtures, the washer and dryer had been replaced within the last five years.
There was one other room. It was small, possibly a one-time maid's room. There was a bed, dressing table, and it appeared that the room had been used recently.
I heard the upstairs flooring squeak again as I began sweeping, then took the throw-rugs outside, thinking that I would beat the dust out of them later. I'd finished sweeping the kitchen and front room when Ms. Whitney called to say that my credentials had been faxed to the utility companies. She gave me their phone numbers, and I began calling them to arrange resumption of their services.
They all gave me the same answer. The service had been discontinued due to their bills going unpaid for ninety days. The gas company told me that they had sent a representative to the house to make sure there were no occupants, implying that they'd been looking for dead people.
I called the attorney's office and got their voicemail. I left a message for Ms. Whitney, explaining what the utility companies had said.
I resumed sweeping, admonishing myself for not getting the amounts the estate owed to each utility. Where were the bills showing the amounts owed, anyway? I walked out to the street to check the mailbox. It was empty, but Mr. Hubert must have been watching from his house. He met me at the backdoor, and handed me a large cardboard box filled with mail.
"I've been collecting this since they took Elsie away. The postman stopped leaving mail the other day. He must have heard about her death."
"Thank you, Mr. Hubert."
"Did you find everything you need?" he asked, lingering at the back door, like he would like to have been invited inside.
"Yes, thank you."
"Don't hesitate to call me if I can be of help. Mackey kept the telephone book in a cabinet drawer in the kitchen. I can show you where it is if you want."
"Thanks again, Mr. Hubert. I'm sure I'll be able to find the phone book," I said, easing my body inside the door, and closing it behind me.
I checked the time on my cell phone, and saw that it was a few minutes past six. The first call I made was to my house. After letting Mary know that I'd arrived safely, she put Amanda on the phone. She tried to sound mature, saying that they were getting along fine. Phillip painted a different picture, but I heard Amanda in the background, urging him not to cry.
Next on my list was Marian. Her disposition was much improved from the night before when she'd almost begged me to come to her house. She asked what I was doing, and I told her that I was sorting the mail from the last three months into two stacks, bills and bank statements in one, and junk mail in the other. She laughed. I didn't tell her about the stale air in the house, or that I'd spent the last two hours sweeping the floors.
Judy said that John was out someplace, but I caught up with Mrs. Nixon. There was a common theme among the people I spoke to: "When are you coming home?" I told them all the same thing: "I don't know."
I didn't try to speak to Henrietta, knowing that this was her dinner hour at the café.
Feeling the urge to take a leak, and knowing that there was no water to flush the toilet, I walked behind the barn, and wet down the grass. If anyone saw me, they didn't complain. Anyway, it was becoming dusk, and most houses had lights burning.
Back inside, I started opening the mail. Most of it was addressed to the trust. There were at least three bills from each utility. I put them in chronological order, by utility, and entered them in a spreadsheet. There were stock dividend statements, advising that deposits had been made to the trust's checking account.
I found a checkbook in a kitchen cabinet, and entered the deposits. I then opened the bank statements for the last three months, and discovered that there were two checking accounts
One of the statement balances matched fairly closely to the checkbook I'd been
posting to, but the balance of the other statement was much higher. Both bank statements included certificates of deposits, which totaled one hundred thousand dollars per bank. Where was the missing checkbook?
Thick envelopes from the United States Treasury containing statements for the last three months explained the high balance. A Treasury note in the amount of twenty thousand dollars had expired each month, and been deposited to the second checking account, plus interest. The statement balance was four hundred and twenty thousand dollars, and the dates of expiration extended to May 2009.
Should I bring these discoveries to the attention of the other distribution committee members?
The second checking account statement showed a balance in excess of seventy thousand dollars.
Finding the elusive checkbook was imperative. How would we make distributions
without it? I replaced the mail in the cardboard box, deciding to make an effort to
find the checkbook before I disclosed the balance to the others.
It was after eight PM when I had everything entered. I turned off my computer, lit a candle, and heard my stomach growl.
"I'm going to pick up something to eat," I said, yelling in the direction of the upstairs. "Do you want anything?"
After waiting a minute, I tried again. "Ms. Kindle, can I bring you something to eat?"
Still not hearing anything from the second floor, I extinguished the candle, drove to the first pizza shop I found, ordered a large pizza, and went next door where I bought a six-pack of beer, six bottles of water, and six Cokes.
I called Henrietta while I was having my first slice of pizza and a beer.
"I heard you left town suddenly. Whose daughter did you knock up?"
"Don't try to cheer me up. I got up at three-thirty this morning, and now I'm eating pizza by candlelight because all the utilities are shut off. I had to go in back of the barn to pee, and when I hang up from you I'm going to spread my sleeping bag out on the hard floor."
"You didn't knock up the banker, did you?"
"She wishes, but I didn't have time last night," I said, reaching for my second slice of pizza.
"How long are you going to be there?"
"I don't know. Ah, Shit!"
"I just heard the upstairs toilet flush. Did I tell you that we don't have any water?"
"No, you told me not to try to cheer you up."
"I hope she realizes that there's no more water in the tank."
"The other forty-four percent. I'm representing my dad, who is entitled to forty-four percent of the estate, and she's representing her dad, who is entitled to the same amount. There are three townspeople, who have three votes each, and the attorney is earning three shares, but he doesn't vote."
"Is forty-four... ?"
"Don't say it. I haven't looked that closely. Anyway, she's married."
"Oh," Henrietta said, and I could tell that she'd already lost interest. The new people in my life were not juicy enough for her. She told me to call often, and we ended the call.
I finished the second slice of pizza, closed the box, spread my sleeping bag out on the living room floor, and extinguished the candle. I opened the set of framed photographs of my family, and used my flashlight to search the faces that I knew so well. Peggy's picture was taken in two-thousand five, a couple of months before her death. Amanda's and Phillip's pictures were more recent, but the one of all four of us was taken when Phillip was four years old. I studied the smiling faces for several minutes before I turned the flashlight off and fell asleep.
I awoke with a start. Sun was streaming through the front window, and the first things I saw were the four photographs.
The second thing I saw was Ms. Kindle. She was munching on a cold slice of pizza, and had a bottle of water in her hand.
She looked surprised, but I didn't pay her any attention. I had a more pressing matter to take care of. I put on my sneakers, and headed for the back of the barn.