Authors: Margaret Maron
In accordance with the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, the scanning, uploading, and electronic sharing of any part of this book without the permission of the publisher constitute unlawful piracy and theft of the author’s intellectual property. If you would like to use material from the book (other than for review purposes), prior written permission must be obtained by contacting the publisher at [email protected] Thank you for your support of the author’s rights.
John and Andrea,
With so very much love
My continuing gratitude to the three who have been my go-to sources almost from the very beginning: District Court Judges Shelly S. Holt and Rebecca W. Blackmore and John W. Smith, director of the Administrative Office of the Court (NCAOC). District Court Judge Shelley Desvousges has become their local backup. Thanks also to Patricia Sprinkle, Joan Hess, Larry Doran, Katy Munger, and especially Sarah Farris Smith for sharing their stories.
What shall we say of lawyers?
ednesday morning, and we were nearing the end of jury selection for a civil case when the rear door of my courtroom opened and several people entered. In the quietness of the courtroom, as they took seats in an empty bench to the left of the jury pool, I heard a faint squeaking sound, but I couldn’t determine its source. The latecomers ranged in age from late teens to a wizened old man in a wheelchair. I recognized only one of the group—Marillyn Mulholland, who owns a printing company here in town. She had printed up my business cards back when I was still in private practice and, although semiretired now, she had personally overseen our wedding invitations when Dwight and I were married Christmas before last.
Taking the seat beside her was an unfamiliar young woman. She was slender and wore trendy turquoise-blue leggings, an off-the-shoulder purple jersey, and matching purple hair.
Then I did a double take. Young woman? Like hell! Her slender figure and push-up bra may have fooled me momentarily, but the face beneath the purple hair would have looked at least twenty years older than mine except that I knew for a fact she’d had a second face-lift last year. The purple hair was new, though, and must be a wig, because her own hair had never come back in properly after the chemo.
My cousin. The sixty-two-year-old daughter of my daddy’s sister Rachel.
Now what had brought her to my courtroom this morning? At first I wondered if she’d come to personally tell me that Aunt Rachel had finally died, but she studiously avoided my eyes and seemed caught up in the jury examination being conducted by the two attorneys at the front of the room. I turned my attention back to counsel for the plaintiff, who asked that I excuse the next prospective juror because she had just said she knew the sister of the defendant.
I nodded and we moved on. This was our second day of voir dire, a tedious, time-consuming process. Some people are eager to serve, usually for the wrong reasons, but most would rather not spend the time listening to legal jousting when they had planned to spend the week doing other, more interesting things.
“Your Honor, I have a hair appointment for this afternoon,” a blonde woman said.
“Color?” I asked, noticing a thin line of dark roots at the hairline of her forehead.
“Just shampoo and cut,” she said brightly.
I denied her request. Color appointments aren’t all that easy to get, but there was no reason she couldn’t reschedule a simple cut.
I had already excused several from the pool because they had personal connections with some of the participants and I was again reminding them about their need to keep an open mind, fairness, etcetera, etcetera, when I noticed that an older man in the second row of the jury box seemed to be having trouble hearing me. He leaned forward intently, turning what was probably his good ear toward me and frowning in concentration.
I glanced down at the diagram I’d filled in of the current occupants. “Mr. Ogburn?” I said, speaking more loudly and clearly than usual. “Is there a problem with your hearing?”
“Yes, ma’am, Your Honor. I don’t do so good without my hearing aid.” He held up a small flesh-colored device.
“Is your battery dead?”
“No, ma’am, but there was a sign outside that said to turn off all electronic devices.”
I tried not to laugh. “That doesn’t apply to hearing aids,” I told him; and when he had put it back in his ear, I let the two attorneys have their turn. Thankfully, the last two jurors were acceptable to both sides.
Today’s case was a civil action: Bruce Connolly versus Dotty Connolly Morefield, a middle-aged brother suing his middle-aged sister over their late mother’s possessions. The woman had died without a will, so the clerk of the court had appointed Mrs. Morefield the administratrix for the estate. Well before her death, the mother had given Mrs. Morefield her power of attorney and that was good enough for our clerk. After receiving her account of all the assets, he had split everything equally between Mr. Connolly and his three sisters, “everything” being her bank account and whatever possessions were in her house at the time of death.
Mr. Connolly’s suit alleged that the sisters had removed certain valuable items from the house before the mother’s death and he claimed he was owed money for conversions of those possessions.
A sour-faced man with receding gray hair and glasses that he kept taking on and off to polish, he asserted that Mrs. Morefield, a motherly looking woman with soft white hair, had not listed all the assets.
His attorney quickly established that Mrs. Morefield had been the mother’s main caregiver. She had sold the family home as the mother wished and used the money to rent a smaller house near the three sisters.
Mr. Connolly, who lived out in the mountains four hours away, had agreed to the arrangement.
“My wife and I would’ve been glad to have Mother come live with us,” he testified in a pious tone as he polished his glasses for the fourth or fifth time, “but her church and all her friends were here and she said two women didn’t need to be sharing a kitchen. Dotty’ll say that moving Mother was mostly on her, but the whole family helped. I drove all the way over here in my truck and almost threw my back out getting her stuff moved. Mother only lived there two years before she passed, so there should have been a lot more cash.”
He had a copy of the check from the sale of the house, and copies of rent receipts were also entered as evidence.
When I looked up from those documents, I saw that my cousin Sally was leaving the courtroom, her telephone to her ear, and I realized I’d missed my chance to tell my bailiff I wanted to speak to her.
Too late. I gave a mental shrug as Connolly’s attorney said, “No further questions, Your Honor.”
By now it was almost twelve, but before I could adjourn for lunch, Mr. Connolly, still in the witness-box, said, “It’s not just the money, Your Honor. It’s her silverware and her Hummel figurines. She spent a fortune on those things and Dotty never listed them. I just want my fair share.”
is such a slippery term, and my definition of fair seldom satisfies both sides.
As in the case of berries on the trees and the fruits of the earth, there must be that which in its season of full ripeness is ready to wither and fall.
he old woman lay motionless against the pillows that supported her head and upper body and helped her breathe more easily. The ventilator had been removed two days earlier, as had the IV that had kept her hydrated and nourished. Neither food nor water had passed her lips in the seven days since her last stroke. Nor had she spoken in all that time.
Nevertheless, the gray-haired aide hired by the woman’s family to supplement the nursing staff here kept up a running stream of cheerful chatter as she sponged that frail body and smoothed on sweet-smelling lotion. She swabbed her patient’s mouth with a wet gauze pad, checked the pad beneath those withered hips—
still clean and dry, poor thing
dressed her in a fresh nightgown that was now two sizes too large.
“We’re gonna have to get you a new gown, Miss Rachel. This one’s real pretty with all the lace around the neck, but it keeps on slipping down, don’t it?”
Not that Miss Rachel had much to be modest about anymore, the aide thought to herself, pitying the flaccid breasts that had nursed two children in their prime and now lay flatter than an empty purse on that emaciated chest.
Like her children, like her siblings, like her parents before her, Rachel Morton had been tall and big-boned, a country woman who had worked in the fields alongside her husband, who had cooked and cleaned and kept her vegetable garden as free of weeds as her house was free of dust. Until her husband died and the farm acreage was sold, she had worked at their roadside vegetable stand long past any real financial need, dispensing friendly conversation, country wisdom, and girlhood anecdotes along with her tomatoes, corn, butter beans, or whatever else was in season.
Customers who pulled up to the open-sided shelter, intending to grab a cucumber or melon and be on their busy way, often wound up staying much longer. Insatiably interested in people, Rachel remembered the smallest details and would inquire about children and grandchildren by name, ask if someone’s rheumatism was better now that warm weather was here, and want to know how that luncheon turned out that another customer was planning when she stopped by last week for a half-dozen identical tomatoes to serve as chicken salad cups. Lonely retirees would sit down in one of her slat-backed chairs to talk of bygone days when they were active and needed; and young stay-at-home moms, hungry for adult conversation, would watch their barefooted toddlers build hoppy-toad houses in the warm dirt. She was a natural storyteller and could turn even the most prosaic event into an amusing story.
“Rachel could talk the ears off a mule,” her husband used to say with a fond smile.
Her white hair was still as thick as in her youth, and the aide brushed the soft curls into place murmuring, “Sure wish I had your pretty hair, Miss Rachel.”
The old woman lay quiet and unresponsive and no emotion touched that finely wrinkled face. When the aide first came to help care for her, those eyelids had occasionally fluttered open and those lips had curled in a smile.
According to her doctor, she was in no pain and the end was expected soon. Indeed, death had been expected as soon as they took her off all the machines and brought her over here to the hospice wing of the hospital, but that hadn’t happened yet and her vital signs were as steady as ever.
Her midmorning ministrations completed, the aide sat down in the recliner next to the window, uncapped the cup of coffee one of the staff had brought her, and reached for the worn King James Bible that had been the old woman’s comfort when she moved into her daughter’s home after the first bad stroke. She had tried to accommodate herself to the modern version, but it was the old familiar phrases that spoke to her heart most deeply. Before the last stroke, she had wanted someone to read it aloud and the aide enjoyed it as well. Psalms and Proverbs were the old woman’s favorites, and the aide turned to the page she had left off at the evening before, because it was said that people could hear and understand, even when in a vegetative state.
“He that goeth about as a talebearer revealeth secrets…An inheritance may be gotten hastily at the beginning, but the end thereof shall not be blessed.”
The aide paused to take a sip of the hot, fragrant coffee and glanced over at her patient. The old woman’s eyes were open wide and her clear blue eyes bored into the aide’s.
“…secrets,” she whispered. “…not an inheritance…was a debt he never paid…But it
blessed, wasn’t it? All those babies saved?”
The aide was so startled that coffee splashed across the Bible’s thin pages.
“I didn’t tell Jacob. You know I didn’t, Jed…you have to tell him…you need to stop or tell him yourself.”
Those first words came out thin and raspy but her voice strengthened with each new syllable.
The aide mopped up the worst of the spilled coffee and laid aside the Bible, then went to bend over that newly animated face. “Miss Rachel? Miss Rachel, honey?”
The old woman paused as if listening, then smiled up into eyes only she could see. “Did you see the way Ransom looked at me in church? You reckon he likes me?”
The aide patted her cheek and said, “I’m sure he does, honey.”
“Well, it’s about time you answered me! Where’d Jacob get to? The cow’s got out again and I can’t find her and it’s almost two hours past milking time. Kezzie’s gonna skin y’all alive if he comes home and sees y’all didn’t mend the fence. Mammy said…”
Moving over to the window with her cell phone, the aide touched one of the numbers on her call list and waited until someone finally answered. “Sally? This is Lois. You know how you and Jay-Jay were grieving that you’d never hear your mama’s sweet voice again? Both of y’all need to get back over here right away, honey. She’s talking a blue streak.”