Better Days Are Coming

Fountain with Two Women, Santa Fe, New Mexico, August 1998.

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A Small Family Inheritance

By Carolyne Butler
Copyright © 2000-2009


Clarence Steadman looked up as he finished reading the will. "This is a simple will, but there are some things I need to explain to you. After that, I'll answer any questions you may have."

     He glanced at the large leather suitcase on the floor beside his desk, then looked at Josephine and smiled. Just like they always did, I thought. Something about Josephine always made men act like eager puppies.

     "You both already knew," he said, "that although your grandfather owned Walker's Inn, he wasn't a wealthy man. It seems, though, that over the years he has made some investments that are, in my opinion, quite sound, and you can expect some comfortable returns from them in the future. And as you no doubt expected, Walker Inn is now yours in equal share. That is, unless—"

     He glanced at the suitcase again, then at Josephine. "About the contents of this suitcase, Mrs. Thornton. I don't know what's in it, but your grandfather insisted that I stress to you the importance of its contents. What is in this suitcase, he said, will be of far greater value to you, and to you alone, than all the rest of his total estate combined."

     Josephine sucked in her breath and exchanged a look with Harvey.

     "And as your grandfather stipulated in his will, the choice is up to you. You may accept the contents of this suitcase as your total and sole inheritance. Or in the event you decide otherwise, you then divide the estate with your sister equally, but you must donate this suitcase and its entire contents, unaltered in any way, to the Hale County Historical Society." He turned to me, and perhaps he looked just a little apologetic.

     "Miss Walker, I'm sorry I can't give you a final decision just yet. You understand that your grandfather's will stipulates that whether you receive half of his total estate or all of it—that is, excluding the contents of this suitcase—will be entirely up to the decision your sister makes."

     It was happening again. It had always been this way. Josephine always had the first and last say in everything, just because she was the oldest. When our parents were killed in a car accident, our grandparents had taken us in. Right from the first, they had lavished their special love and attention on Josephine, because she was old enough to be affected by the loss. I was too young to remember. Somehow, though, all the attention she received at first became a habit, and she grew up always demanding special treatment.

     "You sure you don't know what's in that suitcase?" Sometimes Harvey's voice squeaked, and it did so now. It was the first he'd spoken since we entered Clarence Steadman's office over half an hour ago. "A lawyer ought to know," he said. "You ought to know. It's your job."

     "I'm sorry, Mr. Thornton, I don't know. Your wife's grandfather was adamant that the contents remain confidential until your wife has examined and read every item. I have no idea what's in it." He got up and came around his desk toward Josephine, picking up the suitcase as he came. I could tell it was quite heavy.

     "Mrs. Thornton," he said, inviting her out of her seat, "if you're ready to begin, I have a private room you can use." He escorted her across the polished bare oak floor, her stiletto heels tapping sprightly beside him.

     Harvey jumped up to follow, only to be stopped short when Clarence closed the door in his face. Harvey leaned close to the door to listen, then saw me watching. He shrugged and started pacing around the room.

     After a while, I told him he might as well relax. "I know what's in that suitcase," I said, "and it's going to take quite a while for her to read through it all."

     "You know?"

     "I'm pretty sure."

     "Then what? Tell me!"

     "Something valuable. Isn't that what Mr. Steadman said?" There was something about my brother-in-law that always brought out the worst in me. I yawned—deliberately—knowing as I stalled it would irritate him as much as his incessant pacing irritated me. "You see," I said, yawning again, "Granddad always thought it was valuable. And he spent a great deal of time and money getting all the information together."

     "Oh, cut it out, Jennifer, and just tell me what's in it."

     Just then Mr. Steadman opened the door and stepped out, shutting the door firmly behind him. Harvey turned on him without preamble. "Steadman. Jennifer says she knows. She knows what's in that suitcase. All right, Jennifer, come on, out with it!"

     Clarence Steadman looked at me with one eyebrow raised, and Harvey looked as if he wanted to choke the information out of me. I almost smiled, knowing how I was going to burst Harvey's bubble.

     "Since you really want to know, Harvey, it's our family's genealogy. You know, a family tree, with all those charts and—"

     At that moment Harvey somehow managed to choke on his own spit. He dissolved into a paroxysm of coughing. I waited until he recovered.

     "It's quite an interesting history, Harvey. You should read it sometime."

     "What is this! What kind of joke did that old guy think he was pulling on Josephine, making her waste her time reading through that junk? What kind of lunatic was he anyway? Tell me! What kind?"

     Mr. Steadman broke in. "Mr. Thornton, there's quite a large amount of material in the suitcase, so this will take some time. I suggest you both go out, have some lunch, then come back here in a couple of hours."

     "I ain't going nowhere," Harvey said. "Not till we get this thing settled."

     "As you wish then." He looked at me. "I can call the deli and have something delivered. Okay with you, Miss Walker?"

     "Fine, thank you." Somehow I would have to resign myself to the joys of spending the next couple of hours in the same room with Harvey.

     "And Mrs. Thornton?"

     "Oh, don't bother about her," Harvey said. "She's on another diet and won't be eating. She skips lunch. I'll have a Reuben."

*  *  *

After lunch, we waited. Mr. Steadman busied himself with his computer and some paperwork, with one eye on the closed door. He explained that his secretary was off for two weeks because she had just gotten married.

     He had moved here a couple of years ago, according to Granddad, who had only a few months ago consulted him to draw up a new will. Granddad had taken a liking to him, even if he was an "outsider," as we usually called the newcomers here, but today was the first time Josephine and I had met him.

     Harvey and I had nothing to say to each other, so everything was tomb quiet except for the ticking of a Regulator clock on the wall and the soft click of computer keys. The minutes were dragging by when suddenly a piercing squeal split the silence. I almost jumped out of my chair. Harvey was at the door instantly, but stopped short when he discovered it was locked.

     "Josephine, Hon, are you all right?" No answer. "Josephine!" No answer. He banged on the door with the flat of his hand. "Josephine, answer me!"

     Mr. Steadman was at Harvey's side, a key ring in his hand. "Mrs. Thornton, I'm going to unlock the door." He fumbled through his key ring for the key. "I don't know why she locked the door," he said, as he inserted the key.

     "No-o!" Josephine howled. "Don't open that door!"

     "You all right, Hon?"

     "Go away, Harvey. Leave me alone, you hear? Just . . . leave me alone!"

     Harvey shrugged. "We better do what she says. She gets this way on a diet."

*  *  *

During the next hour Harvey flipped through every magazine he could find, punctuated by regular pacing tours around the room. I spent the time halfway thinking about what we needed to do about the Inn. It was in need of renovation, and it was off-season, just the time for getting things readied for next year. But how was I going to get it done, and where would the funds come from? I'd have to find out more about that from Mr. Steadman. The hard part would be getting Josephine to agree to anything I suggested. I tried not to think about Harvey, who would most likely insist on trying to run everything himself by right of Josephine's share.

     I had been managing Walker Inn for three years now, ever since Grandmother's illness and death, and Granddad, in his grief, had lost interest. Taking care of them and the Inn had fallen to me. Josephine had her own life. I'd had my hands full.

     It was a godsend, really, when Granddad began taking an interest in our family's history. The Walkers had lived in Hale County for over two hundred years and were practically its founding fathers. The Historical Society would more than welcome all that research in the suitcase. After all, Granddad had spent a great deal of time and money visiting people and places around the county and elsewhere, tracking down every detail. Not long before his heart attack, he had even hired a professional, hoping to track down an especially elusive piece of information.

     The lock rattled and the door banged open. Josephine stood on the threshold, suitcase beside her, and her face deathly pale. She looked terrible.

     Harvey jumped up to help her with the suitcase. "No!" she said. "Get away!" Harvey shrank back.

     "Mis-ter Steadman!" she said, looking past Harvey. "Am I correct in understanding that my inheritance is either one half of the estate or the contents of this suitcase?"

     "Yes, that's correct."

     "And I have to choose between the two?"

     "That's how your grandfather wanted it."

     "And if I don't want what's in this suitcase, it has to go to that—that what's-its-name society?"

     "The Hale County Historical Society, yes.

     "And then anybody can read everything in here?

     "Yes."

     "No! Nobody's ever going to read one word in here! Never!"

     "But, Josephine," I said. "That's all of Granddad's research. He spent over a year—"

     "I don't care if he spent his whole life working on it, nobody's reading it!" She was trembling.

     "Josephine, Hon."

     "He's ruined my life, Harvey, that's what he's done." She started dragging the suitcase. "And—and you just get out of my way!"

     "Please have a seat, Mrs. Thornton, and let's discuss this."

     "That won't be necessary," she snapped. "I'm taking this—this—stupid suitcase!"

     "Josephine!"

     "Shut up, Harvey."

     "But—

     "I said shut up! That's my decision and it's final."

     Harvey turned even paler than Josephine had been and looked as if he was going to melt down into a little puddle right there in Mr. Steadman's office.

*  *  *

We heard the spew of gravel as Josephine gunned the car out of the parking lot. Harvey broke the silence. "She took my car."

     "That's rather obvious," I said.

     "But it's brand new. She'll mess it up."

     It was brand new, and it was also very red, very fast, and very expensive.

     "I'll need a ride home, Jennifer. Please?"

     Stuck. Again. And he'd probably insist I look in on Josephine. He'd probably even want me to try to talk her into changing her mind. Or, more like Harvey's style, he'd want me to take pity on her and agree to give her half of the estate anyway. But it was too late for that now.

     Mr. Steadman had barely stopped Josephine from storming out of the office before she had signed the necessary papers agreeing to accept the suitcase and its contents as her sole inheritance, leaving the rest of Granddad's estate to me. She had dashed off her signature without even sitting down, and refused any assistance when she started dragging the suitcase out to the car. "Just everybody keep away from me," she kept saying. The way she backed out with that suitcase, she might have been a gunman with a hostage. We let her go without a protest.

     What was it about that suitcase? For the past year, Granddad kept his research notes in it, using it as his portable office when he went tramping off somewhere. Then, unknown to us, he had put it in a safe deposit vault not long before he died, leaving instructions about it with Mr. Steadman.

     But something kept nagging at me, something I couldn't quite put my finger on. There must be something else in that suitcase that I didn't know about that had upset Josephine.

     Whatever it was, even if it was much more valuable to her than all the rest of Granddad's estate, it sure wasn't making her happy.

*  *  *

"What's really in that suitcase, Jennifer?" Harvey's squeak brought me back. He had been rattling on the whole way to his house and I had tuned him out. "We really could use a little windfall just now. You know, some of those investments I made—"

     How well I knew about Harvey's investments, the joke of the family. Harvey and my granddad were always arguing about the market, with Harvey always full of wild ideas for making a killing. And every time Harvey ignored Granddad's advice, he lost big time. He never seemed to learn.

     "We sure could use it," he kept on saying. "You know, that's one fine little lady I've got there, and she deserves the very best. She really does. She always did have high-class tastes."

     She certainly did. Except in husbands.

     "Wonder what it could be?" he said, for about the fifteenth time.

     "We'll find out soon enough," I said, wishing for about the fifteenth time he'd just shut up.

     "Wonder if he left her some blue-chip stocks mixed up in all that junk. Hey! I'll bet that's it! You got to hand it to the old guy, he always had a nose for making good investments. Maybe he invested something in Josephine's name that took off running. Maybe that's why he wanted her to go through everything in that suitcase. I'll bet he hid something real special in there, just for her, because he knew how she's always loved getting surprises." Harvey rubbed his hands together, smiling at the prospect.

     "If it was that, Harvey, she wouldn't have gotten upset over it."

     "Oh." He sank back glumly and finally shut up.

     The driveway was empty when I pulled up in front of their house. Harvey went inside and checked anyway, and came back out shaking his head.

     "Drive me to my office. I'll bet that's where she went," he said as he slid back in the passenger's side.

     She wasn't there. I decided to go back to Clarence Steadman's office on the slim chance she had returned there. No, she hadn't, but now he was concerned too, considering the state of mind she had been in when she left. He closed his office and joined us, and we drove around town, looking for Harvey's little red car at all of their favorite haunts.

     It was useless. Now that winter was only a few weeks away, it was getting dark early, and it was cold, and we were tired. I invited Harvey and Clarence back to the Inn with me for supper. (Somewhere between Clarence's office and our third pass by Harvey's house, Clarence had ceased being Mister Steadman, and I had ceased being Miss Walker.) I invited them both—Harvey, because I was stuck with him until we found Josephine, and Clarence, because I had just made a most pleasant discovery about him: I was enjoying his company. He readily accepted my invitation.

     We found Josephine at the Inn, quite by accident.

     We had a small dining room in the Inn, overseen by Dora, a treasure of a cook. I often wondered how I could have run the Inn without her supervision.

     Since none of us was in the mood for a big meal just then, Dora seemed to know just what we needed. Soon she was setting bowls of hot soup before us, with fresh baked yeast rolls and a pot of coffee.

     As soon as we were finished, she said, "I'm sorry to bother you about this, Jennifer, and especially on a day like today, but there's a strange car parked out back, where people aren't supposed to park. And it doesn't belong to any of the guests."

     "What make and model?" Harvey asked.

     "How would I know? It's a little red car that happens to be parked in the way."

     We all rose in unison and went out back to look. Sure enough, driven right up next to the Inn on the grass and blocking the exit was Harvey's new car. No wonder we hadn't seen the car when we had driven by the Inn looking for it. It was well hidden from the street.

     Josephine wasn't in my office, nor in my apartment, a few small rooms located behind the office. We started looking around the Inn and asking questions. No one had seen Josephine come in.

     "Where else could she go?" Clarence asked.

     "Well," I said, "the only place left besides the guest rooms is the third floor. My grandparents lived there. But I've closed it off for now and shut off the heat. Josephine knows that too, so I don't think—"

     I had closed the area off, not only to conserve heat but to shut out memories. It was I who had found Granddad sitting there in his favorite chair in front of the fireplace in the sitting room, slumped over dead. I hadn't gone back up there since the funeral.

     "Let's check anyway," Clarence said.

     I led them up the two flights of stairs, opened the door to the sitting room, and there she was, in Granddad's chair.

     "Josephine!" Harvey and I cried in unison. Her back was to us and she wasn't moving. My heart leaped into my throat.

     Clarence was the first to reach her. "Mrs. Thornton? Are you all right?"

     She turned her head slowly, as if she were unwillingly returning from a trip a million light years away. Mascara streaked her face.

     I let out a long breath. At least she was alive!

     Then I started looking around. It was cold and I shivered, but from more than just the cold. From the looks of it, she had tried to start a fire to get warm, but it wouldn't catch. She never had learned the art of laying a decent fire. But she'd found some of Granddad's blankets and had several of them wrapped snuggly around her shoulders and knees.

     Scattered all around her on tables and the floor, mostly the floor, were the contents of the suitcase: charts, pictures, scraps of papers, emptied accordion files, newspapers, letters, bound histories, all of the extensive research of Granddad's last year scattered as if by burglers. On the table beside her was a bottle of Granddad's Napoleon brandy, half-empty, and a glass. Harvey poured some brandy into the glass and squatted down beside her chair.

     "Here now, Hon, drink some of this."

     She reached slowly for the glass, then drank it down neat like a thirsty child drinking milk.

     "There now, isn't that better?" he said.

     She nodded meekly.

     "Now tell us what's wrong."

     It was the wrong thing to say, because she began bawling, and after a while, it appeared that she wasn't going to stop anytime soon. Harvey kept patting her on her back and saying, "There, there."

     I whispered to Clarence, "She wasn't even like this at Granddad's funeral."

     "She's probably in shock," he whispered back. "She needs a sedative."

     "I think she's already been working on that. That bottle wasn't open the last time I saw it."

     Harvey said, "Really, Hon, I don't think this diet is good for you."

*  *  *

It took fifteen minutes and a couple more brandies to get Josephine calmed down enough to talk. But it was going to be some time before she would be steady enough for us to navigate her safely back downstairs. Clarence had started a proper fire and it was already taking the chill out of the room.

     "There now," said Harvey. "Tell us what's wrong."

     "You all hic! gotta swear first."

     "Swear what, Hon?"

     "You all gotta swear on a stack of Bibles." She looked around the room as if there might be a handy stack of Bibles nearby.

     "Swear what? You've got to tell us first what we've got to swear to."

     "That hic! you won't t-tell."

     "Tell what?"

     "Tell that you won't tell, tha's what. I mean, swear it."

     Harvey, who was sitting on the footstool in front of her chair, looked up at us.

     Clarence said, "Mrs. Thornton, as the lawyer representing you and your sister, I can assure you that whatever you say will be held in the strictest confidence."

     "Thank you, Sir. Tha's what I want. hic! Now you swear," she said, pointing shakily at me.

     "Josephine, I'll keep it a secret, whatever it is."

     "And you can count on me, Hon. You know I'd never tell anyone your secret."

     "Secret. Secret. Yeah, tha's what it is. My secret. My hic! terrible secret. And now I'm gonna tell you my terrible secret. But first you gotta swear."

     Good grief.

     Harvey said, "Hon, we've already sworn to keep your secret, but we can't keep it if you won't tell us what it is."

     "Oh, all right." She squared herself and took a deep breath. "I'm hic! I'm—I'm illegiminate!"

     "Illegitimate?"

     She scowled at Harvey. "Tha's what I said."

     "Oh, no!" I said. "You must have misunderstood something you've read. That's not true."

     "It is too hic! true! It's what all those letters said. Those love letters to Mama. It's proof! Now you all gotta swear."

     "We've already sworn," Harvey said.

     "What love letters?" I asked.

     "No, you all gotta swear I'm not illegim—hic! il—hic! oh, you know what I mean. Swear our dad was my real dad."

     "We swear," Harvey said quickly. "Now tell us who your real dad was, I mean, who your other real dad was."

     "What love letters?" I repeated.

     She looked away sorrowfully. "Oh, it was some rich guy Mama knew here, years and years and years and years ago. He moved away and she moved away. And he wrote her a lot of long letters and then she had me and then—and then I think she met my other dad and they got married and everyone always thought I was his and—"

     "Who was he?"

     "Who was who?"

     "Your dad."

     "You know, Franklin Walker Junior."

     "I mean your other dad."

     "Joe."

     "Joe who?"

     "Tha's what I'm trying to remember."

     "Think!" Harvey urged.

     "I'm trying to think, Harve, don't ru-hic!-sh me." She thought. "He signed his name Joe. But he was Joseph . . . Joseph Pee . . . something or other."

     Harvey said, "C'mon and think!"

     She shut her eyes tight. "Joseph Pee Van Der—Van Der something."

     "Vandergilt?" Harvey's voice squeaked.

     "Yeah! Tha's it! How'd you know?"

     "Just a good guess." We all exchanged glances. "A very good guess," he said, his eyes glittering. If Harvey's brain had been wired to a loudspeaker, we'd have heard it going ca-ching! ca-ching!

     The Joseph P. Vandergilt III. We knew who he was, even if Josephine didn't. It made sense now, why Granddad had gotten sidetracked into researching a former resident of Hale County who had made it big on Wall Street. Vandergilt had died in a private plane crash not long after Granddad got started into his family tree research. Since Vandergilt wasn't related to the Walkers, I had asked him about it and he said it was because Vandergilt was famous in financial circles and was part of Hale County's history.

     Vandergilt had left an estate worth mega millions. And his estate was still in litigation. And he had no known heirs.

     It was all right there in that suitcase, neat as could be. What a surprise package for Josephine. Granddad had handed Josephine an inheritance with letters of proof that would make anything she could have inherited from him pale into insignificance. The drawback would be whether or not Josephine would be willing for her illegitimacy to become public knowledge. Granddad had been a wise man, leaving it up to her to decide.

     "Now, Hon, listen to me. Do the letters say anything about you being — uh— his natural daughter?" Harvey was having a hard time keeping his excitement under control.

     "Of course, silly. How else would I have known? He asked Mama to name me after him. Don't you see? Joseph, Josephine." She began to chant the two names, then she stopped and looked at me. "Oh, Jen, darling, he really loved Mama. It's so horrible to think about it. His family wouldn't let him marry her. They didn't think Mama was good enough for him. And she loved him so. It jus' makes me so sad to think about it." She sniffed dramatically.

     "Let me see the letters, Josephine." Harvey was holding out his hand, wiggling his fingers. Josephine bent forward and carefully studied his hand. Something about his wiggling fingers made her start giggling.

     "The letters, Josephine!"

     "I fixed 'em good, didn't I, Harve?" she said. "I picked the right inheritance, didn't I?"

     "Yes, you did, Hon. I'm proud of you. Now let's see the letters."

     "I fixed that ol' whatever-it-is society. Now they'll never know I'm—I'm . . . oh, you know what I mean." She sank back in her chair, exhausted.

     Harvey's brain was probably already working through ways to convince her to reveal her secret. He dropped to the floor and started rummaging through the scattered papers.

     "They're gone," Josephine announced.

     Harvey's head jerked up. "The letters?"

     "My hiccups, silly. They're gone."

     "That's good, Hon. Where'd you put the letters?"

     "You won't find them down there on the floor, Harve. I put 'em in a safe place."

     "Good girl. Where?"

     "The safest place in the world. Safe from you, Harve."

     He frowned. "From me?"

     "Yeah, from you. Safe from you."

     She turned to look at Clarence and me. "And from you and from you." She threw back her head and laughed in triumph.

     "They're in a real safe place now, safe from ever'body. They're . . . right . . . over . . . there!" she said, carefully punctuating each word with a wave of her index finger. Harvey followed the direction she was pointing and a look of horror spread across his face. She was pointing to the fire.

     "There!" she said. "Now nobody's ever goin' to know my secret!"

     Clarence reached for my hand, gently pulling me closer, and whispered, "I don't think we should be the ones to tell her. Do you?"

*  *  *  *  *

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