Page 49 of Ford County

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"I've done it before. This ain't my first rodeo." And with that she offers one of her patented smoke-choked cackles, then starts coughing. She eventually catches her breath, just long enough to settle things down with a jolt of Jim Beam.

"Sex in a nursing home," she says, chuckling. "Maybe that's where I'm headed."

I bite my tongue.

When the session is over, we quickly get through a round of awkward good-byes. I watch the Cadillac until it is safely off the premises and out of sight, then finally relax. I've actually arranged such a tryst once before. Ain't my first rodeo.

Lyle is sleeping like an infant when I check on him. Dentures out, mouth sagging, but lips turned up into a pleasant smile. If Mr. Hitchcock has moved in the past three hours, I can't tell. He'll never know what he missed. I check the other rooms and go about my business, and when all is quiet, I settle into the front desk with some magazines.

*

Dex says the company has mentioned more than once the possibility of settling the Harriet Markle lawsuit before it's actually filed. Dex has hinted strongly to them that he has inside information regarding a cover-up - tampered-with paperwork and other pieces of evidence that Dex knows how to skillfully mention on the phone when talking to lawyers who represent such companies. HVQH says it would like to avoid the publicity of a nasty suit. Dex assures them it'll be nastier than they realize. Back and forth, the usual lawyer routines. But the upshot for me is that my days are numbered. If my affidavit and photos and filched records will hasten a nice settlement, then so be it. I'll happily produce the evidence, then move along.

Mr. Spurlock and I play checkers most nights at 8:00 in the cafeteria, long after dinner and an hour before I officially punch the clock. We are usually alone, though a knitting club meets on Mondays in one corner, a Bible club gathers on Tuesdays in another, and a small branch of the Ford County Historical Society meets occasionally wherever they can pull three or four chairs together. Even on my nights off, I usually stop by at 8:00 for a few games. It's either that or drink with Miss Ruby and gag on her secondhand smoke.

Lyle wins nine games out of ten, not that I really care. Since his encounter with Mandy his left arm has been bothering him. It feels numb, and he's not as quick with his words. His blood pressure is up slightly, and he's complained of headaches. Since I have the key to the pharmacy, I've put him on Nafred, a blood thinner, and Silerall for stroke victims. I've seen dozens of strokes, and my diagnosis is just that. A very slight stroke, one unnoticeable to anyone else, not that anyone is paying attention. Lyle is a tough old coot who does not complain and does not like doctors and would take a bullet before he called his daughter and whined about his health.

"You told me you never made a will," I say casually as I stare at the board. There are four ladies playing cards forty feet away, and believe me, they cannot hear us. They can barely hear each other.

"I've been thinkin' about that," he says. His eyes are tired. Lyle has aged since his birthday, since Mandy, since his stroke.

"What's in the estate?" I ask, as if I could not care less.

"Some land, that's about all."

"How much land?"

"Six hundred and forty acres, in Polk County." He smiles as he pulls off a double jump.

"What's the value?"

"Don't know. But it's free and clear."

I haven't paid for an official appraisal, but according to two agents who specialize in such matters, the land is worth around $500 an acre.

"You mentioned putting some money aside to help preserve Civil War battlefields."

This is exactly what Lyle wants to hear. He lights up, smiles at me, and says, "That's a great idea. That's what I want to do." For the moment, he's forgotten about the game.

"The best organization is an outfit in Virginia, the Confederate Defense Fund. You gotta be careful. Some of these nonprofits give at least half their money to build monuments to honor the Union forces. I don't think that's what you have in mind."

"Hell no."

His eyes flash hot for a second, and Lyle is once again ready for battle. "Not my money," he adds.

"I'll be happy to serve as your trustee," I say, and move a checker.

"What does that mean?"

"You name the Confederate Defense Fund as the recipient of your estate, and upon your death the money goes into a trust so that I, or whomever you choose, can watch the money carefully and make sure it's accounted for."

He's smiling. "That's what I want, Gill. That's it."

"It's the best way - "

"You don't mind, do you? You'd be in charge of everything when I die."

I clutch his right hand, squeeze it, look him firmly in the eyes, and say, "I'd be honored, Lyle."

We make a few moves in silence, then I wrap up some loose ends. "What about your family?"

"What about them?"

"Your daughter, your son, what do they get from your estate?"

His response is a cross between a sigh, a hiss, and a snort, and when they are combined with a rolling of the eyes, I know immediately that his dear children are about to get cut out. This is perfectly legal in Mississippi and in most states. When making a will, you can exclude everyone but your surviving spouse. And some folks still try.

"I haven't heard from my son in five years. My daughter has more money than I do. Nothing. They get nothing."

"Do they know about this land in Polk County?" I ask.

"I don't think so."

This is all I need.

Two days later, rumors race through Quiet Haven. "The lawyers are coming!" Thanks primarily to me, the gossip has been festering about a massive lawsuit under way in which the family of Ms. Harriet Markle will expose everything and collect millions. It's partially true, but Ms. Harriet knows nothing about it. She's back in her bed, a very clean bed, well fed and properly medicated, properly supervised, and basically dead to the world.

Her lawyer, the Honorable Dexter Ridley of Tupelo, Mississippi, arrives late one afternoon with a small entourage that consists of his faithful secretary and two paralegals, both wearing suits as dark as Dexter's and both scowling in the finest lawyerly tradition. It's an impressive team, and I've never seen such excitement at Quiet Haven. Nor have I seen the place as spiffed-up and shiny. Even the plastic flowers on the front desk have been replaced by real ones. Orders from the home office.

Dex and his team are met by a junior executive from the company who's all smiles. The official reason for this visit is to allow Dex the opportunity to inspect, examine, photograph, measure, and in general poke around Quiet Haven, and for an hour or so he does this with great skill. This is his specialty. He needs to "get the feel of the place" before he sues it. Anyway, it's all an act. Dex is certain the matter will be settled quietly, and generously, without the actual filing of a lawsuit.

Though my shift doesn't start until 9:00 p.m., I hang around as usual. By now the staff and the residents are accustomed to seeing me at all hours. It's as if I never leave. But I'm leaving, believe me.

Rozelle, working late, is busy preparing dinner, not cooking, she reminds me, just preparing. I stay in the kitchen, pestering her, gossiping, helping occasionally. She wants to know what the lawyers are up to, and as usual I can only speculate, but I do so with a lot of theories. Promptly at 6:00 p.m., the residents start drifting into the cafeteria, and I begin carrying trays of the vapid gruel we serve them. Tonight the Jell-O is yellow.

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