A Contest of Wills: Chapter 7

Once the cats were finished, Bex headed back to the house and ran into Ronnie, her handyman. She had been able to earn a little extra money in the last month, and was able to hire Ronnie to do some of the heavier work she couldn’t handle. He was putting together some outbuildings and installing cat doors so she would have more room. She left him to his work and went inside.

Bex checked her email to see if she’d gotten any responses. As she thought, so far there was no one who knew of an attorney who could help her or would be willing to work for free. She made a quick call to one of her clients to confirm that the brochure she had created was ready to go to the printer, and then called the printer to get the job started. She sat back and wondered what to do next.

She tried searching on the Internet for information about wills and how contesting a will worked, but found the information to be too general and vague. She decided that she had enough time to head over to the county court complex and visit the law library. She wasn’t sure what to look for, but thought maybe she could find a way to slow down the proceedings as much as possible. Didn’t they do that on television? File motions to continue or something like that? Not that she thought TV would be anything like real life, but occasionally there had to be a grain of truth in there somewhere, didn’t there?

After several fruitless hours looking through law books she didn’t completely understand, Bex left the courthouse feeling discouraged. She needed to go have a chat with Linda, so she backed out of the parking lot and drove down Main Street through the center of Byrd’s Mill. She arrived at The Brew-Ha and walked through the front door. The jangling of the bell on the door brought her friend out to the front.

“Hey Bex, what’s happening?”

“Not much.” Bex tried to smile, but knew it wasn’t very convincing. Linda’s dog Fubu came from behind the counter and approached Bex, tail wagging. She smiled as she knelt down to pet the dog. “Hey Fu, how’s it going? Come out to smell all the good kitty stink on me?” She smiled up at Linda as the dog buried his nose her shirt and began sniffing deeply. Fubu loved it when Bex came to visit, because she always smelled like the cats and outdoors.

“O.k., Fu, that’s enough,” Linda waved the dog away so Bex could stand up. The two women looked at each other. Linda squinted for a moment then said, “Right. Coffee. Strong.” And disappeared behind the counter.

Before long the two women were sitting together at a table, and Bex was pouring out her heart to Linda. Linda had had her own issues with the law when she had divorced her husband, and she was sympathetic to Bex’s struggles.

“What a jerk,” she said when Bex finished telling her about her first meeting with Kyle. “Lawyers. They’re all the same if you ask me. You can’t trust them.” Bex smiled at her friend. This was one of the reasons she loved Linda. Although several years older than Bex, she inherently understood many of the “rules” Bex had for good friendship. This was one of them. Bex knew that Linda’s father had been an attorney, and her sister, stilling living in Seattle, was an attorney.

“Thanks,” Bex said smiling. “I’m sure there are a few trustworthy ones out there somewhere.”

“Yeah, well,” Linda took a sip of coffee and looked away. “Listen, Bex, I can ask my dad or my sister about this, but you know it isn’t their area of expertise. And I’m guessing the laws in Washington are different from the laws in Virginia. Maybe they can recommend someone though. Do you want me to ask?”

Bex shook her head and took a sip of coffee. “Thanks, but that’s part of the problem. I just can’t afford to hire anyone. And I can’t afford to keep going to the courthouse because I need to keep my paying clients. I just don’t know what I’m going to do.” She sighed and looked down at her coffee cup. She could almost feel the struggle the woman across from her was having in her attempt to find a way to help. Bex looked up and smiled, and this time it was genuine. “I’m so glad I have a good friend like you to talk to though. I don’t know how I’d get through it without that.” Linda smiled and seemed to relax a little.

They finished their coffee and Bex left. She needed to get back to the refuge and she needed to get some work done.

A Contest of Wills: Chapter 6

By the next afternoon Bex had gone from being angry to being worried. Although her temper could get the best of her, once she calmed down she knew there would be a fight ahead of her, and she had no idea how she would prepare for it. She had spent that morning emailing some of her clients to see if anyone knew of an attorney who could help her. She wasn’t hopeful, but someone might know of someone who could help.

At 3:00 Lindsey showed up to help her worm the cats. Lindsey attended the local high school and would be starting her senior year in a couple of months. Her dream was to go to Virginia Tech and become a veterinarian. Although she had a job with the vet in town, she came out once in awhile to help Bex with some of the cats, and Bex was always grateful for an extra pair of hands. And after a sleepless night, she was grateful for the extra ears as well.

“Wow, he sounds like a total jerk,” Lindsey said as she forced open Ginger’s mouth and popped in a pill. She held the cat’s mouth closed and gently petted her throat to help the pill go down. She put Ginger on the floor and straightened up. “Are we doing the feral pen next?”

Bex sighed. She wasn’t sure she was quite ready for that, but it needed to be done. “Did we get everyone out here?” she asked. Lindsey looked around the small room at the cats milling on the floor. “Let’s see, I just finished Ginger, you did Fred, and I think we got Popeye, Princess and Bugsy. What are you going to do about Dinah?”

Bex shook her head. “Let’s just leave her for now. She still seems to be agitated and stressed out, and had some wicked diarrhea yesterday. I’ve got an appointment for her to see Dr. Baxter at 4:30, and I don’t want to give her anything until after we get back.”

As they headed out to the feral pen, Lindsey asked, “How can he take the land if the Szczepanskis gave it to you? I mean, if it was in their will and everything?”

Bex smiled. “That’s a good question. But I guess just because someone puts something in their will, it doesn’t mean it automatically happens. Someone else can come along and say they didn’t mean to do it, or they were under the influence of someone, or even that they were blackmailed. Or sometimes people just aren’t very happy they didn’t get something they expected, which is what happened here. And really, I can’t say that I totally blame Tiffany. She doesn’t know me – we’ve never even met – and here her parents have left me a whole bunch of land that she thinks of as belonging to her.” Bex paused for a moment. “I just wish now that I’d had a chance to meet her sooner. I’m not even sure if her parents told her I was living out here.”

Lindsey said, “So they just let you start living out here? Why? Weren’t they using the land for anything before you got here?”

Bex laughed at the younger girl’s questions. “Well, it was really kind of an odd situation. I had just moved back in with my parents after. . ., well, anyway I was living with my folks and had gone to the Pet Palace to see if I could sell them some services, maybe create some brochures or a newsletter. You know, I was trying to get them for a client. Anyway, when I got there they had all these cages out front with cats in them that they were trying to adopt out. I was just looking at all those kitties and it made me so sad.”

“As I was standing there, this older woman came up next to me. She said, ‘Isn’t it a shame they have no one who wants them?’ I looked at her and said, ‘Oh, I want them, it’s a matter of where I would keep them.’ She laughed and we started talking. I don’t know why, but she was so easy to talk to. I started telling her how I would love to start a refuge for cats. A place where they could live out their lives and be cared for, even if they were feral. And then we talked a little bit about feral cats, how it’s very hard to relocate them, and how most of the time the best thing you can do is a trap, neuter, release program. But that I wanted to do more than that.”

Bex smiled at the memories she was reliving. “So she asked me what I thought I would need for something like that. I told her the first thing I’d need is a lot of land, and then a place to live. I told her that I was just back in town and trying to get some freelance writing jobs, but at that point it wasn’t enough to keep me going. She asked me a lot of questions about shelters for the cats, vet care and food. She was really interested. We kept talking, and the next thing I know she’s inviting me to lunch with her and her husband the following week.”

“And that was Mrs. Szczepanski?”

“Kate, yes. I met Bill when we had lunch in town, and he was just as delightful. It was obvious that Kate had already talked to him about the land. He told me that there was about 20 acres they hadn’t used in quite awhile, and that there was a little trailer set up on it that I could live in. For free. Can you imagine?” The teenager just shook her head.

“It turned out that the trailer was in pretty good condition, and mostly just needed a lot of clean up. And of course a lot of the land had to be cleared. Fortunately that big outbuilding was already here, so once I put in the cat door it was just a matter of getting the cats out here. I was able to get a satellite dish for Internet so I could keep freelancing, and then it was just some hard work and elbow grease to get where I am now.”

“Wow, that’s amazing.”

“It really is,” Bex said and then laughed. “But Bill made me write a business plan and outline what I was going to do in terms of putting up shelters, how I’d pay for food and vet bills, all that stuff. I didn’t realize it at the time, but what he was really doing was forcing me to be realistic. And I realized that I could do this, but it was going to be hard and I was going to have to sacrifice a lot.”

She stopped walking and looked at Lindsey, all the smile gone from her face. “I had no idea they were leaving me land in their will, I really didn’t. We never talked about it.” She paused and said softly. “It was devastating to hear they’d died.”

“So what happens now?” Lindsey’s open face was worried as she looked at Bex.

“Right now?” Bex smiled and put her hand on the teenager’s shoulder. “Right now we de-worm some cats that will not be at all happy about the situation.”

Lindsey didn’t smile and was still looking worried. Bex unlocked the door to the outbuilding where the feral cats were currently penned. She said honestly, “I really just don’t know Lindsey, I’m just going to have to take this one day at a time.”

A Contest of Wills: Chapter 5

As Bex headed down the long drive to the trailer she called home, her spirits lifted. She stopped the truck in front of the two-bedroom unit and got out. She stood for a moment, breathing in the scent of the loblolly pines that surrounded her. She looked over the land and shook her head at all the work she had to do. There was a lot of clearing and clean up still to be done, and she knew she had a long way to go to turn this place into the refuge she had envisioned. And now there was more land available to her than before, thanks to the generosity of the Szczepanskis. She bowed her head for a moment and said a silent prayer blessing them, and wishing again that she could have paid her last respects.

When Bex opened the door to the trailer, the stench hit her immediately.

“Oh no,” she said, hurrying into the small spare bedroom where the cat she had picked up from the shelter yesterday had been quarantined. The cat was backed into a corner of the pen, eyeing Bex suspiciously. The small litterbox Bex had put in the pen was a mess. The cat had obviously had diarrhea and the mess, although amazingly confined to the small box, looked like it had partially dried on the sides of the box. Bex groaned but said to the cat, “It’s o.k. honey. I’m so sorry you’re not feeling well. Let me change and I’m going to get that all cleaned up for you.”

After changing her clothes Bex grabbed some paper towels, disinfectant and a plastic trash bag from under her kitchen sink. Heading back into the spare room, she carefully and slowly opened the pen and removed the box, and then grabbed a pair of latex gloves she’d gotten from the vet. “I’ll have this back for you in a jiffy,” she told the motionless cat.

Bex carried everything down the front steps of the trailer and headed over to where the hose was hooked up, put on the gloves and got to work. She tried dumping the contents of the box into a plastic trash bag, but the litter and mess had dried and just stuck to the sides and the bottom of the box. Bex signed and began using the scoop to scrape the contents into the bag. She bent over so she could spread the bag open on the ground while she scraped the waste into it. As she was bent over working on the box, she felt the sun come out from behind a cloud and groaned as she felt the warmth starting to spread over her bent back. Normally, she would have been grateful for the warmth while working outside, but today she wasn’t anxious for the heat. She continued scraping the contents from the dirty litter box into a garbage bag, trying to ignore the stench from the contents. If it got much warmer, this job was going to be even worse than it already was.

“I’m going to have to take her to see Dr. Baxter,” Bex muttered under her breath, “there is something wrong with this cat beyond just worms.” She turned her head to take a breath, and saw a one-eyed cat slide out from under the trailer and make its way toward her.

“No Popeye,” she said firmly, halting the cat in its tracks. “I don’t know if this is contagious, but I don’t want you over here until I’ve disinfected this box and gotten everything cleaned up.”

The cat thought about it for a moment, and Bex repeated a firm “No.” The cat sat and watched her, tail twitching, contemplating its next move. Bex turned back to the box. She scraped out the remaining contents and began to thoroughly clean the inside. When she was finished she threw all the used paper towels into the trash bag, peeled off the gloves and threw them in, and then tied up the plastic garbage bag and placed it in one of the garbage cans she used exclusively for cat waste.

She hosed out the box and set it in the sun to dry, and then went inside the trailer to wash her hands. At this point she wasn’t worried about Popeye. The most he would do was go over and take a whiff, but the disinfectant would most likely keep him from getting too close, and he certainly wouldn’t use an empty box.

She was just drying her hands when she heard the sound of tires coming down the drive. Puzzled, she looked out the window to see who would be coming to visit.

“Ho-ly,” she whispered under her breath as the sliver Mercedes convertible came to a slow stop. “Who on earth could this be?” She noted the New York license plates and felt a stab of apprehension as the driver unfastened his seat belt, stepped out of the car, took a quick look around, and mounted the steps to the trailer. He gave two hard knocks on the door.

Bex opened the door cautiously, leaving the chain in place and taking in this stranger. He was tall, and wearing a suit and tie. He looked completely out of place in these surroundings, but didn’t seem in the least uncomfortable. He looked Bex up and down and then spoke.

“Are you Rebecca Miller?”

“Who wants to know?”

He gave her a smile that didn’t quite reach his eyes, and reached into his left-hand breast pocket. He handed her an envelope. Instinctively, she took it from him. He said, “O.k., you’ve been served.” He turned and started down the steps.

“Wait a minute,” she called out. He stopped and turned. “Yes?”

“What do you mean, I’ve been served?”

He nodded his head toward the envelope in her hands. “It’s all there.” She looked down again and tore open the envelope. She read silently, her lips moving. When she finished, she looked up at him. “And just who the hell are you?”

He hesitated a moment, came back up the steps, pulled out a card and put it through the small opening in the door, giving her a moment to read it.

She looked up. “You’re a lawyer? What are you doing here?”

He crossed his arms and looked around without answering. Then he looked back at her.

“Yes, I am. As the card says, my name is Kyle Stephens, and I represent the estate of William and Katherine Szczepanski. More accurately, I am representing their daughter Tiffany. And I’ve just served you a summons to appear at an upcoming hearing regarding the disposition of the estate.”

Bex looked down at the card and again up at the man standing in front of her. “Yeah, I can read. But what does that mean?”

“We plan on presenting evidence to prevent the will from being admitted to probate.”

Bex frowned. She wasn’t sure what was going on, but she did know that she didn’t like feeling like a prisoner in her own home. She closed the door and unlatched the chain. When she opened the door she caught a moment of surprise on Kyle’s face and she had to smile. He must have thought she was closing the door in his face. He recovered quickly.

As she opened the door to step out, he tilted his head slightly so he could see inside the trailer. She felt her face growing hot as he slowly took in the sparse furnishings. “Excuse me,” she said, as he was blocking the door. “I’d like to talk about this outside if you don’t mind?”

He looked directly at her, and she felt her heartbeat quicken. His eyes were brown and so dark she couldn’t quite see the pupils. She straightened up and raised her eyebrows. He tipped back his head slightly and raised one eyebrow back. He then stepped out of the way so she could exit the trailer. She shut the door behind her, pushed past him and walked down the steps. He followed her and she stopped short of his car. She turned to look at him.

She had to tilt her head back slightly. He was standing with the sun behind him, and she found herself squinting. Raising her hand to block out the sun she stared up at him without speaking.

He took several slow steps to the left, and Bex turned with him, lowering her hand.

Bex finally shook her head impatiently. “I’m not sure I know what you mean.”

“What I mean,” he said, beginning to speak more slowly, “is that there is no evidence showing that the Szczepanskis were truly aware they were leaving you such a valuable piece of property, and that we plan to use whatever means are at our disposal to ensure that the property is returned to the family.”

Bex could feel her face getting hot. “The Szczepanskis left this land to me! It was for me to start a rescue facility and that’s what I’m doing. They cared about this land and didn’t want it turned into condos and strip malls. I know Bill thought having a refuge was a little odd, but Kate cared about these cats as much as I do, and she told me she wanted to be sure I was able to keep going with what I started here. That’s why they let me live on this land in the first place!”

Kyle slowly looked her up and down and Bex could feel her face getting even hotter. She knew she was a mess, her hair disheveled, her jeans at least one size too big, and her sweatshirt sleeves pushed up, but she met Kyle’s gaze with fire in her eyes.

“Well,” he said, “that may be, but the original arrangement was for 20 acres and this trailer. A far cry from 100 acres of prime land with full access rights to the rest.” He looked around and Bex had no doubt he was taking in every detail. “And from what I can see, this doesn’t look like much more to me than some slightly offbeat woman living in a trailer with way too many cats.”

“I’ve just started and I’m still working on it. I’ve got to put together shelters, which costs money, and in the meantime the cats have still got to eat, and believe it or not the vet expects to be paid. I’ve got a very sick cat inside, and that’s taking time and money. I’ve gotten a couple of people to volunteer, but this kind of thing doesn’t just happen overnight.”

“I see.” His demeanor suddenly seemed to change and he dropped his arms. He looked at her with a genuine smile, and she could see concern in his eyes. Or maybe what passed as concern for him.

“Look,” he said reasonably, “I’m sure you don’t want to get into a court battle over this. It would be time consuming and expensive, and it doesn’t seem like you currently have the resources at your disposal for that. I’m really here to try and settle this amicably. I’d like to offer you a settlement for the land in exchange for you agreeing to give up any interest in it you might have.” She inhaled to respond, but he kept talking in his smooth, even, calm tone.

“And trust me, it’s highly unlikely that you’ll be able to defend yourself in court. I’m pretty sure I can keep this will from being entered into probate, and have the judge ban you from the property until we get the matter settled. Which could be years. And then you’ll end up without a settlement or the land. I’d just like to expedite this whole process so I can get back home.”

She looked at his car, and then up at him. “A settlement. Money in other words. You want to buy me off. Well, I don’t have to listen to anything. The answer is no. I need this land for the refuge, and unless you plan on giving me enough money to buy land somewhere else I don’t plan on doing that. Not to mention the 26 cats that now call this place home, and last but not least I will not let Bill and Kate down by just giving this land to someone who will sell it to the first developer that comes by.”

Kyle’s smile vanished and he straightened up. “That’s fine,” he said, “if you’d prefer to walk away with nothing I’m just as happy with that. I’ll get my client her land and save her money. And maybe you and your cats can all find another trailer you can call home. I think there might be a vacancy near the landfill.”

“Get off my land, “Bex growled, taking a step toward him. “Get off of it now!”

Kyle stood his ground and smiled down at her. “It’s not your land,” he said. “Not yet. And I’m guessing not ever. I was hoping you’d be reasonable, but I should have realized that anyone who would live in a trailer surrounded by cats and filth would have no sense of reason.” With a last condescending smile he turned to go.

Bex wasn’t sure when Popeye had come over and used the ground behind Kyle as his litter box. She wasn’t even sure why he would have done that – a cat outdoors was highly unlikely to defecate in an open area. She was pretty sure that Popeye actually had a very good idea of what was going on and how upset she was, and it was his way of making a statement. No matter the reason, when Kyle turned to leave and put his foot in the middle of the mess Popeye had left, Bex couldn’t contain her laughter.

Kyle’s jaw tightened as he looked down but he didn’t say anything for a moment. Then he looked up at Bex and asked quietly, “Do you have anything I could use to wipe off my shoe?”

“Hmmmm, no, I don’t think so,” she answered, looking at him defiantly. He stood and looked at her for a long moment, then walked over to his car. He opened the door and sat down sideways in the seat. Then he turned and started the engine. When he drove away Bex sat on the gravel and laughed until the tears were running down her face. There, sitting in her driveway, was one very expensive looking brown shoe, covered in cat poop.