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.

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