Spearfish Lake Tales
Contemporary Mainstream Books and Serials Online
Early the next Sunday morning they packed up the camper as much as it needed to be to make the short trip over to the Amish campground, then they each threw a small suitcase in the Mustang and headed north. It would have been possible to stay over another day, but the Amish weren't going to work on Sunday, and the weather forecast called for rain on Monday, so there was no real reason to stay.
The route north had gotten pretty familiar to both of them by now: I-59 to Birmingham, then I-65 north through Nashville, Louisville, and Indianapolis, then I-67 until they were in Michigan. They made another night stop at their usual motel in Nashville, where Catalina wore her string bikini in the pool. "It's nice to be able to wear a bikini again," she commented after a month of wearing jeans and, at the most risqué, short sleeved shirts around the Amish.
"After the Amish head north, let's head over to Bill's for a couple days," Roger suggested. "That way you can work on your tan and show off your tattoo."
In all the hours they spent in the car they didn't often discuss two of the things that had them both worried: the situation with the settlement, and where Bonnie might be. They couldn't do much active worrying about the settlement since having it in the judge's hands seemed to mean that it would get settled fairly, and there had been no news in their e-mails and phone calls with Ralph Gerjevic. The situation with Bonnie was different -- there had been no word from her since they'd headed south the last time, when she had been planning on going to the Cleveland ComicCon. Catalina had sent numerous e-mails and gotten no response; repeated phone calls only reached her answering machine. It really hadn't worried Catalina much in the beginning, but as time went by the concern increased -- which is why they went directly to Amherst, rather than taking the quicker route east on the Indiana Turnpike before heading to Wychbold.
Stopping by Bonnie's house didn't solve the mystery. The front sidewalk had been shoveled, but the walk up to the porch and the steps had not been shoveled since the last snowstorm a couple days before. "Well," Roger said. "By the looks of things, wherever she is, she's not in Amherst."
Fortunately, Catalina had a key to the house. They found the heat had been turned down, and nothing seemed out of place, but there was no sign of Bonnie. The mystery deepened when they went out to the garage, to find Bonnie's car there. "That's really weird," Catalina said. "If she went somewhere she'd have gone in her car."
"Unless she went with someone," Roger pointed out. "You want my guess, she must have gotten tired of winter and gone somewhere with a friend. Six will get you two she's laying out in the sun at some nudist resort."
"Yeah, but you think she'd have left a note," Catalina responded.
"Maybe she did and we just haven't found it."
They headed back into the house and searched high and low. There was no sign of a note from Bonnie explaining where she might be. The only thing they found that gave them any sort of a clue was a note saying, "Grace, make sure to water the plants upstairs, too."
"Who's Grace?" Roger asked.
"A neighbor up the street," Catalina told him. "She might know what happened."
They headed up to the neighbor's house and found the elderly woman at home. "The only thing I know is that Bonnie called me up one evening about a month ago and said she was going somewhere," she said. "She asked me to go over and water the plants every few days."
"Do you have any idea where she was going?" Catalina asked.
"No, she seemed like she was in a hurry. You know your mother. When she gets an idea in her head it's hard for her to wait."
"Oh, yes," Catalina sighed. "Do I ever know that!"
It was getting dark by the time they gave up hunting, still without a clue. It was clear that Bonnie wasn't in Amherst, but where she was going or how she got there was a mystery.
"Jesus," Catalina said as they headed back to Wychbold in her car. "I don't know what to do next."
"Me, either," Roger agreed. "She knew you have the hearing the day after tomorrow, and I thought she would have wanted to be there for that."
"I think so too. But maybe it would be for the best if she isn't there. I can just see her getting up in court and mouthing off at Delmer."
"Yeah, that wouldn't help your case any. Look on the positive side. We know she went somewhere, probably right after ComicCon, so we have to assume she's all right."
"Yeah, but she's still my mother," she replied. "Can I help it if I'm worried? I mean, we've gone longer than this before without making contact, but given the situation with Delmer I just don't know what to think."
It was well after dark before they pulled into Roger's garage in Wychbold. Roger had called ahead to Larry the day before to tell him they were heading back, so once again, Larry had the driveway cleaned out and the heat turned up -- especially on the hot tub. They weren't in the house five minutes before they were climbing in to soak away some of the road sores.
As usual they went to Becky's for breakfast the next morning, but after that there wasn't much to do except for a few odds and ends that had built up. Those included going through the mail, throwing out most of it, and opening the two or three pieces that might be important. The only other thing of importance was a quick face-to-face talk with Gerjevic at his office, but all they got out of that was that things had been quiet, and he hadn't heard of any new settlement offers on the property. "I hope that means deBoer has been able to talk some sense into your cousin," he said.
"Sense? Delmer? Don't make me laugh," Catalina snorted.
"Well, it could mean that he managed to convince your cousin that you have a halfway reasonable case. It's all going to be up to the judge, so we're going to just have to wait and see what happens."
Roger and Catalina met the attorney for breakfast at Becky's the next day; they'd agreed to ride over to Hawthorne together.
"I'm a little surprised," Ralph told them over coffee. "I'd expected to hear of some kind of a revised settlement offer before we got this far, but it hasn't happened."
"Knowing Delmer, I'd bet he's thinking the judge will buy whatever line of bull he has about settling for $90,000," Catalina said.
"Not knowing your cousin that well, I'd guess you might be right," the attorney replied. "On the other hand, I can't believe that deBoer couldn't have talked some sense into him. Oh, well, that's why we're going to see the judge this morning. At least we've got a reasonable settlement proposal, while his is way out of line. I don't know this Judge Langley very well, and I've only had a couple cases in front of him over the years. From what I recall he seems reasonably fair, so I think we've got a good bet."
"I don't say that I want to settle for ninety thousand," Catalina said. "But I want to get this settled once and for all. This running back and forth is turning into a pain in the butt, especially to have to come back to Michigan when the weather is this bad."
"Yeah, it could be better," the attorney agreed. "It's been a snowy winter, and there's been a time or two I've been envying you down there in Mississippi."
They finished their coffee and got on the road. There had been snow overnight, and while the roads were passable, they could have been better, so the drive over to Hawthorne seemed slow. They got there in plenty of time, parked, and headed into the courthouse.
This was the first time Roger had been in the courthouse in Hawthorne. It was a fairly new building, only about ten years old, but was mostly masonry, about as sterile as the typical elementary school without all the kids' drawings hanging on the walls. The probate courtroom was almost as bad, with wood paneling going up the walls about eight feet and stopping, and painted cinder block showing above it up to the acoustical tile ceiling. Delmer and deBoer weren't there when Roger, Catalina, and Ralph arrived and took seats at one side of the courtroom, but they arrived soon afterward and took seats about as far away as they could get. While no words were spoken, Roger thought that Delmer had an expression on his face that showed a lot of satisfaction and belief that he was going to get away with whatever he had planned.
As Gerjevic had warned a month before, the Smith estate was fourth on the docket posted on the bulletin board in the hall outside the courtroom. Two of the three cases preceding them were as he had predicted, rubber-stamp affairs that couldn't have taken three minutes each to clear up. The third took longer, a complicated legacy with several conflicting claims, and an hour wasn't enough to settle things. After an hour of wrangling between several attorneys, it was as clear to Roger as it was to Judge Langley that it was no closer to being settled now than it had when it started. Finally, he said, "It strikes me that there are still several areas here that are unclear. We could be here all day and not get anything accomplished." He laid out a list of places where he thought there was going to have to be some grounds for agreement, then set a date for a new hearing six weeks in the future and called for a brief recess.
Several attorneys and their clients left the courtroom after that, mostly muttering and complaining among themselves. "Jesus," Catalina told Gerjevic, "I hope our hearing goes better than that."
"It should," Ralph told her. "We really only have one point at issue, the disputed value of the land, and we have some facts on our side."
Five minutes later the court was back in session, just about enough time for the judge to be able to make it to the john, Roger figured. "Next item on the docket, Estate of Homer C. Smith," the judge said. "Documents presented to the court by the attorney for the executor indicate that all items of the legacy have been settled with the exception of a settlement on a quarter section of land that was to be left equally to Delmer E. Smith and Catalina R. Smith. The documentation indicates that the Smiths have been unable to reach a mutually acceptable settlement on this land. Is that essentially correct, Mr. deBoer?"
"That's correct, your honor," deBoer said, standing up. "Mr. Smith has made an offer to settle on the basis of a payment of $90,000 as being half the value of the land, but Miss Smith has rejected the settlement and has made a counter offer considerably larger than Mr. Smith feels is justified."
"Mr. Gerjevic," Judge Langley said, "I believe the documents indicate you are Miss Smith's attorney. What is your client's position on this?"
"Your honor," Gerjevic said, "In our petition for a hearing you will find an assessor's statement on the value of the land dated last month showing it being of a value of approximately $650,000. That is a figure considerably more than the $180,000 that Mr. Smith's settlement proposal appears to be based upon. Based on that assessment, Miss Smith made a counteroffer of $325,000, which is half of the much more realistic and current estimated value of the land. At our last meeting Mr. Smith refused to even consider anything over $90,000."
"I see," the judge said. "Have you provided a copy of the assessment to Mr. deBoer and Mr. Smith?"
"Yes, your honor, at our last meeting over a month ago."
The judge turned to the other attorney. "Mr. deBoer," he said, "What is your client's position on the assessment?"
"He feels, based on his experience, that the assessment is laughably high, and the assessment must have been considerably inflated over the actual value of the land."
"Is your client willing to negotiate a settlement figure somewhere close to the average of the two claims?"
"No, sir," he said. "He's of the opinion that the figure of $180,000 for the valuation of the land is about as high as can be justified."
"Mr. Gerjevic," the judge said, "Is your client willing to negotiate on the settlement figure?"
"She has told me she's willing to come down some, but nothing like Mr. Smith seems to want," Ralph told him. "If your honor noticed, the appraisal came with the stipulation that there is considerable harvestable timber on the property in question. The appraiser was unable to accurately state a value on it, other than the fact that it could well make the actual value of the land even higher. Given that, there is a limit to how far my client is willing to move on the price."
"Very well," the judge said. "It would seem reasonable to assume that the issue lies in two widely differing assessments on the value of the land. These assessments seem unlikely to be reconciled, so it strikes me that the only way to get an agreement on the value of the land is from its actual market price. Mr. Gerjevic, would your client be amenable to an equal division of the proceeds from the sale of the land?"
"Yes, your honor, That was the basis upon which we petitioned for this hearing."
"Mr. deBoer, would your client find that acceptable?"
"Yes, your honor."
"Very well," Judge Langley said. "I therefore order that the property in question be sold at auction in the next sixty to ninety days, and that the proceeds of the auction less expenses be split equally between Mr. Smith and Miss Smith. Mr. deBoer, as your client is the executor of this estate, he will be responsible for arranging the auction with a certified auctioneer who will advertise the auction in the surrounding area. I further order that if a valid offer in excess of $650,000 is received prior to the auction date that the auction can be cancelled, the land sold and the proceeds split as I ordered. Is that acceptable to you and your client, Mr. Gerjevic?"
"Yes, your honor," the attorney said without even turning to look at Catalina.
"Mr. deBoer," the judge said. "It that arrangement acceptable to your client?"
"Yes, your honor."
"Then I so order," Judge Langley said.
The judge gave them time to get out of the courtroom before calling the next case. Delmer and deBoer made it out of the courtroom first, but were waiting for them to come out. "Congratulation, Catalina," Delmer said when they came out. "I guess you got your way."
"Not exactly what I wanted, but he's right. We'll actually find out what the land is worth this way," she replied.
"At least your mother wasn't around to bring up things that didn't matter," he said, sounding a little more conciliatory. "I wondered about that."
"To tell you the truth, we're wondering too," Catalina admitted. "She's apparently off on a trip somewhere and didn't leave much information on where she could have gone."
"Sounds like your mother," he replied. "Look, I haven't had a chance to talk about this much with Harold, but what would you say if we tried to do the auction as early as possible. Sixty days means early April, and while people won't be planting by then, they'll want to be getting ready for it. If we wait another month it could mean there won't be a chance to get a crop in on the land this year, and that'll drive the price down some."
"Sounds good to me," she replied. "I just want to get this done and over with. What's your thinking on that, Ralph?"
"I have no argument with it that I can think of," the attorney said. "I really wish it hadn't come down to an auction, but I think it's probably the best way to settle things halfway fairly. What do you think, Roger?"
Roger shook his head. "Don't ask me questions like that. I'm not a farmer. My brother-in-law is, and I know he wouldn't be real happy about having to put a crop into land he'd acquired at the last minute."
"I sure wouldn't be," Delmer said. "That's why I'm all for getting this done and over with. This should have been simple and it's turned into a massive pain in the neck."
"Yeah, it has," Catalina agreed, "All the way around. I'm tired of having to come up here from Mississippi every few weeks to deal with it. By the time everything is done we're going to have lost a week's work down there."
They talked for another couple minutes, mostly civilly although everyone could see that Delmer was on the verge of getting snide with every word he'd said. Finally, with Gerjevic getting an agreement from deBoer to keep him posted on the progress of the arrangements for the auction, they went their separate ways.
In a few minutes they were back in Gerjevic's big SUV and were heading back to Wychbold. "Well, that didn't come out quite the way I hoped it would," the attorney said. "I really hoped the judge would set a dollar figure and be done with it, but he's probably right. The only way you and your cousin are ever going to agree on a figure is if someone else sets it, and that figure written on a check is proof positive."
"Very true," Roger said. "I'm a little concerned about an auction, though. Sometimes those go good, and sometimes they don't."
"That's very true," Ralph agreed. "If you get several bidders and there gets to be a little enthusiasm, the price can go higher than you expect. On the other hand, it's possible to take it in the neck if you don't get many. It would have been nice if the judge had set a reserve value on the land, but if he did I didn't hear it. This came out of nowhere and I didn't think about it until it was too late. The open market price of $650,000 might be a little on the high side for a quick sale, but maybe someone will come through with it before the auction."
"The thing that bothers me," Catalina said, "Is that Delmer is involved, and setting up the auction is up to him and his attorney. If I didn't know better I'd think they were up to something. And I don't know better."
"True," Ralph nodded thoughtfully. "And there's room to mess around. I'll keep my eye on things the best I can. You're headed back to Mississippi, right?"
"Probably today or tomorrow," Roger told him. "I'd guess tomorrow. It's getting late enough that we'd have to make two night stops if we left today."
"Well, let's keep in touch," Ralph said. "I'll be sure to let you know if there's anything you need to know about."
• • •
The attorney left them outside Becky's in Wychbold, where Roger and Catalina had left the Taurus earlier. "The hell of it is," Catalina said as soon as they were alone, "The more I think about it the less I like it. I can't believe Delmer isn't up to something, but I can't imagine what it would be."
"It would be in character for him, that's for sure," Roger agreed. "But like you, I'm not sure what it could be. I suspect Ralph will figure it out soon enough."
"Yeah, and that's going to turn into another trip up here, sure as hell," she shook her head. "Roger, like I said, I'd be just about ready to accept the ninety grand just to get this the hell over and done with. But I'd be a fool to not take a chance at doing better on it. That's enough difference that I could just stay with you and put in enough of my share to feel like I'm not taking advantage of you. Don't get me wrong, I like staying with you and I don't want to quit, but I feel I need to do my part, too.
"Catalina, I don't mind," he said. "I'll admit, $325,000 means you've got a little more of a financial cushion, and it's enough of one that it's worth going to some trouble."
"Yeah, true." she sighed. "I suppose we're going to have to come back for the auction, right?"
"Maybe, maybe not," Roger shrugged. "We'll have to see what Ralph says. It might be that we don't have to. There are other things that enter into it, too. It might be worthwhile to come back here along toward the end of March. The Amish will be heading home around then so it would be a good time, and we wouldn't have to find another crew to work with for a month or so. The weather will be warmer around here then, too. And, for that matter, what we come up with for whatever summer volunteer thing could enter into that planning. We might have to be someplace by the middle of April or the first of May, and I'd just as soon figure on spending a few days around here before we head out to wherever we're going."
"True," she said. "We just can't plan things that tight, not that we really want to. So, I suppose we probably ought to plan on being back for the auction unless something else comes up. You really don't want to start back this afternoon, do you?"
"Not really," he said. "It's like I told Ralph, it would mean an extra night stop. If we leave first thing in the morning we ought to be able to make the trip with only one. Besides, that gives us an extra night to get naked in the hot tub, and that's something we can't do on the road or with the Amish."
"All right, you sold me with that one," she smiled. "We'll leave in the morning. I really feel like we ought to stay back here and look for Mom, but I don't have the faintest idea of where to look, except it's probably not around here. Let's at least stop by Mom's house and leave her a note to call us as soon as she gets home and let us know where in the hell she's been."
"We can do that. I'm not sure I want to hear about it, though. She's probably spent the last three weeks on some nude beach somewhere, laughing at us and the people who have to stay home and shovel snow."
"Knowing my mother you're probably right," she shook her head. "So, what are we going to do this afternoon? While I'd like to get some hot tub time in, I think all afternoon and evening in this weather is probably overdoing it."
"You're probably right," he said. "Tell you what. When we get home I'll call out to Max and Arlene's and see if I can get them to invite us to lunch. I feel like I need to touch base with them when I'm home, and it's not likely he's doing very much today. Or if he is, it'll be something warm and something he can put down if he needs to."