For the next while the Friday Fillip will be a chapter in a serialized crime novel, interrupted occasionally by a reference you might like to follow up. Both this chapter of the book and the whole story up to this point can be had as PDF files.
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“Aren’t you going to write any of this down?” Her name was Gladys Tremaine, Mrs. Gladys Tremaine, thank you very much — Mr. Harold Tremaine had died almost twenty years ago — and she was a taut, trim old woman with sceptical dark eyes and a no-nonsense, steel grey bob.
Rangel smiled. “I have a pretty good memory,” she said.
“Hmph. I’ve kind of had it with ‘pretty good.’ I need something really good, not the next best thing.”
Rangel nodded, serious now. “I’m really good. At remembering, certainly.”
Mrs. Tremaine narrowed her eyes. “Eidetic?”
“Something like that. But you didn’t come to talk about my memory, surely.”
“Bet you didn’t figure I knew that word, hmm? Used to be the town librarian. Back when we had a library. And books.” She looked around her in the motorhome. And then at the laptop computer on the table. “No books. Heard about the fire.”
“How may I help you, Mrs. Tremaine?”
“Someone out to get you?”
Rangel leaned back as far as was possible in the bench seat. “I sincerely hope not. I’m planning on being around and functioning for quite a long time, if that’s what you’re concerned about.”
“No, I mean I’m not planning on being around for much longer.” Rangel frowned. “I’m eighty-three. And I’ve had a premonition.”
“Ah,” said Rangel, who could see amber warning lights flashing in the distant reaches of her mind. But premonitioner or not, the woman was a possible client, creatures that had been thin on the ground recently.
“Yes, well. The thing is, I’ve left this . . . this business a little late. Got discouraged.” Mrs. Tremaine looked up defiantly. “It happens.” Rangel said nothing. There was a pause. Then the other woman spoke in a rush. “I’ve been cheated out of some land. Well, not me, strictly speaking, but my nephew. Actually he’s a grand-nephew, I suppose. Great-nephew, some people would say. The son of my niece Margaret. Jared, his name is Jared. And the thing is I don’t know for certain if he’s still alive. If names mean anything he should be, because the Jared in the Bible lived 962 years. How horrible that must have been. But I feel that Jared is still alive. I would know in my bones if he had died. I’m certain of it. Like I told you, I have a premonition that I’m about to die, so there’s some urgency. It’s nothing specific. No disease or anything the doctor can find. Just an intuition that my time has come. Anyway, our whole family has been . . . winnowed, you might say, and it’s only Jared and I who have survived the whirlwind. We’re the last of the St. Michael Tremaines. That’s where we’re from, St. Michael, for generations and generations. Damaged Jared and barren me, that’s the last of us, the stuff at the bottom of the barrel.” Tears forced themselves out of her eyes and angrily she whipped out a handkerchief and blotted them up.
Rangel stayed still, attending.
Mrs. Tremaine opened her mouth to continue, but couldn’t make anything come out. She blinked a few times and tried once more. This time it worked. “It’s funny how that happens. Some families prosper. They multiply. The Dennisons, they did that. Lord, what? Twelve children and each of them fertile as a field. There must be near a hundred of them living at this very moment, all from the unprepossessing stock of Janice and Willard Dennison. I should know. We were in school together. You would have figured them for a pair of life’s losers. Unprepossessing, like I said. Good word, that. They wouldn’t have known it. And there was Harold and me. He was a fine figure of a man. Handsome, muscular, brave, and smart as a whip. But. As the saying goes, ‘Man proposes, God disposes’.” Here she stopped and drew a long breath.
“I’ve been a fool,” she said. “I let them push me around and I just retreated. Now it may be too late. But I can’t die without trying, even at this late date.” She glared at Rangel and banged her small fist down hard on the table. “I want my land back. Our land. Mine and Jared’s.”
“Right,” said Rangel, sitting up straight. “I have some questions. Would you prefer me to wait until you’ve told me more, or may I ask them now?”
With just a bit of guidance, the story emerged with some clarity. Sixteen years ago, Margaret Willoughby, the daughter of Gladys Tremaine’s younger sister, Ethel, was dying of a heart condition. Margaret had one child, Jared, who was fourteen at the time. Jared had a mental disability because of cerebral palsy, and although he was able to look after himself so far as his personal needs were concerned, he was unable to manage the affairs of the world with any confidence or competence. His father had abandoned the family long before and had not been heard of since. The boy’s grandmother, Ethel, was dead. After Margaret died, no one would remain to look after Jared other than Aunt Gladys.
Margaret had incurred some debts that she wished to see paid off before she died, and she wanted to put some money aside for the support of Jared. So she made an arrangement through a lawyer in St. Michael to dispose of the family farm in a way that might accomplish both objectives.
“It’s here,” she told Rangel, pulling a document out of her handbag and smoothing it out on the tabletop before sliding it over to Rangel, who ran her eyes down it. Property law and estates law had never been her favourite subjects in law school. She had preferred the more accessible dramas found in criminal law cases, and sometimes in torts law matters as well. Crimes and crashes. But practising in a small town had meant she’d been required to prepare dozens of wills and facilitate a great many transfers of land. These clients paid the rent, or had up until now. Still, her experience was limited to the routine case — which this was not.
The nub of the deed that she held was this: Margaret had sold the farm to one Lemuel Schantz, subject to a life tenancy. The curious thing, which Rangel read three times, was that the transfer of the life tenancy was made to Gladys Tremaine for the life of Jared Willoughby. The phrase from first year law school swam into her head: a life estate pur autre vie —which, translated from the Norman law French, meant the right to use and enjoy property for so long as another, identified person continued to live. But only for so long: when that person, the measuring life, died, so did the associated right.
“The thing was, Ethel could trust me, you see. She couldn’t leave the farm to Jared. He wouldn’t be able to manage. And if she’d left me the whole shebang, she wouldn’t have been able to raise some money to pay off her debts and make a small nest egg for Jared. Besides when Jared died, I wouldn’t need the farm anymore and neither would the person who came after me to take care of him. Mind you, with his CP they thought he might not live a full life. So this was a sort of . . . King Solomon solution that actually worked. Split the thing, you see.”
She reached to take the deed back from Rangel and then withdrew her hand. “You’ll need to keep this, I suppose,” she said.
“I’ll have a copy made and return the original to you,” said Rangel. She looked up at her strange new office on wheels. “As soon as I get a copier, that is.” And if I take the case, Rangel added to herself. If there is a case. Rangel frowned. “What happened? How did things go wrong?”
“Yes, of course,” said the other woman. “I’ve been avoiding it. The fact of the matter is that two things happened. First, Mr. Schantz sold his . . .”
“Remainder,” said Rangel. “His interest is called a remainder.”
“. . . remainder to Dean Nabel.”
“The Dean Nabel? The one who owns the gravel pit?”
“My gravel pit,” said Gladys Tremaine.
“Oh,” said Rangel, seeing the pieces fall into place in her mind. “Oh. And Jared?”
“Jared disappeared shortly after that.”
“Without a trace. He was living in the house on the farm. I’d go and see him every day, and the VON — the Victorian Order of Nurses, you know? — would send someone in once a week to attend to some of his needs. And then he wasn’t there. That was eleven, twelve years ago. I looked for him for years and years, reported him missing to the police, wrote everybody I could think of. Nothing. And then after seven years Nabel had him declared dead by the court and just took over the land. I tried to fight him, but I didn’t have the money and, to be honest, I didn’t have the stamina.” She considered whether she would need the handkerchief again, balling it up in a fist instead. “Courage. I didn’t have the courage.”
Rangel, her mind racing ahead, saw trouble. “Mrs. Tremaine,” she said. “I’m not clear what it is you would like me to do. Presuming Mr. Nabel followed proper procedure, the law, I don’t see how I might help you.”
“Oh,” said Mrs. Tremaine, “didn’t I say? I want you to find Jared. Alive.”
© Simon Fodden