Friday, August 21, 2015

Fiction Friday - Contemporaries - Chapter Four

Chapter Four

After almost six hours in the car, even Karen was starting to feel a little stir-crazy. Justin had taken a turn at the wheel, and Karen was trying to figure out the directions. “How many miles did you say we started at on the odometer for this road?” She asked.
“It said 150.6 when we turned on this road. We haven’t even seen a gas station in thirty minutes, where do these people fill-up?” Justin glanced from green hills to an  old farmhouse with a dirt driveway and then back at his odometer. “So we’ve gone about 32 miles on this road. What did your directions say again?”
“Well, the directions said 25 miles, but I didn’t see the correct road number. When we passed through the main town the street numbers started going up again, so I think the address should be a little further down the road. Scott pulled up the directions and he said he saw a west highway 70 and an east highway 70. He thought the farm was at East highway 70, but he wasn’t sure.”
“Well thanks for waiting to tell me that until now. I wouldn’t want to think I was lost or anything.” Justin smiled.
“Wait, I think we’re getting close. That was number 2802 and we’re looking for 2882.” Justin slowed down and started looking on both sides of the road.

Karen looked to the right side of the road and felt a sudden thrill. She knew she had to be looking at the Miles’ farm. The trees that had been crowding the two-lane highway suddenly parted and she caught a glimpse of rolling green hills. There were several small ponds scattered in the fields and a long winding gravel road led to a small white farmhouse.
“This is definitely it.” Karen said as they approached a brown mailbox with the number 2882.
Justin slowed almost to a stop as he made the sharp turn. Karen’s car rumbled down the gravel and clanked across a homemade wooden and metal bridge before heading up a slight rise to the house. The gravel kicked up dust behind the car, and Karen let out a sigh of relief that the bridge held their weight. The entire property was lined with a black wooden fence. The driveway and the house were not gated, but all of the green pasture was blocked off and a few cows and goats were grazing in the shade.
Justin pulled in front of the house in the circular driveway and popped open the door locks. “Do you think they know we’re here?” He asked.
Karen nodded her head towards the barn area, where a large golf cart was laboring towards them. A wrinkled, bald headed man with the deepest tan imaginable drove the golf cart and he tipped his battered baseball cap as he headed towards them.
Karen knew this had to be Miles’ farm manager. “Are you Eli Wellsbrooke?” She asked.
“I am. Who might you be?” He pulled the golf cart in front of their vehicle as if to prevent a quick getaway. He seemed friendly enough, but his posture was authoritative and protective.
“My name is Karen Audersfelt. I am the personal representative for Miles Tanner’s estate.”
“Estate? What do you mean his estate? I’m the property manager here.” Eli’s forehead wrinkled unevenly on one side as he squinted at Karen.
“I would have called first if I had a phone number. Miles Tanner is deceased and I am here to take an inventory of the property and make sure everything is secure.” Karen wished she had called first. She was suddenly unsure of her own safety out here in the middle of nowhere. Justin inched closer to Karen, but she wasn’t sure if he was trying to protect her or to protect himself.
Eli seemed to deflate, his shoulders slumping as he processed what she said. “Do you have a death certificate?” He asked.
After Karen brought out the official paperwork, Eli asked about how Miles had died and what would happen to the estate. Karen tried not to give too many details about the estate, but she told Eli what she could about the sudden, violent death. “I don’t know exactly what will happen to the property right now. It may need to be sold for taxes. I’m sorry to walk in and disrupt your life like this.”
“It wasn’t entirely unexpected. Even though I am almost as old as I look, Miles had been warning me lately that things might change around the farm. I thought he was finally planning on selling the place to me, but I guess that won’t be happening now.” The baseball cap cast a deep shadow over Eli’s face.
“I am sorry for your loss.” Karen said. “I didn’t see any hotels on the way here. Would it be a problem for us to sleep in the main house?”
“I guess not.” Eli turned towards the porch and opened the door. “My wife is inside fixing dinner. Her name is Marybelle. She’ll show you where the spare rooms are.”
Justin carried his backpack into the house, but Karen decided her large purse was enough to take in for now. They walked through the door, pushing open a swinging screen door and entering a large foyer. The floors were wooden and had not been refinished in years. Karen worried about the flimsy sandals she had packed in her suitcase. If she didn’t twist her ankle in the gravel driveway, she would probably stub a toe on an exposed nail or damaged floorboard in the main house.
They followed the smell of fresh biscuits and found Marybelle in a large open room. The room had only a few cabinets and almost looked like someone had been in the process of converting a living room to the kitchen and stopped halfway through. Marybelle had frizzy gray shoulder-length hair and wore a dress that looked to be three or four decades old. She wore a full-length apron and had still managed to get flour on her arms and in her hair.
She didn’t seem surprised to see them, and Karen assumed she had come to the front of the house and overheard their conversation with her husband. She smiled broadly, revealing several missing teeth. “Welcome, welcome, let me take your things.” Marybelle reached for Justin’s backpack, her purple painted nails sparkling in the late afternoon sunlight coming through the windows.
Justin shrugged the backpack higher on his shoulder. “I’ve got it for now. Your husband said that you wouldn’t mind showing us where the spare bedrooms are.”
“Sure, I can do that. Let me pull the biscuits out of the oven and I’ll take you up directly. I didn’t have room in the oven for the biscuits and the apple pie, so I have to cook things in turns. Dinner should be in about 30 minutes though. That should give you some time to settle in. What did you say your names were again?”
“My name is Karen, and this is Justin. I’m sorry to barge in on you like this, but we are here to settle Miles Tanner’s estate. I hope we aren’t inconveniencing you too much.”
“It is never an inconvenience to have guests. I only wish Miles were here to greet you. I had a premonition the last time he was here that something unusual was going on in his life. I wish he had told me more about it. He seemed lost and distant and lonely.” She pulled the biscuits out and laid them on wire racks to cool.
Karen said, “He didn’t seem like that in Charlotte. When was the last time he came up here?”
“Oh, it must have been four or five weeks back. He had lost a few pounds, and I teased him about it. He never teased me back, and that’s how I knew something was wrong. He was never one to be too serious until that visit.” She motioned to Justin and Karen to follow as she turned up a back stairway leading to the second floor. “The two spare rooms are just up the kitchen stairway. I’ll give you two a few minutes to settle in. The closet at the end of the hall has spare sheets and towels if you need anything. I don’t ring a bell for dinner, but you can probably smell when it’s ready. Yell down if you can’t find anything. Just call me Marybelle.”
Justin’s nose wrinkled when he saw the first guest bedroom. The rose flowered wallpaper and lace doilies were apparently not his style. He tossed his bag into the next room. Karen did not feel entirely comfortable unpacking and unofficially moving in on the elderly couple, but she knew they needed to spend at least a few days to complete a basic inventory of the farm and house. Scott also said she was supposed to change the locks on the house to prevent anyone from stealing anything. She just wasn’t sure how she was supposed to explain that to the sweet old couple that managed the farm.
Karen fumbled in her purse for her cell phone, praying she would get signal in the country. She saw one bar, but knew it would be hit or miss to actually place a call. Even though she desperately wanted to talk to Christine for a few minutes, she knew Christine would freak out if they got cut off mid-conversation.
“Justin!” Karen called and knocked on the door jamb as she stepped into the entryway of the second guest room.
“Miss me that much already?” Justin grinned at Karen.
“No. I wanted to see if you had a different service provider than I do. My phone only has one bar, at most.”
“Ahh. The non-nationwide national service. I used to have them too. He pulled a slim phone out of the back pocket of his slightly sagging jeans. I’ve got four bars and no roaming. Help yourself.” He turned to pull a few T-shirts out of his backpack. “My sister is number 8 on my speed dial.”
“Well, at least she made the top ten.” Karen took the phone across the hall and laid down on the twin bed while she placed the call.
“Yeah?” Christine’s voice was sharp and clear on the other end of the line.
“It’s Karen.”
“Oh, I thought you were my brother calling. I guess you made it safely to Kentucky?” 
“Yeah, we did. It was definitely a long drive. Listen, I need some customer service advice. I know you have a lot of experience dealing with people you don’t always know and who aren’t always pleasant.” Karen paused to look at her own reflection in the mirror above the dresser. “Scott Tanner said that I need to change the locks on this house, but an elderly couple that manages the farm lives here. What should I do?”
“You’re the main beneficiary, right? So, who besides you is going to be mad if something does go missing? If you trust them, and if you think it’s the right thing, I wouldn’t kick them out. And you know how much I enjoy kicking people out. If it looks more like their home than Miles home, it might be.”
“Well, how is everything at work? I know you went back yesterday. Is there any cleanup still going on?”
“Actually,” Christine’s voice held a hint of a smile, “The insurance adjuster has been by several times to check on things. I have to say, he is quite a hunk.”
Karen laughed; she knew where this was going. “How many times have you accidentally stubbed your toe so far?” The running joke between them was Christine’s ability to convincingly injure herself whenever any cute guy was within earshot. The really sad thing was, she usually wasn’t doing it on purpose.
            After a delicious country-style dinner, Karen and Justin were sitting out on the back porch, looking over the property. Marybelle was cleaning up the kitchen and Eli was at the barn doing the evening milking. Karen rocked slowly back and forth, thinking about her current situation.
            “I just don’t get it.” She said.
            “What don’t you get?” Justin asked.
            “Why in the world would Miles Tanner put someone in charge of his estate that he didn’t even know? He obviously knew my name, but I don’t imagine he would know much else of my life, my personality. Why would he want this responsibility to fall to me?”
            “Maybe there wasn’t anyone close to him he could trust? Or it’s possible he knew more about you than you imagine. He could have spoken with your boss about you. Have you heard anything more on the circumstances of his death?”
            “They aren’t saying too much. It hasn’t been ruled an accident. From the blood on the TV, I would bet on a murder.” Karen gazed at the trees, bathed in light from a sunset. She thought she saw a shadow move and she shivered. Being practically alone in a strange part of the country living in house strangers was not her idea of a glamorous job. She almost wondered if Miles had chosen her to punish her in some way. Maybe he hadn’t hated anyone else enough to get them to do the job.
            “I know it’s ridiculously early, but I’m going to head up to my room. Are you staying out here?” Karen got up and brushed off the back of her jeans. The white paint on the chairs was flaking off, and she didn’t want to get paint on the rest of her belongings.
            “Yeah, I’ll be out here a little longer. Scream if you get too scared.” Justin grinned.
            “Yeah, thanks. I’m sure I can count on you to rush in for a rescue.” Karen shrugged, “At least it would give you a head start to make your own escape though.”
            “Goodnight.” Justin got up to stretch his legs and walk around the back garden for a few minutes. “Sleep tight. Don’t let the bed bugs bite.”
            “Thanks. Goodnight to you too.” Karen went indoors and headed upstairs to her room. She decided she would at least unpack enough for a few days. As she opened the mostly empty dresser drawers to put away some of her clothing, she noticed a bright blue envelope stuck in one corner. Not normally one to snoop, something looked familiar about the color, so she pulled it out.
            She saw her name scrawled across the front in very familiar handwriting. She pulled one of Miles Tanner’s files out of her bag and compared it with the envelope. It was the same handwriting. Miles had written her a letter and left it at his Kentucky farm before he died. She quickly got up and shut and locked the door, and sat down at the small writing desk to read the note.

Dear Karen,
            I know that you are probably concerned about why I chose you for this duty, if you even decided to follow my wishes. I hope you stay safe. You can trust the Wellbrookes. They’ve been working for my family for decades. Don’t trust anyone else. I can’t tell you more than that, but if you are doing your job well, you may be in danger. Things are not what they seem. If you ever get in trouble, call the number written at the bottom of this letter. Please burn the number after you memorize it. You won’t be able to talk to anyone, but leave a message and help will come. Be safe.

Karen leaned her head against the desk. This was too much to ask anyone to comprehend. Should she call the police? Should she go back to Charlotte and pretend nothing had ever happened in Kentucky. Miles had apparently trusted no one but her, but who could she trust?

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