The next morning, I drove from the hotel in Pampa to the Grey County courthouse. The judge had called a meeting of the parties to the case. It would be the first time I'd see my client, Nora Johnson, and the first time in years Steve Mackenzie and I would meet face to face.
I was nervous, and the short drive fed my anxiety. There is not a single route to the Grey County courthouse free of deserted, creepy countryside. It's not like driving through the wide-open plains between Pampa and Amarillo. The Grey County drives have unexpected twists and sudden rises, half-deserted chemical plants, and a general peevish air of banjo music.
Not surprisingly, I began to think about horror movies. An anagram for Deliverance is 'cleared vein'. Wow. Wow, that's...wasn't helping. Okay, brain. Time to shut-up.
By the time I pulled up to the courthouse I was grinding my teeth. I looked up, and saw Steve hovering near the front door. The wind caught the sides of his open blazer and flapped the fabric, giving him a black and shadowy form. Steve hunched his shoulders against the cold and pulled the blazer around him. Then he spotted me and glided down the stairs. Oily, calculating, litigious Steve. I'd rather be partnered with a turkey buzzard.
“Good morning, Maryanne,” Steve said smoothly as I exited my car.
“Oh, shut-up. Save the phony small talk for some idiot you're not related to,” I snapped.
“As opposed to an idiot I am related to, hmm?”
Jerk. “Where's our client?”
“Inside. But I want a few words with you out here.”
I tucked my folio under one arm and crossed my arms over my chest. “Fine. Talk.”
Steve stepped closer. He was a good four inches taller than me, and used the difference to his complete advantage. Glaring down at me, Steve said, “I don't want you to say one word about ghosts or haunting in front of our client. Or the judge. Or anybody.”
“That's pretty unrealistic, considering one of the issues in the case is whether or not the house is haunted.” I reached into my folio and pulled out a copy of the plaintiff's filing. “Johnson's son is arguing that Nora effectively abandoned the property without cause. The argument is worded to include 'possibly haunting' as not being a just cause for abandonment,” I reminded Steve. “In the alternative, he's arguing that if there is a haunting, it's a haunting of Nora's person and not the house.” I put the paper away and looked at my cousin. “Clearly his lawyer expected you to plead haunted house as an affirmative defense. By the way...why didn't you?”
“I argued in the alternative that the house is not habitable.”
“Not the same thing.”
I shook my head. “Everyone in Pampa seems to think there's a haunting. Why don't you use that?”
“Because it's not a defense!” Steve shouted.
“Seems to me the court's open to the idea. And courts have, in the past, taken judicial of the fact that a house is haunted.”
“Not in Texas they haven't. Dang it, Maryanne, this is my case and we're going to do this my way. It's straight forward. Nora never abandoned the house. She periodically leaves for long visits with friends, but she still lives in the house. She retains her homestead rights, and Christian Johnson and his slick Dallas lawyer leave the Panhandle and go back where they belong.”
I smothered the temptation to remind Steve how he had been a slick Dallas lawyer himself, not so long ago. Actually, so had I. So never mind.
“Ultimately, what does Nora want?” I asked.
“A place to live. Keeping her homestead right is the only way to get her what she wants.” He sighed and raked his fingers through his hair. “I told you on the phone the judge suggested settlement talks. Well, the other side made an offer.”
“It's less than three thousand dollars.”
I considered it from the plaintiff's side. In order to settle, he'd have to give a little on the theoretical question about his step-mother abandoning the house. He'd likely do that by offering to buy her out of her share. Nora's share of the house would be equal to her life-estate, meaning the value of her share would depend on how long she had left to live. Since none of us could see the future, they best way to estimate Nora's remaining life was with an actuarial table. They'd multiply that number by her age, and the result would be her share of the house. The remainder would be the value of her step-sons share.
“How old is Nora?” I asked as I pulled out the paper listing the value of the house.
I studied the paper and did some quick calculations in my head. “Under three thousand is about right,” I said sadly.
“She can't find somewhere else to live with that pathetic amount. She has a fixed income and almost no savings. So we can't settle, and we can't lose.”
Curious, I asked, “How is she paying our legal fees and the court costs?”
Steve looked away. “I'm doing this pro bono,” he said quietly.
“You? You've never done anything for free, from what I heard back in Dallas.”
“This isn't Dallas. I'm back home. And in the Panhandle, we take care of our own. Hank Johnson pulled my father out of the Celanese Plant, when Dad passed out from fumes during the plant fire. Hank's widow needs legal help, and she's going to get it.”
Wait a minute. Something wasn't adding up. “You implied that Nora was paying all the fees, and you would pay me out of what she gave you.”
“I didn't. That's how you chose to hear things.”
“Steve, who's paying for me to be here?”
He didn't answer.
“Dang it, Steve, I need to know! This affects the whole attorney-client relationship!”
Steve sighed. “Father Blackman,” he said at last. “It was his idea to bring you in on the case. The church is footing the bill.”
Wait a minute. That meant.... “I'm working for the Catholic Church?” I yelped.
“Calm down. I'm sure they won't kick you out of the Presbyterian Church over this.”
I wish that was the problem. The truth was, there wasn't a legitimate religion on the planet that would want me.