One: Present Day
By the time I reached my destination, I was stiff and exhausted. Having spent the last ten hours on the road with my traveling companion Lilly, a lovable three-year-old retriever, I was ready for this journey to end. I still wasn’t sure what I was doing here. The events of the last few weeks seemed like a dream, and yet, here I was, baffled at my own decision to come, and come alone, to a place I had never been before. People are scammed all the time. So, when I received a phone call from some guy claiming to be a Georgia attorney, contacting me on behalf of his deceased client regarding an inheritance that was left to me, I laughed. I told him he either had the wrong person, or his scam wasn’t going to work. I hung up. Then came a registered letter from James P. Carmichael from Cameron, Carmichael and Associates, in Brunswick, Georgia. Same attorney, same firm. I didn’t believe it. Even after contacting my attorney and forwarding him the letter, I didn’t believe it.
“Hey, girl, what do you think I’m getting myself into?” I said while glancing into the rearview mirror at my panting ball of fur in the back seat. Why would someone I had never known leave me anything, let alone a ten-acre estate in Brunswick, Georgia? What on earth…? It’s gotta be some mistake. No, I knew it simply was a mistake. They’ve got the wrong Ellen Williams. I googled the law firm to see if it was legit. It seemed to be. I even called the number listed on the website, and, sure enough, someone answered.
“Cameron, Carmichael and Associates, how may I help you?” answered a pleasant female voice.
“I, ugh, I’m so sorry,” I stammered. “I must have dialed the wrong number.” I hung up.
I’m not sure why I didn’t just ask for the lawyer who had sent me the letter. Why didn’t I try and verify if he was a lawyer with that firm? Maybe I felt it was best left to someone who was better equipped to inquire into the legality of it all, like our family attorney, Greg Blackburn. If someone was scamming folks, chances are that Greg could find out for me. I called Greg and explained to him what was outlined in the letter and asked him to get back to me at his convenience. I told him I was sure it was a scam of some kind. He asked me to forward him a PDF of the letter, and he’d check into it. And a few days later, he called me back.
“Hi, Ellen, Greg Blackburn here. I’ve got some news for you, and I hope you’re sitting down. It’s legitimate. I’ve spoken to James Carmichael, the attorney for the estate of a Mrs. Madeline M. Caldwell. He confirms that you are the sole beneficiary of her Brunswick property, and I’ve obtained a copy of her will. Mr. Carmichael stated that she was very much of sound mind when the will was revised a couple of years ago. She and her husband had been a prominent couple in Brunswick. Judge Anderson Caldwell had served over forty years on the bench. Mrs. Caldwell did volunteer work and fundraising for local charities and was president and co-founder of the Brunswick Women’s Club. She updated her will long after the judge died in 2008. So, it looks like you’re the proud owner of a ten-acre property in Brunswick, Georgia.”
Greg has been our attorney since Dan and I became parents. That was thirty-five years ago. Since, we’ve had two children and lost three of our parents—everyone except my still fairly healthy eighty-five-year-old mother. I trusted him explicitly, but I was still having a hard time believing what he was telling me.
“And Ellen, the property itself is estimated at 7.8 million dollars. She also provided an additional two million dollars to offset the taxes. It looks like the angels have smiled upon you. Can I maybe get on your Christmas list this year?” He asked with a laugh.
I was too stunned to respond to his attempt at humor. I do remember asking him to repeat everything at least two more times.
“Greg, I hear you, but I don’t believe any of this. It just doesn’t make sense. This kind of thing doesn’t happen! This is just fucking ridiculous, I mean, sorry, well, you know what I mean.”
He chuckled. “I know, it’s pretty extraordinary.”
“What about family, surely they had family to leave this to?”
“According to her lawyer, the Caldwells had no children, only a nephew on the judge’s side of the family. His sister’s boy. Wait a minute, I’ve written his name down, let me see. Oh, here it is, a Doctor Hunter McGaffey. Yes, he was the only child born to the judge’s younger sister, and he unfortunately lost both of his parents in a tragic car accident a few years back. Hold on, let me just confirm that.” After a few seconds he came back on the line. “Yes, I’ve got that correct. The nephew’s a cardiac surgeon in Brunswick who’s divorced and has two daughters, ages nineteen and seventeen. Mr. Carmichael said that Mrs. Caldwell left her nephew around ten million dollars in cash and stocks and the great nieces received two million dollars apiece to be received on their twenty-first birthdays. The girls were also given the option of using all or part of the money for their education before turning twenty-one. Dr. McGaffey is the executor of their trust and will oversee the distribution of his daughters’ portions. Mrs. Caldwell also gave a sizeable donation to her favorite charities and set up an endowment at Emory University under the judge’s name. Mr. Carmichael did say that he is 99.9 percent sure that you are the correct recipient of the house and grounds.”
“I’m totally at a loss, Greg. There must be some reason she didn’t leave it all to her family or other charities, or the endowment. Why in heaven’s name would she leave it to a total stranger?” I asked, totally mystified. “It just doesn’t make sense.”
His next words truly chilled me.
“Well, whether you are a stranger to her or not, you are the intended recipient. And the reason I know: she left proof. A photograph of you,” he stated.
My heart began to pound, and my palms began to sweat. I’m not sure I heard him correctly. “Photograph, what photograph?”
He proceeded to tell me that her lawyer had forwarded him not only a copy of the will, but a picture of me. He said it was Mrs. Caldwell’s way of letting me know that I was the intended beneficiary. She evidently told her lawyer that when the time came, she knew that I would need proof.
“Give me a minute, and I’ll forward you the email with the attachments. I didn’t want to send it without talking to you first. I thought you might faint. Okay, give me a sec. Alright, it’s on its way. Check your inbox. I’ve got to run, Ellen. But let me know what I can do to further help. You’ll most likely have questions down the road. I would also suggest that you get a hold of a good accountant at some point. I have a few names I can recommend if you’d like,” he said.
“Oh, right, well I’ve got my CPA for the business, so I can reach out to him. Listen, thanks so much. I’m sure I’ll be in touch.” I said.
“Anytime. Take care.”
“You too, Greg.”
I put down the phone and moved to my laptop. My hands shook as I opened Greg’s email. There were two attachments, one entitled “Last Will and Testament of Madeline M. Caldwell” and the other entitled “Photo.” I decided I’d look at the will after I looked at the photo. I clicked on “Photo.” It took a few seconds to open, but when it did, my brain exploded as I tried to process the image before me. There was no doubt it was me. I think I must have stood there for a solid minute staring at the screen. It took me another minute to race through the halls of my memory and recall where the picture had been taken. I was standing in front of a large fountain in a park- like setting. My hair was styled similar to the way I wear it now, a short, messy blond crown of natural waves. I was smiling for the camera. The thing I noticed first was that this slightly younger version of myself was smiling, yet still looked rather sad. My arms reflected a summer tan, and I was wearing a bright lime green sleeveless blouse and a pair of white capris. I bought that blouse in a little boutique in Midway, Kentucky, with Sharon, my best friend of over twenty years. We were on one of our girl trips. But Midway was not where the picture was taken. I racked my brain trying to remember where we were. I’ve always hated trying to navigate those cerebral corridors. And then, it hit me. I suddenly remembered where this picture was taken. We were in Forsyth Park in Savannah, Georgia. It was just one of the many vacations Sharon and I had taken together. This trip was kind of a mini four-day getaway. We had been looking forward to discovering the city with cocktails, sunshine, and laughter on the menu. Then came the phone call from someone I hadn’t seen or spoken to in years. My sister.