“In spite of what you think, Charlie Ann, I was very close to your aunt – almost family, in fact – but I don’t suppose you believe me.”
“You’re right, Jasper. I don’t. And, so far as the funeral cortege is concerned, I’ll be the sole occupant of the first car. You and Caroline can go in the second.”
Jasper’s heavy sigh carried down the phone line, and Charlie Ann moved the receiver from her ear and stared at it. “What are you up to now?” she thought. “Whatever it is, you’re not pulling any more wool over my eyes.”
Shug Huckabee’s funeral was held immediately after the autopsy. She was well known in Willoughby and the crematorium chapel was packed. Most of the mourners were friends and acquaintances, but mingled in the crowd were gossipmongers, and scandalous speculation was rife in the pews nearest to the door.
“Strange, isn’t it,” Charlene Battersbee said, “that, no sooner does Shug make a new Will, but she dies of a heart attack. My friend who works for Dewey Meadows told me he’d just delivered it. What’s more, as he was leaving, that niece pulled up and she was the only other person there in that house when her aunt died. She stands to inherit a pretty penny.”
“Sure does look fishy. A bit too convenient,” agreed her friend.
After the service, the mourners trooped outside to inspect the wreaths and bouquets covering the pale yellow stone flags, apart from Charlie Ann’s which lay in solitary state on top of her aunt’s coffin, inside a ring of heavy velvet curtains.
Charlie Ann wandered up and down the rows, reading cards attached to some of the pretty wreaths. She had made many of them herself, and they had provided her with unexpected and unsought income. One large cross which she hadn’t made, fashioned from evergreens, caught her eye. She picked up the card. It was from “Artie, the forgotten one”.
Artie? Who was Artie?
Charlie Ann looked up. Jasper was staring at her. Next to him stood a good-looking young man who resembled Jasper, but he also had a sharp nose and thick black hair that reminded Charlie Ann of her aunt in her younger days. She bit her lip, just as Aunt Shug would have done, and watched the two men walking down the path towards her. She replaced the card and went to meet them. She did not know why, but her heart was thumping.
When they were within a few feet of each other, Jasper indicated the young man beside him. “Charlie Ann, I want you to meet Artie.”
Artie put out his hand and Charlie Ann shook it. “Should I know you?” she asked.
Jasper glanced around. Several people were watching them, among them Charlene Battersbee.
“We need to talk,” he said, adopting an air of mystery as if he were starring in a Hollywood movie. “Where can we go where we won’t be interrupted?”
Charlie Ann spread her hands. “How about the chapel?”
“I knew it,” Charlie Ann said to herself. “He’s up to something.”
They returned to the chapel and sat in a side pew halfway down the aisle where they could watch the door. Jasper cleared his throat.
“Er, hum, I have a confession to make, Charlie Ann.”
“Really? You surprise me.”
“I don’t appreciate your tone, young lady. This is very difficult for me. You see, it involves your aunt.”
“Go on. Spit it out.”
“Well, the truth of the matter is that, many years ago, before your aunt married Wilber Huckabee, we had an affair. When she found out she was pregnant, I offered to marry her, but she refused me. She said she didn’t want to be tied down.”
Charlie Ann’s skepticism was obvious.
“I find this hard to believe. Aunt Shug never once mentioned having a baby…”
“You forget, my dear, these are changed times. It was a dreadful scandal to have a baby before marriage in those days. She went to live with a friend until Artie was born, and then she came back here.”
“The friend raised him, as if he were her own, although she told him who his parents were. Shug never told me where he was, although I asked many, many times. I even came to live here in the hope of finding out.”
“So, how did you find him?”
“I didn’t. He found me. The friend saw an article in The Fort Mill Times about Shug’s unexpected demise and he took it from there.”
Charlie Ann glanced at the young man, who stared back at her with cold eyes. “Do you expect me to believe this … this story?” she asked.
Artie stood up and rubbed his hands. “I don’t care if you believe it or not. I’m Shug Huckabee’s son and everything she has should come to me.”
“So what are you going to do?”
“Contest the Will, of course. You won’t get a dime.”