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The old estate had stood empty for decades. In the backyard, a children’s sandbox sat surrounded by a mass of overgrown weeds. The sand inside had managed to stave off most of the weeds, and remains of plastic toys lay half-buried in the box.
Out of curiosity, Josh Letterman took an old half-broken sand shovel and began digging around in the sand. He didn’t expect to find anything but more old broken toys. As he dug, he thought of the days when he had played in a box very much like this.
The sun beat down on his back, and the breeze blew sand in light, quick gusts as it caught the spray from the shovel. After a short time, his knees began to tell him he wasn’t ten anymore. He was about to stand to resume the work he was here for when he caught a glint of something in the sand—definitely not plastic but appeared to be a gold chain.
Josh tugged gently, and a pocket watch slid from under the sand. He stood up and held the watch by the chain. It spun. The sun’s glinting rays reflected off the gold surface.
The watch was a puzzle. There were no markings on the face other than numerals, but things seldom looked this good after having been in the ground for any length of time. So why did this watch look new?
He pocketed the watch—no time to think about that now. Renovations were going on inside the house, and the city hired him to clean up the grounds. They were planning on turning the estate into a park and event facility.
The first task was taming the expansive lawn. Josh spent a couple of hours on a bush hog as he mowed down the tall brush that covered the front yard, each pass crunching debris scattered across the grass. He found bottles, toys, cans, and remains of junk food, even pants, shirts, underwear, and shoes. He wondered who threw away clothes and why. He spent the next two hours hauling all the debris into a large portable dumpster parked by the driveway.
It was too hot to work in the sun at mid-day, and he decided to eat his brown-bag lunch in the shade on the porch steps. As he reached for a thermal jug filled with cold lemonade, Josh felt the chain in his pocket move. He pulled the watch out to look at it.
He examined it more carefully and determined it was indeed an old watch, but its condition was surprisingly good. Opening the back, he checked out the mechanical movement, which looked intact. Winding it carefully, he listened for the telltale tick of the mainspring as it began to tell time again. Shrugging, he set it with his watch.
By now, the sun had worked its way around so he could resume work on the side yards. By late afternoon he was hot, tired, and his bones hurt in places he didn’t know he had. The dumpster bin in the driveway was almost full. He called it a day.
The next day Josh was back at the old estate. After hiding the pocket watch in a sock at home, he forgot about it. Each day brought a new army of weeds and debris that he tamed. By the end of the week, the lawn looked like a lawn again.
The sandbox, now repainted, sat prominently under trees in the backyard and was filled with pristine new sand. Even though the landscapers would arrive soon to replant shrubs and flowers, he wanted to leave something pretty.
He left, his job done, and he was feeling good about it.
Several months later, Josh was rummaging for something in his drawer when he touched an old sock with something in it. The pocket watch. He had forgotten about it. He pulled it out of the sock drawer. He pulled it from the sock and set and rewound it.
This time he didn’t put it back in the drawer. Instead, he dressed and slid it into the vest pocket of the suit he was wearing, fastening the chain to a buttonhole in the vest like he’d seen done in the old movies his father had liked to watch. Standing in front of the mirror, he had to admit the gold chain against the black vest looked good and matched his gold ring—time to return to the estate for the party.
The city had raised donations to return the estate to its former glory. Everyone in town knew the estate’s history. It had belonged to a land developer and speculator who had made millions in the early 1920s. The family had long ago let the land go back to the city, but the Old Letterman Estate name was how everyone knew the place. While he had the same last name, he knew he wasn’t related to the family. To him, the yard cleanup had been just another job.
Josh hadn’t told anyone about finding the watch early in the process. He’d forgotten about it until tonight. He didn’t think the watch had anything to do with former owners of the estate, but it felt right to wear it tonight for some reason.
He had been invited to the estate’s official relaunching, a black-tie gala, complete with live music and catering and the finest champagne the city could buy. While his part had been relatively small, the guest list included anyone who had worked on the project. It was an excuse for a night out, so he decided to go.
He parked his old car on the driveway in the spot where the portable dumpster sat for months. The lawn looked immaculate, well manicured, and the trees trimmed. The new shrubs and flowers had taken hold nicely and appeared as if they had always been there.
The afternoon sun that had caused him problems months before now shone over several large tents, spread over the large backyard. People milled around with champagne glasses in their hands, chatting to whomever would listen. Oohs and ahs echoed at the restoration work that brought the house to its former glory.
He caught a glimpse of the house’s interior as he worked his way around the side yard to the main tents. One housed the caterers, and the smell of food wafted from the tent, luring in the guests. A bar was set up in another tent, and a table next to the bar held an ample amount of champagne already poured into glasses ready for guests to serve themselves. A bigger tent beyond held tables for six, and many seats were filled with people talking and drinking.
He felt very much out of his element.
Wandering across the yard, Josh found himself standing next to the small sandbox, happy to see that only a cover had been added to the restoration he did before he completed his job.
“They say the kids used to play here.” A voice slightly beside and behind startled him, and he swiftly turned around.
The voice belonged to a plump, matronly lady, wearing a dress out of the 1950s, with its faded flower pattern and flowing sleeves that fluttered in the breeze. In one hand, she held a champagne glass, mostly full, and in the other, a small parasol. Not that any sun could get through the big floppy hat she wore.
“You knew them?”
“Well, no, but my great-aunt was the housekeeper here back in the day. She told me stories about those kids of theirs, and,” she flashed a sly grin, “all the family secrets.”
Josh turned and looked her over more closely. She was older than she first appeared.
“You worked on the estate?”
He shuffled his shoes in the grass, looking down for a second. “Yeah, I was one of the original crew that cleaned up the yards.”
Her face lit up. “You did a marvelous job!” Quite gleefully, she swept her arms around the yard, nearly spilling her champagne.
“Thank you,” he responded as he ducked under her parasol, which nearly poked him in the eye as she swung it wildly.
They introduced themselves. She was Margo Petrie, but she was gulping down the champagne as he said his name and she didn’t seem to be paying attention. It turned out she was distantly related to the old family. The former owners liked to give jobs to their shirttail relatives, as she called them.
No, she never met them in response to his question, but she had once met the children who once played in the sandbox. By then, they were adults and spoiled brats, and she didn’t hide her disdain for them. Trying to be polite, he made appropriate comments and nodded accordingly. He noticed she was swaying and suspected the now empty glass of champagne in her hand was the last of several glasses.
He spotted one of his fellow workers nearby and found an opening to leave her to reminisce. Excusing himself, he started to head in that direction.
“That chain, it looks familiar,” she blurted out of nowhere just as he was about to turn to leave. He stopped short and turned back to look at her.
The smell of champagne on her breath drifted toward him as she approached, her face a study of concentration. She seemed to sober up quite quickly as she gave him the once over.
“You look vaguely familiar too.”
“You’re from around here?”
“Yes, I’ve lived in town almost all my life, except when I was at college a few years back.”
“What’d you say your name was?”
“Letterman. Josh Letterman.”
She looked him square in the face. “Your father?”
“Everett Letterman, ma’am. Why are you asking?”
She said nothing, just continued to stare. Then she pointed to the chain. “The watch?”
He pulled it from his vest pocket. Its gold case and the white dial glistened in the sunlight. The fancy hands keeping excellent time.
She took it from him, and he fumbled as he unhooked the chain from the buttonhole on his vest.
“Do you know whose watch this is?”
“Eh, no. I just found it.”
“You found it?”
“Yeah, the first day I was here. I was doing preliminary cleanup on the yards. It was in there.” Josh pointed to the sandbox. “Almost buried in the sand. I found it and took it home and forgot about it. I haven’t even looked at it too much until today when I decided to wear it with the suit.”
“Is there an inscription?”
“I didn’t see one.”
She handed him the empty champagne glass and pulled her glasses from a dress pocket. Squinting in the sunlight, she examined every inch of the watch and chain as he waited impatiently.
“May I? I need to show this to someone.”
Josh watched her scurry toward a group of men who were talking. Her yellow flowing dress stood out in a sea of black suits. A few minutes later, she returned, followed by two men.
“Josh Letterman, this is Roger Lane and Derrick Krane. They’re in charge of the estate. They haven’t seen this watch since the children were here.”
“Josh Letterman? Your father is Everett Letterman?” He nodded yes.
They exchanged glances, and Josh’s knees shook.
Lane nodded to the woman and motioned to him. “Come with us, please.”
“What’s this all to do with me and an old watch?”
Once inside, they sat down at a table. Josh clutched his hands together, fingers interlaced, nerves raw.
“Josh, Everett Letterman was related to the old family. A family secret as the old man liked the ladies. When one of his lady friends showed up with a kid, which turned out to be your father, he hushed it up. But certain things were written in old diaries. Names, dates, and places were recorded in his wife’s diary, possibly for her protection. However, the diaries were lost and not discovered until the restoration, hidden in a compartment in an antique desk—forgotten. We informed the city but had no idea where to look for the son mentioned in the diary.” Lane looked toward Krane, who nodded.
“We think you, as Letterman’s grandchild, might be the rightful heir to the estate. Of course, they’ll be blood tests and background checks and all of that, but if we’re right, this is yours.” He waved his arm to encompass the entire estate.
“What about the watch?”
Lane, who was still holding the watch, pulled a jeweler’s loop from a side pocket. He smiled. “I keep this to help read old documents.” He studied it for several minutes.
“It’s the old man’s, alright. The serial number matches what we had on file for the records.”
“How’d it get in a sandbox fifty-odd years later?” Josh swallowed hard, stunned.
Margo Petrie, who had been quiet, sputtered. “The only explanation I can come up with is that someone knew what was happening and knew you were doing the job that day and planted it for you to find. It is part of the estate and your inheritance.”
“How… why? This watch looks almost new.” Josh noted the confusion in his voice. He was confused.
Lane responded as he handed the watch back to Josh. “Yes, it does. That’s because until recently, it was presumed lost or stolen. Apparently, someone kept it safe.”
“What now?” Josh slipped the watch into his vest pocket and hooked the chain.
“Well, technically, you found it, so it’s yours. However, there is the matter of the will.”
“The will.” Josh took a deep breath.
“As you know, Josh, when the old couple died, they left the estate to their children, who took their cash inheritance and went on their way. No one has seen or heard from them in decades. I’m not even sure they’re alive.”
“What does this have to do with the will and the watch?”
“Simply this. The watch was supposed to go to the oldest child, who would inherit the estate. As none have been seen or heard from in decades and are presumed dead, the inheritance goes to you. You have the watch, and once we do the testing, if you prove to have a bloodline to the family, then you inherit the estate.”
“I don’t know anything about the estate or family. It was just a job. A week’s job of clearing and cleaning.”
Roger shook his head. “You have the family watch, so you inherit the estate if all else is in place.”
“How about I just donate the watch to the estate and let it go at that?”
Derrick reached into his jacket and pulled out a large envelope. Opening it, he laid the will out on the table between them. He pointed to a passage in the document. “The will expressly states that the watch is to go to the rightful heir.”
“So there you have it. Once we get all the legal issues out of the way, the estate is yours. You may choose to allow the city to maintain the use of the estate. That is certainly your choice.”
Josh shook his head. “I still don’t understand how the watch got in the sandbox the day I was there.”
He noticed Margo shift in her seat. She gave him a knowing smile and raised a glass of champagne in a toast. “That, my dear relative, is something we will never know.”
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