Chapter 1: The Hornet

Chelsea de Modelo didn’t have an appointment when she arrived late that afternoon, but Meredith showed her back to my office anyway, partly because I was available and mostly because of her tears. Only a few months had passed since Chelsea and her husband executed their rather complex estate planning documents, but as I watched her move to the window, gazing out across the parking lot at the rising rush hour traffic on I-270, she seemed like someone else entirely.

She wore a simple tan blouse and a long black skirt, and a light, maroon scarf around her throat which might have been doubling as a handkerchief. It was a stark contrast to the yoga-pants-and-Yale-Tee-Shirt ensemble that she’d worn the last time, and her demeanor had changed just as much. Having greeted her as Meredith escorted her in, I didn’t approach her, just rose from my desk and watched as she went to the window, sobbing softly in the late afternoon sun. Considerably younger than her husband Arturo, she’d been jubilant and full of energy at their last appointment. Now she seemed exhausted, solemn, and something else, something I couldn’t put my finger on.

Meredith lingered in the doorway; she always offered a beverage at this point and somewhat eerily knew which beverage each of my clients enjoyed, but she’d fixed me with an uncertain frown, an eyebrow raised. Should she still offer a beverage, or simply withdraw?

I nodded at her and she nodded in return, her eyebrow dropping back into place, and stepped briskly to the beverage station in the hall. I approached the window several arms lengths away from my client, wanting to give her space without seeming to ignore her. The yellow sunlight burst through the glass from our collars down; in a few minutes I would need to lower the shades or we’d be practically blinded.

I said, “Jeremy called in earlier this afternoon. He told Meredith what happened while I was meeting with clients. I returned his call immediately, but it went straight to voice mail.”

Jeremy was Arturo’s son from a previous marriage. There’d been a second marriage as well, then he’d divorced again and married Chelsea less than six months ago. He’d told Meredith that Arturo had been in a serious car accident, and was in the ICU at Riverside Hospital. They didn’t know if he was going to make it.

She said, “He was driving through the roundabout on 161 by the river. He’s always complaining about that thing. I actually like it, you just yield to the left, but he thought it was a free for all, like a little pocket of the road where no one followed any predictable rules at all.”

I made a note to speak with Braden, the firm’s litigation attorney to look into who was at fault and what our clients’ options were, but now wasn’t the time. “Is he still in the ICU?”

“Yes,” she said, and more tears came so we just looked out across the parking lot together, both of us trying to ignore them. I started wondering why she wasn’t at the hospital, if her husband was in the ICU.

She plucked the thought right out of my head. “You’re probably wondering why I’m not at the hospital.”

There wasn’t much to say to that; it seemed rhetorical, so I just waited for her to tell me.

She noticed a box of tissues on the end table by the sofa, reached out and gingerly removed one. She dabbed her eyes and then blew her nose suddenly, not very gingerly at all. “The documents we signed back in February, one of them was a Medical Power of Attorney, isn’t that right?”

I nodded; that would be standard. But I turned and walked back to my computer to pull up their file to be sure. I have a lot of clients and I don’t like to keep information in my head nor do I like to assume things. “I have originals of your documents in a fireproof facility, I can have them here tomorrow by eleven o’clock. But you were also given originals, we executed two of them, did you..”

“They’ve stolen them,” she said, a little venom in her voice as she cut me off. “Jeremy and his awful brother.”

I felt my brow furrow, my body grow tense and wary. That was a serious charge. Did she think they stole them or did she know they stole them?

Still, I was only a few clicks from their file, so I pulled it up and took a look. “You did both sign Medical POAs,” I told her, my fingers clicking across the keyboard. “I’m messaging Meredith to have the original brought in tomorrow.”

But Meredith walked into the room as I said it, nodding at me to indicate she’d heard me, then placing a steaming cup of cinnamon tea on the table by the tissues. I recognized the aroma from the de Modelo’s previous visits. Sensing the gravity of the situation, Meredith closed the door behind her as she withdrew.

Chelsea said, “They’re acting like I had something to do with it, but I know it was them.”

I finished typing the message to Meredith, asking her to tell me when she’d confirmed the documents were ordered. Chelsea would need them at the hospital, which halfway explained why she was in my office instead. The half that it didn’t explain was why she hadn’t simply called. Nor did it explain what she or Arturo’s sons could have had to do with an admittedly strange car accident involving among other oddities, a small swarm of bees.

She turned from the window, crossing her arms, and at once I saw in her pale green eyes what I hadn’t been able to put my finger on before: this woman was terrified. For the second time in just a few minutes, Chelsea de Modelo seemed to sense my unspoken questions, and answered them both.

“It wasn’t a car accident,” she said. “It was attempted murder.”

There is, of course, no such thing as a hilarious or wacky car accident, whether murder is involved or not. Nonetheless, it is impossible to ignore the somewhat cartoonish nature of Arturo de Modelo’s predicament as his car entered the infamous roundabout at the intersection of Riverside Drive and Dublin-Granville Road.

Arturo had, according to his wife, only that morning pulled the tarp off of his classic 1953 Hudson Hornet and rolled it out of the garage, the engine starting smoothly despite the long winter.  He and Jeremy had been carefully maintaining the vehicle for years, and she wasn’t sure what the vehicle was worth – and neither was I – only that Steve McQueen had once owned one. Arturo didn’t normally smoke cigars in the vehicle, but each year when he took it out on its first cruise, he’d roll the windows down and light right up.

It wasn’t initially clear if the swarm of hornets – Jeremy had said bees that morning, but Chelsea was clear they were hornets - had come through the windows, or if their hive was already somehow in the Hornet. Chelsea recalled that several nests had been found under the back and front decks of the house the previous August, and that they’d been removed as Arturo was very allergic to them, had once been hospitalized after being stung by just one.

She hadn’t seen any since. Nonetheless, Arturo’s Hornet was suddenly full of actual, bona fide hornets, enough that he was stung at least a dozen times. This caused him to panic, dropping his cigar in the passenger seat as he waved his arms around, struggling to pull the car to safety.

Unfortunately, his sudden drop in speed was not anticipated by the food truck behind him, which collided with his rear bumper, driving him into a rather ironic traffic sign indicating which way one should yield. This sign, as well as the slight swell of a hill it was posted upon, did thankfully cause the Hornet to stall and shudder to a stop. However, the collision dislodged a large, decorative hot dog from the top of the food truck, which shattered his rear window and miraculously scraped to a stop just behind the driver’s seat, bare inches from where Arturo struggled with his seat belt so he could flee the vehicle.

The good news was that the impact and shattering glass sufficiently alarmed the swarm of hornets such that they poured out the open driver’s side window. Witnesses described the spectacle as resembling a vapor spilling from the shattered vehicle. The bad news was that in addition to the large, decorative hot dog, a small propane tank also dislodged from the food truck, hurtling through the broken rear window and – again, miraculously – missing Arturo, instead taking off the passenger side head rest and rattling into place on the passenger seat, its valve ruptured along the way.

There was a moment of stillness then, gas hissing from the propane tank, in which Arturo was able to unlock his seat belt and open his door to lurch from the vehicle. Sadly, the stillness was fleeting, as you may recall the passenger seat was also the resting place for his lit cigar, which then ignited the leaking propane tank, causing an explosion that blasted Arturo back into the roundabout, his clothing and jaunty Canton Crowns hat bursting into flames.

Credit for saving his life – for the time being at least – was given to the quick-thinking heroics of a local mom and her minivan full of daughters, who burst from their vehicle and doused Arturo with their Biggie Cokes, purchased from his favorite Wendy’s just down the road. Then an eerie calm fell over the scene, rendered surreal by the combined scent of roasted meat coming from the hot dog truck, and the visual spectacle of the large decorative hot dog protruding from the burning Hudson Hornet.

Chelsea managed to convey the highly unusual details of the accident with solemnity and grace, standing there at the window, arms still crossed but gazing again out over the parking lot. I returned to my desk as she spoke, making notes on a yellow legal pad, trying to gain as much of an understanding of the situation as I could, while letting her speak in her own time.

When she finished, I let a quiet pause expand in my office for what turned into a full minute as we reflected on the end result of the spectacle – her husband in the hospital clinging to life. The Canton Crowns football franchise commanded a fan base in the tens of millions across the state, and Arturo’s decision to sell the team to Baltimore, and the deal’s pending finalization in the coming weeks, meant that a vast army of rabid Crowns fans would take irrational pleasure in his demise. Would this event put a stop to a deal that was at least in sports terms, tearing the state apart? And would those fans really be able to celebrate such a result?

I watched Chelsea as she sighed and took a seat primly on the sofa, reaching out to hold the palm of her hand over the steaming cinnamon tea, gauging its temperature, and I knew that sadly, the answer was a resounding “yes.” Football here in Ohio, most people would agree, was often held in higher regard than human life itself.

Still, there was a difference between celebrating a death and causing one, and if one were going to cause a death, it seemed impossible to imagine this scenario as the way to go about it. And so presently I had to ask the obvious and awkward question.

“Chelsea, what is it about this chain of events that leads you to believe this was an attempt on Arturo’s life?”

“Oh, nothing,” she said quickly. “The crash itself? Nothing. But Arturo’s family arrived at the hospital even before I did, and they presented the hospital staff with a living will and medical POA putting Jeremy in charge of health care decisions in the event of his father’s incapacity to do so on his own. It was an incredible response time, with exactly what they needed to take charge of the situation in hand.”

We had drawn up and executed both such documents right here in my office, clearly and firmly designating Chelsea for that role. Unless her husband had since then drawn up and executed new documents, invalidating those we’d signed here, Jeremy’s claim was invalid and easily shown to be so. But she’d already told me she believed Jeremy to have stolen the original Arturo held in his home office safe.  Someone had, anyway. I didn’t see how she could be mistaken about that.

Now, the stolen document really meant nothing since I had another one in a secure storage facility and it was now on the way. This wasn’t my normal procedure, but Arturo had been a very cautious man, seeming accustomed to being betrayed. But I could see how Jeremy, for example, might not know that, might think that just getting rid of the one he knew about would render it completely out of play. But a new set of documents?

I knew Arturo well, and couldn’t imagine him executing such documents, couldn’t imagine him cutting Chelsea out of such a decision. For all the cynical aspects of their marriage – it was his third, she was considerably younger, she had been involved with the star quarterback of the Crowns just before her relationship with Arturo began – I had always felt that the marriage was no sham. Arturo loved Chelsea, and the grief and anguish emanating from Chelsea at the moment could not, I believed, be faked.

“They showed me the document at the hospital,” she said, taking the tea from the table and sipping it tentatively. “It was signed and dated three weeks ago. As you know, Arturo’s signature is little more than a squiggle, no legible letters. Distinctive, though, and it didn’t look quite right to me, but what could I say? It was properly witnessed, according to the hospital staff.”

“We’ll have to challenge the document, in court most likely,” I told her. “The question is, how much time do we have?”

She bit down on her lip, struggling against tears, and put the tea cup back on the table. “I practically fled the hospital. They treated me, well they treated me like the media treats me. Like a gold digger in a sham marriage. His sons, his ex-wife, even the hospital staff. They said he’d removed me from the decision and that he must have had his reasons, smirking at me as if oh yes, they knew what those reasons were. One of them even mentioned Bernie’s name to another staff member, just loud enough for me to hear it without saying it to me directly. I didn’t know where to go, so I went home to get the documents I needed, and that’s when I saw they were gone.”

“Did Jeremy know the combination to your husband’s safe?”

“Probably? I mean, clearly. Someone did. He’d be the most likely person to know it. I know it, but I didn’t think anyone else did.”

Just then her cellular phone rang, the gleeful calypso ring tone striking a jarring contrast to the mood around us. She looked at it and said, “It’s the hospital.” Then she clicked a button and took the call.

Chelsea sat up, perching on the edge of the sofa as she listened to a tinny voice I could barely hear from across the room. I wanted to go over and try to listen to it, but it seemed intrusive even though I knew she’d be telling me whatever was going on as soon as the call was over. I tapped a few keys and sent the copy of Arturo’s medical POA and living will to my printer, which began humming as it prepared to print them.

I could tell by her facial expression the news wasn’t good. She clamped the bridge of her nose with two fingers, tilting her head down to the floor as she listened, then she said, “I’m at my attorney’s office now. We believe the documents you’ve been presented with are fake and we’ll be challenging them in court.”

I mouthed the words “Get a fax number,” and brought her a pen and pad of paper. She asked for the number and wrote it down. A voice on the phone sounded vaguely reassuring, but Chelsea did not look very reassured. She looked up at me and pointed to the phone. I nodded, holding out my hand.

“My attorney would like to speak with you,” she said, and then gave me the phone.

I identified myself and told them we would indeed be challenging the living will they were being presented with by Arturo’s children, and verified that they understood that in this case, the copy of the living will he had executed in my office was every bit as valid as the original would have been. The woman on the phone gave me a few details about the hearing that would result from the legal challenge, and managed to sound a bit bored, as if this sort of thing happened to her all the time.

When I hung up I said, “They’re always going to err on the side of caution, so they won’t let them take your husband off the feeding tube until there’s been a ruling in the hearing, and I’m very confident we’ll get a positive ruling.”

Chelsea dropped her face into her hands, ignoring her phone as I held it out to her for long enough that I eventually just placed in on the table next to her cooling cinnamon tea. She didn’t look up until I was sitting back at my desk, watching her from across the room.

She said, “They’re trying to kill him. His children. They’re trying to kill him again.”

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