Gregory S. DuPont
Chapter 3: Accidents Happen
The next morning when I greeted Chelsea de Modelo outside the Probate courtroom that she had been doing a lot of thinking. She wore a smart, striped blazer with a long black skirt and high heels, and her brow, though not at all prominent, seemed fixed in a faintly defined furrow. She had a Starbucks cup in her hand so large that she looked a bit like a child holding it. She shook my hand when I approached her.
I put my briefcase on the floor beside me. “How are you holding up?”
Chelsea managed to laugh a little, shaking her head. “I don’t even know what to say. It’s all so surreal.”
The night before, still sitting across from Carl, I’d emailed her to inform her about the life insurance policies, summarizing what I’d learned. I’d given her Carl’s cellular telephone number and told her to feel free to call him as early in the morning as she liked, really just as a mild practical joke on Carl, who I knew liked to sleep in.
She said, “I did some digging last night and you’re not going to believe this. How long do you think we have before they let us in?”
I shrugged, “It’s really when they’re ready, judges can and will keep folks standing around as long as they want.” I looked at my watch for no particular reason and added, “but they’re usually fairly prompt on these hearings, it shouldn’t be long.”
Chelsea took a long drink from her Starbucks cup, giving me a few seconds to glance around at the other groups of people clustered around in the corridor, waiting for hearings of their own. I wondered what exactly she meant by “digging around.” It had only been about twelve hours since I’d sent the email, how much digging could she have done?
She said, “According to your friend Carl and his Franklin Covey planner, the forms to change the beneficiary clause were sent out to him on March 14th, 2004. It’s a real bummer that it wasn’t just a few years later, I could have just gone back on Facebook and looked to see what they were doing that day. I wanted to know if the boys were around the house much at that time.”
I couldn’t help but frown, doing the math. “Jeremy and Jackson would have been seventeen and fourteen years old.”
“Right. But my husband is what you might call old school. He shows his age in his habits. Like, he still gets not one but three physical newspapers delivered, The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and The Columbus Dispatch. And he sits there every morning drinking his coffee and scouring all three of them. He’s the same way with the mail. The mail arrives mid-morning. Unless he has an important meeting or something else going on, he waits for the mail to arrive and takes it with him to work. On the weekends, he takes it back to the office and opens it all up with a letter opener, carefully files it away in his file cabinets. Or shreds its.”
“So, you were what? Looking to see if they were home from school or something?”
I was still frowning, couldn’t seem to stop. “A couple of teenagers showing the foresight to steal financial documents from the mail, to facilitate getting around trust restrictions fifteen years later?”
“Oh, I know how crazy I sound. I’ve been walking around saying all this stuff out loud to empty rooms for most of the night. But listen. Arturo has always told me that when Jeremy was a teenager, he was like, outraged, by this idea that he wouldn’t just get a bunch of money when he was eighteen. Indignant. He’d make big scenes about it – ‘Oh, so when I’m an adult and I can serve my country in the military, I’ll have to ask permission to spend my money,’ that sort of thing.”
We both chuckled at the sheer audacity of the sentence, shaking our heads. She added, “A weird thing to say when you have absolutely no intention of serving your country.”
The door to the courtroom opened and a bailiff emerged, managing to glance around the corridor without making eye contact with anyone at all before withdrawing back into the courtroom. I picked up my briefcase and said, “That’s us.”
“We can go in now?”
“Yes, we’ll take a seat inside, probably still have a few minutes before the judge comes in. Can’t have the drink in there though, do you want to stand out here and finish it?”
“Maybe for a minute,” she replied, shaking her cup a little. It sounded about half full. Chelsea tipped her head back and gulped it down to about a quarter, then pressed her fingertips to her chest as if about to belch. Then she closed her eyes, Zen-like, got the belch under control and opened her eyes again.
I said, “I still don’t think those two kids were or even are bright enough to pull something like that off.”
“Well, here’s the thing. Neither do I. But Jeremy was home on the 16th and the 17th. Home from school with migraines. You want to know how I know?”
I cocked my head. I had forgotten about email chains.
“Before Facebook,” Chelsea went on, “a common thing to do was email say, your whole family, or your whole squad of friends, in order to make plans, talk about a movie or politics, things like that. So you’d email five of your friends, and then every time someone replied, everyone got the reply, so you’d open your email box and find twelve emails with the same subject line because it was the same group of people all emailing each other.”
“And my husband, in another demonstration of his age, has had the same email address since 1998. An AOL email, to be exact.”
I couldn’t help chuckling some more at that. It seemed like everyone’s mom had an AOL account even in 2019.
“And I have his password. So, I went into his archived emails, and checked the days around March 14th, and came up with an email chain between Arturo, Vivian, Jeremy, and Jackson. They’d started it the Friday before, just updating each other about their weekend plans, where Jeremy needed to drive Jackson, clarifying they’d all be going to church that Sunday, like it was an ongoing struggle getting Jeremy to do that now that he had a car. And then on the sixteenth and seventeenth, there are references by Vivian to Jeremy’s migraine, that she hoped he felt better, that he should lie down in a dark room with a wet towel over his eyes, that sort of thing. And the emails also indicated that Arturo had planning meetings both of those days starting very early. He even explicitly says that he’d taken his newspapers with him but wanted Jeremy to put the mail on his desk in his office.”
I still wasn’t buying it. What kind of stroke of luck was that, Jeremy happens to be home on the day the forms arrived from the insurance company, somehow understanding what the envelope might contain, opening it, comprehending it, making it disappear. I said, “Chelsea if you look hard enough for patterns, coincidence will form them for you.”
She drank some more coffee and then gave up on the last few ounces, locating a small trash bin nearby to drop it in. When she came back, she said, “It wouldn’t have been Jeremy’s idea, see. It was Vivian. But she was out the door at work in the real estate office she managed, showed up at eight o’clock every morning. But she had five million reasons to stop that envelope from getting to Arturo, and of course she knew about Jeremy’s…”
“Exactly. So, she lets him stay home from school, tells him to watch the mail, and then hopes Arturo simply forgets about it.”
I motioned for her to follow and walked into the courtroom, where we took the nearest available seats and began waiting. “That is, frankly, very thin, Chelsea.”
“Motive and means, Mr. DuPont.”
I grimaced. Television was routinely lying to people about what attorneys do and how they do it. “Or the kid really had a migraine fifteen years ago.”
“I’ve never once heard the words ‘migraine’ and ‘Jeremy’ in the same sentences, not ever. It was the most perfectly timed set of migraines I can imagine and then they never came back.”
The activity up around the bench was increasing, staff members speaking quietly to each other, showing each other papers. The bailiff stood with his thumbs hooked in his belt, looking around at all of us without making eye contact. I said, “Well, look, the main thing is, let’s take care of this living will situation.”
“You know, it’s not that different from what happened with his living will. A document disappeared and it brought the three of them closer to big life insurance payouts.”
I closed my eyes briefly – she was starting to get me to consider it, which sort of annoyed me.
The hearing itself was almost comically brief, its resolution in stark contrast to the stern and melodramatic air of Arturo’s sons and their mother as they entered the room. Vivian Wainwright wore a charcoal skirt and blazer, her demeanor that of another attorney on another television drama. She scowled at me briefly, even though I hadn’t seen her in many years. She’d moved all of her assets from under my management shortly after the divorce. It happened that way sometimes, clients would get divorced and one of them would end up hanging on to me, like a sofa or a pool table. But it wasn’t all that common. Usually clients get divorced and the situation resembles something more like joint custody.
Either way, it isn’t up to me, it’s up to the clients. As the scowl burned into me, I realized my eyebrows had gone up a bit in surprise at it and I had to consciously put them back down. All I could do was blink very slowly and offer a polite smile. She did not return it. I suppose standing there next to Chelsea de Modelo didn’t help my standing in the eyes of Vivian Wainwright.
As for Jeremy and Jackson, they were dressed for a funeral. Prematurely and eerily eagerly, was my first thought. Jeremy, taller and square-jawed, walked just a bit in front of his younger brother as they followed their mother into the room. They neither scowled nor smiled. Jackson seemed almost bored, while Jeremy practically swaggered with confidence. Both had thick, wavy brown hair and faint signs of bags under their eyes. They were hungover, both of them, I realized. And no attorney with them, it appeared they were representing their own interests here.
Fools for clients, I almost muttered. Jeremy’s misplaced confidence was almost heartbreaking to me. What on earth did he think was going to happen here?
The judge entered the courtroom, and we all stood, waited to be told to sit down again, and then we watched a few probate cases get addressed in front of us. Always depressing and somber on at least one level, these things, wrapping up the final affairs of the deceased.
After a while, Chelsea’s name was called and we stepped forward along with Vivian, the boys, and a member of the hospital administration. When their living will was presented, I asked to review it and couldn’t believe my eyes. I went ahead and took off my glasses, taking a closer look to verify what I was seeing. Then I simply said quite informally to the judge, “The two witnesses to this living will are his two sons, Jeremy and Jackson de Modelo.”
A few people in the room actually gasped. The judge tossed Vivian’s living will out right there from the bench, and even offered his condolences and apologies to Chelsea for what she’d been through. “I know your husband, Mrs. de Modelo,” he said. “I will pray for his speedy recovery, and it saddens me to see what you’ve had to go through on top of his horrible automobile accident.”
The administrator’s cheeks were a bright, burning red. How could she have not noticed who the witnesses were and yet still be so certain of the document’s validity? Chelsea took a moment to simply stare at the her. She was one of the women who she’d said had taken such pleasure in rejecting the perfectly valid living will, and Chelsea needed her to really understand her vindication, to hand over the respect she should have given her in the first place. Instead the woman simply gathered up her purse and stalked out of the room
Vivian and her sons were not amused either, but their defeat was so breathtakingly embarrassing none of them could bring themselves to scowl about it. They practically fled, clattering out of the courtroom whispering to each other.
Chelsea and I walked out of the courtroom, and in the hallway, she smiled more brightly than I’d seen her smile since all of this began. She said, “Think about what I’ve told you about Jeremy. About the three of them.”
Then she went to see her husband in the intensive care unit, and I walked out to my car.