Chapter 4: Death is a Fickle Thing

In the weeks following the hearing, I was amazed at Chelsea’s resilience. Even if nothing of legal importance at all had been going on, her husband had been in a near-fatal car accident. I’ve seen people lose all functionality after the stress and terror of such a thing. But as bad as that scenario is, it’s even worse when the victim languishes in the hospital in a coma that seems as if it could go on indefinitely.

Death is difficult and horrible to deal with, but the finality of it brings with it an ending. Time goes on and healing inevitably comes with it. For Arturo, it seemed as if the end might never come, and certainly, neither Chelsea nor I were pulling for such an end, but the endlessly unknown nature of his condition offered no ending at all. It was death without finality in many ways, and Chelsea weathered it with stoicism and strength.

About a month after the hearing, Chelsea made an appointment through Meredith and arrived again at my office to discuss her situation. Chelsea still seemed tired, which was to be expected, and she’d regained none of the boundless energy she’d radiated in the past. She still dressed in dark clothing, today a black skirt and sweater with a gray scarf, but she was intent upon handling the business at hand.

In particular, she’d been trying to use her Power of Attorney to at last change the beneficiary clauses on the two insurance policies she’d uncovered. She wanted the boys’ policy to be changed to their respective trusts, and she wanted Vivian’s policy payable to herself. By the time she was seated on the sofa with a cup of hot cinnamon tea in her hands, I could tell she was still encountering problems.

She said, “Changing the boys’ policy to their trust was no problem. One form, two signatures, and that’s done. But removing Vivian from the other policy is frustratingly difficult.”

I had already spoken with Carl D’Antonio about it and knew what the problem was. You see, normally, when a divorce occurs, the former spouse’s status as the beneficiary is automatically revoked, and the funds would instead be diverted to the deceased spouse’s estate. As Carl informed me, unfortunately, this was not the case with Arturo’s policy.  In this case, this policy was actually owned by Arturo’s irrevocable life insurance trust which muddied the waters.  I hate those damn trusts!  People get it in their mind that they need to have them, but they don’t understand the ramifications.  For some reason, Arturo did not feel the need to consult with me on that trust and had it prepared by a different attorney.  I would have to look into it.

Moreover, the compliance department had flagged the change because she would be using her Power of Attorney to make a change which resulted in a direct financial benefit to Chelsea, and no direct benefit to Arturo.

“Five million direct benefits,” Carl had pointed out. “They’re just going to want to be cautious. They could make the change, then Vivian gets cut out as beneficiary, and she makes it start raining lawyers.”

Not crazy about the turn of phrase, I didn’t relay any of that to Chelsea, just waited while she described the phone calls and form requests and escalated approval processes and so much other red tape it made my sinuses hurt. Insurance companies could unleash that sort of thing like swarms of locusts. When she was finished, she said out loud what I had been thinking.

“I guess if he makes it another four and a half weeks, it won’t matter. The policies will expire anyway.”

And in truth, that result was looking more and more likely. Arturo was in a coma, and the way he was scoring on the Glasgow Coma Scale, it was very unlikely he would recover. Nonetheless, he’d been clear in his documents that he wanted to be kept alive for as long as there was a chance of his recovery, and it seemed a sort of inertia was keeping him at roughly the same condition. Alive but not improving, and almost completely unresponsive.

We sat there in respectful silence for a moment, reflecting on the dark gravity of the situation. I disliked the idea of Vivian, out there somewhere, pulling for Arturo to expire before her five million dollar policy expires. I told Chelsea that I’d contact the insurance company on her behalf and see what I could do.

When she left, her situation lingered at the back of my mind between the remaining appointments I had scheduled for the day. I felt that we could make a strong case to the insurance company under the Laws of the state of Ohio to have the proceeds paid to Chelsea, but it was going to be a fight.   I made a couple of notes to myself to get a copy of that policy and to discuss with Braden the prospect of initiating litigation to have the policy benefit Chelsea and to keep the policy in force if Arturo lingers past the term of the policy.

It was the last thing I did in the office that day, and I was about to pack everything up and head home when the phone rang. The office was closed, and because all my clients know I do not accept unscheduled inbound calls I was going to let it go to voice mail, but I glanced at the screen and saw that it was Chelsea again, so I picked it up.

“Hello, Chelsea.”

“You’re not going to believe this.”

I didn’t see why not, given the sorts of things she’d been telling me since this whole thing began. “What’s going on, Chelsea?”

“A hornet’s nest,” she said. “A chunk of one, rather. And it was deliberately placed in the ventilation system of Arturo’s Hornet.”

It hadn’t really occurred to me to consider what had happened to my client’s ruined classic car after the accident. Generally, one would assume that when a car is hit by a truck, has its rear window destroyed by a large, incoming decorative hot dog, and then has a propane tank explode inside it, the car would be considered totaled, and off it goes to the junkyard and the insurance company cuts a check.

In this case, however, it was a little more complicated. Arturo’s Hornet had been insured for $150,000, approximately twice its value, everything cosmetic about it had been damaged severely, with the only exception of the headlights. The frame was bent, the interior destroyed, all of the windows shattered, the steering wheel was practically melted onto the floor.

Repairing that much damage would be tantamount to building a new car from the ground up. However, the engine was largely intact, as were a lot of the components, being protected under the hood. The fire department had arrived quickly, extinguishing the blaze just minutes after the accident.

Within days of the filing of the accident report, Chelsea had begun receiving phone calls from a local Hornet enthusiast, Mr. Charles Van Dyne. He was interested in purchasing the wreck for parts, as he was plugged into a network of Hornet owners, and the parts were hard to come by when repairs were needed.

Chelsea had ignored Van Dyne for obvious reasons for the first few weeks of his calls, but when she had a moment to deal with it, she called him back and allowed him to purchase the totaled Hornet for a few thousand dollars and his promise to remove it from the impound lot. Van Dyne had paid the price and removed it promptly, and for weeks he had been carefully removing, cleaning, and analyzing each part of the car, evaluating its usefulness in another Hornet’s repair.

“He only recently got around to opening the ventilation casing under the hood,” Chelsea said. “It’s not a particularly valuable component, and it was damaged on the outside, which made it worthless to any serious collector. He could clean and sand and oil engine and transmission parts as good as new. He wasn’t even sure why he was opening it. It sounds like he’d simply salvaged what there was to salvage and was poking around the remains.”

I was wearing what I’d grown to refer to as my Chelsea de Modelo Frown, reserved for dealing with the most bizarre stories. “And he found a fireproof hornet’s nest?”

“Yes. A piece of one. In a small jar with a makeshift flap cut into the lid along with air holes. The latch was wired to the switch that opens the vent when he turns on the air.”

“I’m not trying to be rude, but could it also be some garbage that got stuffed in there at some point over the last sixty or seventy years?”

“The fire wasn’t under the hood, and it didn’t burn long. There’s literally a piece of chunk of hornet nest stuck in there, and it’s not even attached to the side of the jar. They didn’t build it in there, and they certainly didn’t build a little door on it and wire it to the ventilation switch.”

“So, what you’re saying is, someone knew he was allergic to ground hornets, so they rigged a jarred piece of hornet’s nest to open when he turned on the air, releasing them into the car and causing his accident.”

“That is exactly what I’m saying.”

“And how are you sure that’s what the jar and the wire were for?”

“He showed me. I went over there and he showed me.”

“You saw it installed in the ventilation system?”

“No, he had it on his workbench, he took it out and examined it under the light before figuring out what it was.”

“Which means even if you’ve uncovered a diabolical plot here, you can’t even really prove it was in the car now.”

“That’s what the police said.”

I realized I was holding my forehead in the palm of my hand. I dropped my knuckles to the desk and leaned back in my chair, shrugging. “Okay, so you called the police? They were, I imagine, fairly dismissive.”

“Yes. They spoke to me like I was a child with a troublesome imagination.”

“I’m sorry to hear that. It is a little far-fetched though. I’ve never heard of such a thing in my whole life.”

“That’s what they said.  Except they had seen a lot more homicides and car accidents than either of us.”

“That would make it even more compelling evidence that this is not a plot but again, just some kind of coincidence.”

“That’s why I didn’t call you right away. But I just got off the phone with them, and they’re going to be calling you to go over the circumstances of Arturo’s death, probably tomorrow morning.”

I inadvertently exhaled more air than I’d inhaled, directly into the phone. Chelsea heard it and said, “Greg, I know this sounds crazy, but someone tried to kill my husband. And we know Vivian and the boys would prefer him dead. They all stand to gain millions when he dies.”

My fingers tapped across my keyboard absently and I looked at my schedule for the next day. Three morning appointments would need to be moved if a homicide detective was planning on rolling by. Did they call in advance to make an appointment? It seemed like on television, they always just stopped by and expected you to talk to them while you loaded your truck or stocked the shelves in the store you worked, but I didn’t have that sort of job. I said, “So tell me why they’re interested now if they weren’t at first.”

So, Chelsea took a breath and told me all about how she’d taken to Google and made a list of local exterminators who handled ground hornet extraction. There turned out to be quite a few of them. She’d put them into a spreadsheet, sorted them by proximity to their home, and started calling them, poking around for as she put it, “anything, really. Anything at all.”

And after a couple of days, she’d given up. She’d learned an awful lot about ground hornet extraction, how they can calm the hornets into something close to slumber using smoke. She’d specifically asked if one might be able to break off a piece of a smoked nest and drop it in a jar with some hornets still inside, and confirmed that yes, that was possible if you could think of a reason why you’d want to do such a thing. But she couldn’t put anything together, couldn’t think of anyone or anything else to ask.

Now she asked me, “Does the name Rob Marcum sound familiar?”

My brow furrowed because it really did sound familiar. It wasn’t one of my clients – I almost always instantly recognized the names of my clients even if it had been years. That didn’t seem right anyway, the familiarity was a different sort, not quite like a celebrity is familiar, but definitely not a personal relationship. I didn’t think I’d ever met the man, just thought about him. Heard about him somehow.

I couldn’t place him though. “It does. But I have no idea from where.”

“He’s a local beekeeper, Greg. And a bit of an oddball, as far as beekeepers are concerned.”

Which I thought would make him an oddball subset of an already oddball group. I didn’t care for bees. I cautiously said, “Okay…”

“Most beekeepers deal exclusively with bees,” she went on. “But this guy was well known by exterminators because he would relocate ground hornet nests. A lot of times, especially in wealthy areas, people call an exterminator for a ground hornet problem, and then they are shocked and horrified to learn the exterminator plans to kill the hornets. Then they bring in Rob Marcum to remove the hive without harming them.”

The sense of familiarity grew stronger. “Wait. Did this guy look like Kevin Spacey?”

“He did. And do you know how you know that, Greg?”

I think I would have arrived at the answer, but she told me anyway. “Because his face was on the cover of the Dispatch this morning. He’s a beekeeper specializing in ground hornet removal and he lives a mile and a half from my house.”

“Why was he in the paper?”

“Because he doesn’t live a mile and a half from my house anymore. They found him in the river early this morning.”

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