It was the third time for meóthe second time in two months. Youíd think I was a hardened criminal, a fugitive from the law or something. As I drove toward Sherman and past McKinney, I daydreamed of just driving right on throughóinto Oklahoma, through Kansas and all the way to Canada. I chuckled. Wouldnít that give the press something to write about?
Then I took a deep breath trying to muster a little courage. I could get through this. A little jail time is no big deal. No big deal except everybody would be watching as I was taken into custody. My wife, my children, my parents all of the people I love and care about would be watching my humiliation before the entire nation.
As we approached the Sheriffís office, I could see the big crowd of reporters gathered to watch my surrender. Slowing down to a crawl to avoid accidentally killing one of them, I eased into a parking space that had been reserved for me. The Sheriff and two deputies were there to accept my surrender. One of the deputies opened the door. As I got out the cameras started flashing and the questions poured out.
"How do you feel this morning, Mr. Turner?" a reporter asked.
"As well as to be expected," I replied.
"Do you think the judge was too harsh with you?" a second reporter said.
I shrugged. The Sheriff took my arm and pulled me toward the door. He said, "All right, clear a path. No more questions. He and his deputies pushed the reporters aside as we made our way inside. Once in, the Sheriff said, "Well, Stan before we book you and take you to your cell, there is someone here to see you."
"Really," I said quite surprised I would already have a visitor.
They escorted me into a small interrogation room where a woman was seated. When she turned and smiled at me I immediately recognized her. She got up and came over to me. We embraced.
"Mrs. Stone," I said laughing. "What in the world are you doing here?"
She smiled. "Iíve been hearing a lot about you, Stan. My God, canít you stay out of trouble? My editor wanted to get your story. He figured it was only appropriate that I come."
I shook my head. "Well, Iím afraid you canít bail me out of this one, Mrs. Stone. I went and pissed off the judge and now Iím in here for God knows how long."
She nodded. "Well, I wish I could do something. I really do. But anyway, I talked the Sheriff into this interview. I hope you donít mind."
"No, Iím not anxious to go to my cell."
"Has anyone got your story yet?"
"No, Iíve been a little too busy to talk to reporters, but now Iíve got lots of time."
"Good, then Iíd really like to get the inside scoop on all the bizarre things that have been going on with you lately. Can I have the story?"
"You donít even have to ask. You know youíre the first person Iíd give it to."
"Well then, why donít we get some coffee and you can start by enlightening me as to why the Sheriff has furnished your cell with a refrigerator full of beer, a TV and a Laz-y-boy recliner?"
A sudden rush of relief came over me. Tears welled up in my eyes. "My God, did he really go and do all that?"
A wicked howling sound came from the front of the house. An early December Norther had just blown in and the wind blowing underneath the door sounded like a pack of wolves had gathered on the porch. Rebekah looked up and shook her head. She was putting the finishing touches on the dining room table in preparation for an expected throng of a hundred or so clients and friends who had been invited for our first office Christmas Party.
Marketing, I had been told, was the key to a successful law practice. It was important to stay in touch with your clients, to wine and dine them so they wouldn't forget you when they got rear-ended or someone sued them. Rebekah wasn't crazy about the idea of having an annual Christmas party, but I convinced her it was a great way to solidify the client's allegiance to the firm. I even suggested it might be fun. She said it might be fun for me, but not for her since she had to arrange the whole affair. She reminded me it would be particularly difficult for her since we didn't have a large budget to work with and she'd have to do much of the work herself.
At ten minutes to eight I went out on the front porch to see how bad the weather was getting. I shivered as the cold wind pelted my face. A light mist was falling and icicles were forming on the trees and bushes in front of the house. As I proudly gazed at the colorful display of lights that adorned the house, I thought back to when my father used to take the family to Beverly Hills every year to see the elaborate decorations of some of the Hollywood Stars of that era. It was something I looked forward to and how I had become a decoration addict.
The cold wind finally drove me back into the house. I went directly to the fireplace to warm up. Staring into the flickering flames I was in a momentary trance when Rebekah came up from behind and put her arms around me. I turned around and we embraced. She was wearing a red knit Christmas dress that she had painstakingly procured several weeks earlier. Looking as sexy as ever, she looked up at me with her big brown eyes.
"I hope the lights donít go out during our party," she said.
Our home was equipped with the latest safety device to prevent electrocution. Iím not sure exactly how it worked, but whenever it rained and we had the Christmas lights on, the circuit breaker would blow. Needless to say it was very annoying.
"Well, so far so good. Maybe weíll get lucky."
The door bell rang and Rebekah rushed to answer it. It was Tex and his wife, Toni. He was a short, robust man in his late fifties. Tex was one of my most cherished contacts. A fellow agent at Cosmopolitan Life, Tex Weller had referred me dozens of clients over the past two years. He was a rambunctious character who always cheered me up.
"Wonderful night for a party," Tex said as they stepped inside and wiped their feet. "The roads are terrible."
A blast of cold air sent a shiver through me. I quickly closed the door. "No ice, I hope."
"No, not yet, but the bridges and overpasses are supposed to ice over tonight."
"Wouldn't you know this would happen on the night of our party," Rebekah said shaking her head in disgust. She took their coats and went off toward the bedroom.
Tex shook his head. "Well . . . I can't believe you've been practicing law nearly two years now, Stan. It just seems like yesterday you were in the bullpen selling insurance."
The mention of selling insurance made me shudder. The "bullpen" was the large room that housed the 24 debit agents who serviced the Dallas region. Each agent had a desk, a chair and a telephone from which to operate. The company didnít want the agents to get too comfortable since they were supposed to be out beating the bushes for new insureds. It was a time in my life I wanted to forget. "It seems like an eternity to me. So much has happened these past two years."
"Yeah, you have had your hands full, haven't you?" Tex laughed.
"Just slightly," I said thinking back to how close we had come to losing everything. In fact, it was a miracle that we were having this party at allóa miracle indeed that I was still practicing law after that first tumultuous year. Starting with nothing and barely surviving financially we hadnít had the wherewithal to buy a big fancy house. That was another reason Rebekah was against the party. She was a little embarrassed at our modest abode, but I had assured her people would understand and wouldnít hold it against us.
Rebekah alternated from greeting newly arrived guests to supervising the maid and bartender we had hired for the evening. I was mingling with my clients and friends trying to make sure everyone was having a good time. After awhile I decided it was time to address the gathering and propose a toast. I alerted the bartender to start passing out the champagne.
"Ladies and Gentleman," I said as I began tapping my fork on the champagne glass. "I'd like to say a few words and propose a toast."
It took awhile but the noise from the crowd finally subsided enough for me to speak. "I just wanted to thank all of you for coming tonight. I apologize for the bad weather. This isn't what I ordered."
Somebody said, "You don't have much clout upstairs, do you?"
"I guess not," I laughed. "Anyway, one reason Rebekah and I decided to throw this party was to give us an opportunity to thank each and every one of you for your support over these last two years. As you know, we've been through some tough times but with your encouragement and prayers we've managed to survive. In fact, this last year has been great. As you know we moved to a new location on Central Expressway and I was lucky enough to find a wonderful secretary, Jodie Marshall."
Jodie stood up, smiled and nodded to the crowd. "Let me just say it is so great to come to work every morning and smell coffee brewing." We all laughed. "Anyway, I think it's time to propose a toast." I lifted my glass, smiled and said, "To all my wonderful clients and friends, may all of you have a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year."
"Here, here," someone said.
"Before I let you go, there will be some carolers coming by later on to entertain you, so relax, eat and drink all you want and have a good time.
Thanks again for coming."
After consuming the rest of my champagne I went and got a plate full of food. I figured Iíd better eat something before all the booze I'd been drinking got the best of me. As I was eating, my niece, Alice, approached me. An attractive brunette, sharp as a pick, she was a clone of her mother.
"Hi, Uncle Stan," she said. "Great party."
"I'm glad you could come. Where's your mother?"
"She wasn't feeling well. She said to tell you she was sorry she couldnít make it."
"Oh, that's too bad," I said.
"So where did you hide my cousins tonight?" Alice asked.
"They're with Rebekah's mom. I didn't figure they could sleep with all the noise. Besides, Rebekah didn't need any distractions."
"I guess not."
"So how's school?" I asked. Alice was attending ASU, a small but prestigious liberal arts college in Sherman, Texas. She was majoring in education hoping to become a grammar school teacher.
"Not too bad, I guess. Once I get through finals and have a little time off."
The doorbell interrupted our conversation. Rebekah opened the door and Bobby Wiggins stepped in with his wife, Marleen, at his heels. He let out a big "HO HO HO. Itís Santa Claus." Everyone turned and smiled at the two familiar faces. I excused myself to greet them.
Bobby Wiggins, a local CPA, was one of my best friends. Although he was not Santa Claus, he had a heart as big as old St. Nick's and everybody loved him. I had met him at an estate planning seminar a year earlier and was amazed when he told me about all the charitable activities in which he was involved. He put me to shame as I found little time to do anything but work.
"Hi, Bobby. . . . Marleen. Glad you could make it," I said.
"Wouldn't have missed it for the world," he said as he surveyed the crowded room. "Look at all these people. I didnít think you had this many clients."
"Well, theyíre not all clients. Some are family and friends."
"I just hope they didnít drink up all the good liquor."
I laughed. "No, I donít think so. You know where the bar is. Help yourself."
As Bobby and Marleen headed for the bar, a parade of carolers filed in and formed a half circle in front of the fireplace. They began to sing and before long many in the crowd had joined in. While everyone was being entertained, I succumbed to the lure of the luscious deserts Rebekah had prepared. I loaded my plate with Christmas cookies, tarts, strawberry bread and fudge. I heard laughter in the den so I headed that way to see what was happening. Bobby Wiggins was seated in a captain's chair with a mutual client, a stripper named Joanna Winburn, sitting in his lap. He was pretending to be Santa Claus and Joanna was telling him what she wanted for Christmas. It was an amusing sight but not one I thought Marleen would appreciate. I scanned the room and was relieved that she wasnít watching.
Several other women were lined up to tell the would-be Santa what they wanted for Christmas too. I hadn't told Rebekah about Joanna as it would have upset her to no end. I got the feeling Bobby hadn't told Marleen about our mutual client either. Later on, when the women had left, I went to see if Bobby was having a good time.
"You're a popular guy," I said.
"Yes, it seems so. You know women, they love a man who can make their dreams come true," he said shaking his head. He had that dreamy look in his eyes that women loved. "If only I were Santa Claus. Think of the possibilities."
"Think of the mayhem had Marleen seen you with a stripper in your lap. What were you thinking? You better slow down on the booze. It was a good thing she was occupied with the carolers."
Bobby raised his eyebrows. "Ah, yes. Thanks for providing the diversion."
"No problem." I said shaking my head and smiling. "Now behave yourself."
As I turned to leave, Bobby put his hand on my shoulder. I looked back at him. His demeanor had changed. He looked worried.
"What?" I said.
"I need to talk to you about something."
"Sure, you want to go somewhere private?"
He shook his head. "No. No. Not now. I'll call you Monday and set up an appointment."
"You sure? I donít mind taking a minute now."
"No, youíve got guests. Weíll do it later."
As we were talking, Marleen walked up with a fresh drink for Bobby. We talked a minute longer and then I excused myself to go mingle with the other guests. About twenty minutes later I was talking to Tex when we heard a loud crackling sound and the lights on one side of the house went out. The singing came to an abrupt halt and people began talking excitedly.
"Oh, God," I said. "Not again."
"Didnít you pay your light bill?" Tex joked.
I laughed. "I don't know, maybe not."
In the night stand by my bed I kept a flashlight so I immediately went there to retrieve it. With the flashlight in hand I headed for the garage to check the circuit breakers. Rebekah had already located several candles and was placing them strategically throughout the darkened portion of the house. The garage was pitch black. With the flashlight I found the circuit breaker box. One of the switches had been thrown but not the usual one. That surprised me. I flipped it and the lights came back on to cheers and laughter. Just as I was about to close the box, I heard a scream in the house.
Quickly I ran back inside, through the kitchen and into the dining room where I believed the sound had emanated. A crowd of people was standing at the front door which was wide open. After squeezing through to the front of the crowd I was stunned by the sight of Bobby flat on his back in the flowerbed with Marleen slapping his cheeks frantically trying to get him to wake up. He was lying on a string of broken Christmas lights in a puddle of water. The pungent odor of burnt flesh hung in the air.
"Oh my God!" I said and ran over to her. "What happened?"
"He slipped on the ice and fell into the bushes! You've got to do something, Stan."
Bobby's face was blue and he wasn't breathing. "Rebekah!" I yelled. She was a nurse. Sheíd know what to do.
Rebekah came running out the door and gasped at the sight of Bobby lying lifeless on the icy ground. Without hesitating she started barking orders. "Stand clear, get some blankets, I'll need a pillow, . . . somebody call an ambulance."
She immediately began trying to revive him, pressing firmly on his chest trying to get his heart to beat, breathing into his mouth to force air into his lungs. But there was no response.
The wailing sound of an ambulance could be heard from the fire station less than a mile away. Rebekah kept pounding on his chest and breathing into his mouth. We all stood by and watched, praying for a miracle. The sirens grew louder and louder and finally an ambulance made its turn into the cull de sac. A fire truck followed closely behind.
The paramedics attempted unsuccessfully to revive Bobby on the spot. Getting no response they loaded him on a stretcher and put him in the ambulance. Marleen climbed in and the ambulance rushed off to the hospital.
Several of the firemen were milling around in front of the house talking to our guests. By this time Rebekah had latched onto my arm and was crying. I put my arm around her and tried to comfort her but there was little I could say. One of the firemen approached us.
"Is this your home?" he said.
"Yes, we were just having a Christmas Party," I said. "I can't believe this happened."
"What exactly did happen?"
After telling him everything we knew he went back to his truck and called in on his radio. In a few minutes a police car and a fire investigator arrived. We repeated our story to them and then called the hospital to see if there was any word on Bobby. They didn't have any information but Tex called a few minutes later.
"He didn't make it," Tex said. "I followed the ambulance to the hospital and waited in the emergency room. They tried like hell to revive him but it was no use."
"Oh God, I can't believe this," I said. "Poor Bobby. Why did this have to happen?"
"I don't know, it doesn't make a whole lot of sense, does it?"
"Iíll never put up Christmas lights again. I never dreamed something like this could happen."
Rebekah was crying incessantly so I took her into the bedroom where she could lie down. After getting her settled I went back into the den. Most of our guests had left by that time but a few of them had stayed to see if we needed anything. One of them was General Burton.
"Stan, you've got the worst luck of any man I know. This is bizarre."
"I know. I'm just sick. Poor Rebekah worked so hard to make this party a success and look what happened."
The door opened and the fire inspector walked in followed by a police detective named Paul Delacroix. They conferred a few moments and then the investigator approached us. The detective went back outside.
"Mr. Turner," the investigator said.
"The Coroner's office has just completed a preliminary inspection of the body. It appears that Mr. Wiggins died of a massive coronary."
"He wasnít electrocuted?"
"No, the circuit breaker prevented that."
"Huh. . . . A coronary? I didn't know he had heart problems." I said.
"He didn't but apparently the trauma of the fall induced the heart attack."
"Oh Jesus," I said. "What a horrible thing to happen."
"I notice there isnít any sand on the sidewalk?"
"Yes, sand or rock salt."
"No, I didnít realize it had iced over. It never occurred to me. . . . Oh, God. I feel so terrible."
Terrible wasnít the half of it. My stomach felt like Iíd ridden a roller coaster one too many times. The door opened and Detective Delacroix came back in and walked over to us.
"Well, we've done all we can here. We've interviewed most of your guests. You better call your insurance agent tomorrow," he said. "I'm sure there will be a claim."
"How's that?" General Burton asked.
"Negligence. Mr. Turner had all these guests here and he never even bothered sanding his walkway. Some hot shot attorney's gonna have a field day with this one."
He was right. I hadn't anticipated an ice storm. They were rare in Texas. We had no sand to put down over the ice or salt crystals to melt it off. I just never gave it any thought.
"I just didnít realize the walkway had iced over. Damn it!"
Detective Delacroix shrugged and walked away. Fortunately, I did have insuranceómy homeownerís policy plus a million-dollar general liability policy at the office. So if a judge or jury tried to blame me for Bobbyís death the insurance company would have to defend me. Then I wondered, had I paid the premiums? The homeownerís policy wasnít a problem. The mortgage company paid that bill every year. The general liability policy was another story. I tried to rack my brain to remember. It seemed eons since I had paid the bill last.
The next morning I went to the office early and pulled the insurance file. The policy in the file was expired but that didn't necessarily mean anything. It should have automatically renewed. Sometimes new policies don't come in for weeks after their issue date. I searched through the checkbook but found nothing to North Texas Insurance Agency within the last year. At nine o'clock I called their offices. A lady put me on hold as she went to fetch my file.
"I'm sorry Mr. Turner but that policy has lapsed."
"Lapsed! But I don't remember getting a premium statement."
"Well I have a copy of the certified letter advising of the policyís termination. . . . Oh, my word."
"No one picked up the certified mail. You should always pick up your certified mail."
"I always do. . . . Oh, shit. You don't have my new address, do you?"
"Well, not if you didn't give it to us."