Play It Again Sam
At the top of the courthouse steps stood the rest of the Stevens family. Elizabeths brother, Thomas III, and her sister, Josephine, had brought not only their spouses but their children as well. Elizabeth figured her siblings thought a strong family showing on their part would sway the judge in their favor. After all Poppy is a perverted degenerate, a perverted degenerate with a lot of money, but still a degenerate, thought Elizabeth as she took Poppys hand. The patriarch of the family stood next to his second wife, Rita, and scowled down at his youngest child when he saw it was she who had initiated the contact with Poppy.
From the first time Thomas Stevens Jr. had met the woman his wife had left him for, Poppy had intimidated him. Poppy had made it perfectly clear to him that day long ago that if he ever insulted, hurt or looked at Carly in a way that displeased her she would beat him within an inch of his life. The fact that the bitch was over eight inches taller than he was didnt improve Thomass comfort level with Poppy. But today Ms. Valente we play on my turf and we will see who is beaten within an inch of their lives, thought Thomas as the usual smug smile returned to his face. The odds were in their favor by filing in Baton Rouge, the town where both his son, Tommy and his oldest daughter, Josephine practiced law. Thomas would get his revenge for Carlys desertion and his loss of social status with his marriage to Rita, by hitting Poppy where it hurt, her bank account.
Poppy straightened the European cut suit she had on and tightened her grip on Elizabeths hand and on the briefcase she carried in the other, before starting up the steps. She looked at the group of people above her and tried to forget how much pain they had caused Carly before her death. Susanna walked behind them engrossed in a telephone conversation with Miguel Flores, who was at the airport in Venezuela, awaiting the arrival of the staff that had flown out that morning.
When they reached the top step, Poppy put the briefcase she was carrying down and addressed the rest of Carlys family. "Ah, its petite Thomas and smaller Thomas, nice to see you both again. And Jo, I see that Willy hasnt improved much with time," said Poppy referring to Josephines husband.
"That smugness will cost you today Valente," said Thomas. His face reddened even more when Poppy continued as if she hadnt heard his comment.
"Rita, darling how are you," said Poppy. She took the redheads hand in her own and kissed the back of it. A deep sexy chuckle followed the action when she saw the veins in Carlys ex-husbands neck stick out in plain view.
"Watch it petite Thomas, you keep pumping blood into your brain like that and its liable to cause a stroke," said Poppy. She let go of Ritas hand picked up her briefcase, and retook Elizabeths before turning to head into the building.
The first courtroom to the left was crowed with Stevenss family and friends who were there in support and to take notes for later gossip sessions around town. The men were there to pitch business ideas to the two siblings that had filed the suit, and their wives were there to push their various charity causes, should the ten million in dispute be awarded at the end of the day. A hush fell over the room when Elizabeth walked in ahead of Poppy and headed to the defendants table. The proceedings werent set to begin for another thirty minutes, so they just sat and relaxed showing an air of confidence that rattled the crowd.
The Stevens entourage followed them in, but only Thomas Jr., Thomas III and Josephine made their way to the plaintiffs side of the courtroom. The older Thomass eyes narrowed when Judge Nancy Rodrigues clerk came out and whispered something in Poppys ear, which caused the tall woman to unfold her frame from the chair she had taken. Poppy threw a smile in Thomass direction before she followed the young man back to the judges chambers.
"Poppy you old dog, how in the hell are you?" asked Nancy. "Id be doing better if I were somewhere other than here, truth be told Roddy. How is Fenton?" asked Poppy. "Your little buddy starts junior high this year if you can believe that. He asks about you all the time Poppy, I wish you would find the time to come for a visit," replied Nancy about her son.
Poppy looked at the boy in question from the picture sitting on his mothers desk. It was his baseball league picture from the summer before. "This isnt going to cause you any problems is it Roddy? As much as I want to get this resolved one way or another, I dont want you dragged down with me," said Poppy. She sank into one of the leather wingback chairs that faced Nancys desk. Poppy looked past Nancy and out the window that had a pretty fair view of the capital building in the distance.
"No Poppy this isnt going to cause me any problems and hopefully we can still call each other friends if it doesnt work out for you. You know if they present a good case the jury will make you cut a check for the whole ten mill today dont you?" asked Nancy.
"Yes Roddy Im aware of that, but dont count me out just yet. Let Fenton know that as soon as I work out a few things, he and I have a date at the ball park in New York for a Yankees game," said Poppy as she stood. She bid her high school friend good-bye before heading back out to the icy stares of the Stevens family.
"Ill hold you to that if I tell him Poppy. If you dont keep your end of the deal I might just sue you myself on his behalf," called Nancy to the broad back heading back out to the courtroom.
The plane taxied to a stop on the tarmac, a few hundred feet from a terminal that bore the Valente company logo, which consisted of a cluster of palm trees with a guitar leaning against one of them. There were jeeps lined up to take the passengers to the docks as soon as they had collected their luggage and cleared customs. The island they were headed to, was in actuality a part of the Dutch Antilles chain, but the Venezuelan government had agreed to take care of the formalities for Aruba for any tourist headed for the Carlys Sound Resort. Poppy had set it up that way because of a better port layout for the launches needed to get visitors onto the island.
Julia tilted her head back and enjoyed the sunshine and fresh air from the top of the steps that had been wheeled to the front side of the plane. The weather is a lot like Texas, she decided as she started down the steps with Tallulah in tow. An older tall Mexican gentleman met her at the bottom of the steps and greeted her by name and offered to carry the baby for her. He introduced himself as Miguel Flores, and Julia found herself charmed by his thick Spanish accent and snow-white hair. When her luggage had been loaded by one of the porters and Tallulah was secured in the backseat, Miguel had one of the customs officials come to the jeep and stamp both hers and Tallulahs passports. Miguel then drove their jeep toward the helicopter that waited for them on the other side of the terminal. It too, had the Valente logo on it, with an additional RPV I painted in small letters on the door.
"I thought we were taking boats to the island Senor Flores," said Julia. She looked back to see Rayford getting in a jeep and pointing in their direction. He seemed to be screaming at the driver.
"The owner, she say all the waves not good for the baby," was Miguels only response. "This is better, no?" he asked.
"Well yes it is. Ill let you in on a little secret Senor Flores, I get sea sick in the bathtub so I was not looking forward to that boat ride," said Julia. She watched as the pilot loaded their luggage in the compartment under his seat then turned for Tallulahs baby seat. It sure was observant of the owner to know she had a baby and arrange special transportation to their new home.
"Please call me Miguel, Mrs. Johnson, Senor Flores makes me feel too old," said Miguel. He helped Julia up into her seat and walked around to the other side. Per Poppys instructions, via Susanna, the pilot waited until they were all seated to start the rotors.
"Ok, Miguel vamanos," said Miguel. He made a circle with his finger and then handed Julia a set of headphones. After Miguel went through his preflight checklist they lifted off for Carlys Sound. Along the way Miguel pointed out the window to the different sea life that was visible from the air. Julia nodded as the older man pointed out some of the moose head coral reefs that were just below the surface as they neared Poppys island. Through the microphone he explained it was called that because the coral looked like the antlers of a moose, although he had never seen one to compare.
Three more porters waited for them when the helicopter touched down on a natural rock formation that, with a little help from the construction crew was now flat topped. They had only had to remove a three-foot by four-foot outcropping that was to one side to make the perfect helipad. Local craftsman had cut the rock in one piece and used it to make the stairs that led down from the helipad to the trail leading to the resort area. At the end of the trail was a golf cart with a bench seat across the back to take them to the bungalow Julia would be living in during her time on the island.
The sturdy looking structure was bigger than the ones close to it, and while rustic looking Julia took note that there was an air conditioner unit hidden in the foliage planted along the side. A distance away stood a lone bungalow with a much larger back porch that overlooked the water. When Miguel saw where Julias line of sight was trained he told her, "That one is no available Mrs. Johnson. It belong to the owner, but I dont think she will come very often so it will stay empty most of the time."
"Why do you think so Miguel, and please call me Julia?" asked Julia as she continued to look at the empty bungalow.
"Oh, that is how you say a long story, one that she would kill me for telling, so we leave that alone no? You and the bebe come with me and we will get you into your new home," said Miguel. He bowed slightly at the waist and waved his arm in the direction of the bungalow. Julia wondered why he wasnt sweating with the dark blue slacks he had on, and how he kept the white linen guayabera shirt he was wearing so ironed and crisp.
"Maybe I can bribe it out of you one day Miguel," Julia teased. "Oh no young lady, the owner she got muscles like this," said Miguel as he held his hand away from his bicep, "I never tell her secrets."
They entered the mutely decorated front room that led into the kitchen area. All the other rooms were similarly decorated and all had large windows that looked out to the vast gardens outside. Because the colors of the rooms didnt compete with the natural flora outside, it brought their colors out that much more. Whoever had designed the living areas kept as much of the natural beauty intact as possible, only cutting into the dense vegetation when necessary. Because of her background, Julia knew what kind of planning had gone into the natural looking spaces outside her windows. No plants grew in the wild in those perfect proportions, so while it looked untouched, the gardens were actually immaculately kept and balanced. The grounds keeper must be a genius, she thought as she looked out of the kitchen windows.
Tallulahs fussing brought her attention back toward the living room and Julia headed in that direction to give the baby her afternoon meal. Miguel beat it out of the front door when he saw that the woman was still breastfeeding.
Julia sat on the plush couch with Tallulah cradled in her arms and offered her a nipple. When the little girl started suckling, Julia ran her index finger over the babys head and began to hum to her. It took her a moment to realize it was the melody of the song Poppy had sung to Tallulah that morning, and just as quickly she found that she missed the gentle giant she had just met. I wonder what shes doing?
"All rise," said the bailiff as Judge Rodrigue entered the courtroom.
"Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen. We only have one case today so lets get started shall we? I believe that attorneys for both sides spent a majority of yesterday empanelling a jury, but before we bring them in I want to review a few things. There will be no histrionics here today, and both sides will take care not to try the patience of this bench. I am interested in the facts and not hearsay testimony, so consider yourselves forewarned," said Judge Robichaux. She looked from one table to the other to make sure everyone understood the warning. Nancy leaned back into her chair and closed her eyes for a moment in an effort to mentally prepare for what was to come. These cases that pitted families against each other were never good.
"Bailiff please seat the jury," said Nancy. She got more comfortable in the big leather chair and waited while the seven middle-aged men and five younger women took their seats.
"Mr. Stevens whenever you are ready," Nancy said as she looked to the older man sitting at the plaintiffs table.
"Thank you judge, and good morning ladies and gentlemen. We are here today for a simple reason. We are here to right a wrong that has been done to Thomas Stevens III and Josephine Stevens Birch after the passing of their beloved mother. Carly Virginia Stevens died with a trust in her name in the amount of ten million dollars. A trust that should have been passed to her children upon her death, but instead was given to Raquel Valente," said Thomas. He looked every bit the high-powered attorney with his navy blue suit, white shirt and dark red tie. The salt and pepper colored hair enhanced his appearance in an almost regal way. Thomas looked like someone that you could trust to tell you the facts as they really happened.
"I object your honor," said Elizabeth as she stood from her chair.
"Your honor, she cant object during my opening statement," yelled Thomas. The jury sat up straighter in their chairs having found the proceedings suddenly more interesting. A fifty seven year old man in the first row of seats in the jury box thought, if that old guy has this reaction to all the girls objections he should be dead by two this afternoon.
"Calm down Mr. Stevens, Ms. Stevens what is your objection?" asked Nancy.
"My apologies Judge Robichaux, but my mothers name was Carly Virginia Valente. It was the name on the death certificate, the name on all her legal papers and the name on the passport she used to travel with. It has been her name for the past seven years and we would appreciate it if plaintiffs attorney use it," said Elizabeth with conviction.
"Objection sustained, Mr. Stevens please refer to the deceased in the correct fashion from here on out," ordered Nancy.
"We plan to prove that the money was willed to the wrong party while Carly Valente was not in her right mind, thus, it should be awarded to her children," finished Thomas. He took out his handkerchief when he sat down and mopped his brow. It had not escaped the jurys notice that Thomas had almost choked on the name Valente. The heat on his face let him know that it was now bright red; he would have to concentrate on deep breaths to make it through the day.
"Good morning ladies and gentlemen, good morning Judge Robichaux," started Elizabeth after she got a nod from the judge. "Two years ago a wonderful woman passed away after losing her battle with breast cancer. Carly Valente was my mother, my best friend and I miss her very much. As much as she suffered with her illness, for the last year of her life some things she never lost. One was her sense of humor and the other was her mental facilities," Elizabeth paused to take a drink of water. She knew it would be hard to talk about her mother but she had to get through this as best she could and still look professional.
"My mother did die with a trust in her name in the amount of ten million dollars, on that Mr. Stevens and I agree. The trust had been given to her as a gift by Raquel Poppy Valente, the woman you see sitting before you today. Poppy put this money in my mothers name for her to do with it as she pleased, for one reason. That, ladies and gentlemen was so that she would never feel trapped in a relationship because of having no means by which to take care of herself. She was trapped in a loveless marriage for over twenty four years for that very reason."
"I object," yelled Thomas. He rose so fast from his seat he toppled his chair over.
"What is your objection Mr. Stevens?" asked Nancy. The judge rolled her eyes at the behavior already evident, and it was only the opening statements.
"I object to the term loveless marriage your honor. Miss Stevens has no basis to use that term," whined Thomas.
"Your honor we have the court transcripts from the Stevens divorce where Mr. Thomas Stevens Jr. uses that same term to describe his marriage. Of course, at the time it was so he could keep as many assets accumulated during the marriage as he could, but todays proceedings arent about that," said Elizabeth.
"All right Ms. Stevens youve made your point. As for you Mr. Stevens, you scream at me like that one more time and I will have you removed from this courtroom with a gag. Understand me?" asked Nancy.
"Yes maam," replied Thomas. He turned and looked at the overturned chair like someone else was responsible.
"Your objection is denied, continue Ms. Stevens," said Nancy.
"Poppy Valente gave her the money and upon my mothers death she gave it back. It was clearly stated in her will and it was perfectly understood by those around her when she died. Thank you," finished Elizabeth.
"Mr. Stevens call your first witness," said Nancy.
"The plaintiffs call Thomas Stevens III to the stand your honor," said Thomas in a calm voice.
Carlys son walked to the witness box and placed his hand on the bible provided by the bailiff and swore to tell the truth before he sat down.
"Please state your name for the record son," started Thomas.
"Thomas Elton Stevens III," answered Tommy.
"Mr. Stevens did you love your mother?" asked Thomas.
"Yes sir, I did. Being the oldest my mother and I shared a special relationship. We didnt see each other as much when I started college and then went on to law school, but I felt my mother was a special person," said Tommy. As he waited for the next question he wiped a tear from his eye and took a sip of water from the pitcher that sat to his left.
"Mr. Stevens what was your understanding as to your mothers assets should anything happen to her?" asked Thomas.
"To my recollection, any assets would be equally distributed between my two sisters and I. My mother even provided the money for the construction of all of our homes. We all signed contracts with her attorneys stating that the money she gave would never have to be paid back. We didnt think that the trust would be any different. My mother had three children that she loved very much, any life choices she made at the end of her life wont change that fact," testified Thomas.
"Thank you Mr. Stevens, your witness," said Thomas. He turned and looked at his youngest child as she passed him on the way to the witness stand.
"Mr. Stevens, when did you find out that your mother had been diagnosed with cancer?" asked Elizabeth.
"A year and six months prior to her death," answered Tommy. He fidgeted in the witness chair and wondered where Elizabeth was going with this line of questioning.
"How did you find out she had been diagnosed with breast cancer?" asked Elizabeth. She looked at the jury during her questioning, and had yet to look at her brother.
"My mother called a family meeting at her house in New Orleans. She served lunch and calmly told us that she hadnt felt well for some time, and that one of the specialists at Tulane Medical Center found a lump in her breast that turned out to be malignant," answered Tommy.
"Who was present at this meeting, Mr. Stevens?" asked Elizabeth.
"Mother, my sister Josephine, you and myself," replied Tommy.
"You mentioned that it was mothers house where the meeting took place, did you not? If not, I can have that testimony read back to you. Did Carly Valente hold the title to the home that you referred to?" asked Elizabeth. She pulled a piece of paper from the pile she had sitting on the defendants table.
"I have no idea who holds the title on the property, I assumed it was my mother," answered Tommy. He looked at his father for guidance in the answers he had provided, and the older Stevens nodded his head at him.
"The property in question is, in fact, owned by Poppy Valente but was inhabited by both her and mother," said Elizabeth.
"What does that have to do with anything?" asked Tommy, the frustration evident in his voice.
"Mr. Stevens you are here to answer my questions, not the other way around," said Elizabeth in the same controlled tone she had used from the start. Poppy looked at how relaxed the young woman was in a courtroom. Maybe it would only be a matter of time before some other company stole her away.
"Was Poppy Valente present at this lunch meeting you attended?" asked Elizabeth.
"No, she was not. This was a family matter and only family was present," said Tommy.
"Did you not, in fact, inform mother that you would not attend if the, and Im quoting here, tall bitch was there," said Elizabeth. She turned around for a moment and smiled at Poppy, and almost laughed when she got an arched eyebrow for her trouble.
"I dont remember putting it in those terms, but yes, I did refuse to come if Ms. Valente was present. She is not a member of my family and she never will be," said Tommy. He crossed his legs and leaned back into the chair with a tight smile on his face.
"When did you find that mothers condition had deteriorated and she wasnt expected to survive?" asked Elizabeth.
"Ms. Valente called me six months prior to mothers death and told me of her condition," replied Tommy.
"I see, Poppy Valente called you to tell you that? Was your mother incapacitated in anyway, to your knowledge, that would have prevented her from calling you herself, to tell you of the change in prognosis?" asked Elizabeth.
"Not to my knowledge, no," answered Tommy. The jury watched him as the nervous tick over his left eye became more pronounced, and Tommy drummed his fingers on the railing in front of him.
"After that luncheon you attended, Mr. Stevens, when did you in fact see your mother again?" asked Elizabeth.
"I didnt," said Tommy softly.
"Im sorry, did you say you didnt?" asked Elizabeth again.
"Yes, that day was the last time I saw my mother alive," said Tommy.
"I dont understand Mr. Stevens, you just stated that you loved your mother and you shared a special relationship, but you never visited her again. She was sick and needed round the clock nursing at the end, but you didnt visit her?" asked Elizabeth.
"She chose that woman over her family, so no Elizabeth, I didnt see her again. What she did to dad was unforgivable. What in the hell are you doing working for her? Have you no family loyalty?" asked Tommy. He pointed his finger at Poppy as he finished his tirade.
"You find Poppy Valente so disgusting, Tommy?" asked Elizabeth. She ignored his outburst and continued with her questioning.
"Yes Elizabeth, I do," said Tommy.
"Its a shame you dont feel the same about her money," finished his sister.
"Objection," yelled Thomas.
"Withdrawn, no further questions at this time your honor. I reserve the right to call this witness again at a later date though, your honor," said Elizabeth.
"Granted, call your next witness Mr. Stevens," said Nancy.
Thomas called his middle child, Josephine, to the stand and asked her the same questions he had asked her brother. After he got the same testimony as before, he turned Josephine over to her sister for questioning. Again the same answers were given, in that Josephine too, had not visited her mother after that last luncheon in New Orleans. When Josephine returned to her seat, Thomas rested his case.
"I would like to call Ms. Valente to the stand your honor," said Elizabeth.
After she was sworn in Poppy faced Elizabeth and prepared herself to answer questions. They had fought over the fact that Poppy didnt want to practice the answers she was going to give, Poppy saying that she didnt want to sound too polished.
"Ms. Valente how much are you worth?" asked Elizabeth. She smiled at the look on Poppys face and knew she would pay for that one later.
"Last I checked about eight hundred million and change," answered Poppy.
"If you have that much, why not just cut the check for the ten million the plaintiffs are asking for and be done with it? It would be easier on you," stated Elizabeth.
"If I have to spend the whole amount to keep from doing that, thats what Ill do," said Poppy firmly.
"Because thats what Carly wanted, and even though shes not here anymore it doesnt mean that she wont get what she wanted," answered Poppy.
"Ms. Valente, could you tell us why you called the two plaintiffs after Carlys health took a turn for the worse?" asked Elizabeth. She stood close to the witness stand so that she didnt have to raise her voice to the woman sitting there. Elizabeth kept her voice gentle enough so that both Poppy and the jury could hear her.
"Because their mother wanted to see them before she died. From the time they told us the chemo wasnt working and she started to get weaker, she wanted to make peace with them. To have them know that she loved them, no matter if they thought her life was immoral. In the end she pretended that it didnt matter, but their pictures stood in our room until she died. I called to try and reason with them. Hell, I even tried to bribe them into coming, but they stayed away," explained Poppy. She tilted her head up momentarily to try and stop the tears that had welled up in her eyes.
"Did you have anything to do with her last will and testament?" asked Elizabeth.
"No, Carly called on the one attorney she trusted most in the world. She called you Elizabeth and worked out all the details. I didnt really care what she did with her things and the money; I would have traded them all for a healthy Carly. The first time I heard the will in its entirety was when it was read after her death. Thats when her two lost lambs showed up," commented Poppy. She looked at the two siblings sitting next to their father, then to the jury.
"No more questions at this time your honor," said Elizabeth as she took her seat.
"Mr. Stevens do you have any questions?" asked Nancy.
"You bet your ass I do," said Thomas. He grimaced when he realized that the comment had come out of his mouth.
"Will the clerk please note that I am fining Mr. Stevens ten thousand dollars for that last outburst and any more cursing in this courtroom will result in some jail time," said Nancy. She turned to Thomas and just stared at him as if issuing a dare for him to say anything else.
"Who put up the money to start your company Ms. Valente?" asked Thomas.
"No partners? No silent interests?" persisted Thomas.
"Nope just me," answered Poppy.
"You expect us to believe that you put up over three hundred thousand dollars to buy a hotel when you were twenty?" asked Thomas.
"I dont care if you believe it sir, its the truth. From the time I started working till I wrote the check for it, it was all me. The money generated from the first purchase helped finance the second place and so on," explained Poppy.
"You never took any money from Carly Valente for these endeavors?" asked Thomas.
"No sir, I didnt, because she had nothing to give me. I was present at your divorce from Carly Valente and remember her signing over her share of the marital assets to you. She walked away from that life with the clothes on her back. Carly worked with me, and anything I had I considered hers too," said Poppy.
"Really. Everything?" asked Thomas.
"Yes sir, Carly never wanted for anything with me. What is mine was hers, but what is mine isnt theirs," said Poppy as she pointed to Tommy and Josephine.
"Did Carly earn a salary while she worked with you?" asked Thomas.
"No sir she did not. I offered but she turned me down. My solution was to gift her a trust in the amount of ten million dollars to do with as she pleased," explained Poppy.
"What did she do with the money?" asked Thomas.
"She kept the principal intact and only drew off the interest every year. My accountant has the exact figures, but I believe that it ranged around seven hundred thousand every year," answered Poppy.
"Is this the money she used to buy her childrens homes?" asked Thomas. He smiled, waiting for her to say yes, so he could then prove that Carly had meant the money for her children.
"NO! What do you mean no?" bellowed Thomas.
"I mean sir, that is not the money she used to provide the financing of the childrens homes. Carly used the interest she received every year to support her favorite charities. It meant me having to don a tux various times a year to attend several functions in her honor, but it made her happy, so what the heck. If you would like an example of her philanthropic side, there is a battered womans shelter here in Baton Rouge named for her. The Carly Valente House for Women was purchased and financed through Carlys trust," said Poppy.
"Where did she get the money for the houses?" asked Thomas. Oh daddy, never ask a question you dont already know the answer to, thought Elizabeth. The smile that lit up Poppys face doubled Thomass pulse.
"You gave her the money?" asked Thomas.
"No sir, I loaned Thomas, Josephine and Elizabeth the money for the homes they built or bought."
"There was no repayment clause in that contract," said Thomas. The situation had gotten out of hand.
"Oh yes there was, my attorney showed it to me this morning. Carly asked me for the money and I gave it to her, she in turn asked Elizabeth to draw up three contracts for the use of the money. The contracts were signed by all three children, and notarized and witnessed by Thomas and Josephines attorneys. The final tab came to two point two million for the monstrosity Thomas built, one point nine for Jos and three hundred fifty five thousand for the cottage Elizabeth bought in New Orleans. On the second page of that contract it states that if the lender, that would be me, should get sued for any reason by the borrowers, that would be your spawn over there, then the loan would come due plus interest, starting from the date the contract was signed. No suit, no mortgage, fairly simple really. Oh, and she set the interest at fourteen percent," said Poppy. She looked at the plaintiffs table were the two siblings were hunkered over copies of the contracts. If they got any paler they both might just pass out.
"That fourteen percent is, I believe, compounded daily. Considering that they are both attorneys Im thinking they could have cut a better deal," supplied Poppy.
"No more questions your honor," said Thomas. He walked back to his seat while he calculated how much that would add up to after a six-year period.
"You may step down Ms. Valente," said Nancy. As Poppy walked back to her seat glad to see some of the jury looked at her in sympathy. "Call your next witness Ms. Stevens," continued Nancy.
"We have no other witnesses your honor but we would like to play a tape left by Carly Valente, made three weeks before her death," said Elizabeth holding up a videotape. "We have affidavits from everyone present at the taping, as well as the crew that shot the footage, and affidavits from three different psychiatrists who examined Carly Valente to determine if she was in any way mentally impaired. Thomas and Josephine are also patients of two of the doctors, so mother figured my siblings would trust their assessments," said Elizabeth. She then handed the documentation to the clerk before her father could make an objection. The gallery made a happy note for future gossip, that two of the Stevens children were seeing therapists.
The jury leaned forward as Carly came to life on the wide screen. The bald woman wearing a large terry cloth robe sat on a porch that over looked a beach with crystal blue water. Next to her was a cup of hot tea and when the camera panned back the jury could see that her legs were folded under her.
"I hope you dont mind the way I look but clothes are the least of my worries these days," Carly started. "First time in my life I want to be naked all the time because clothes have become painful. Hell, I have a partner thats half my age, and what do I do? I get cancer. Lifes a bitch, isnt it ladies and gentlemen?" asked Carly as if she were there having a conversation with the jury. The jury looked at Poppy when she laughed at the comment then brushed a tear from her eye.
"If I have been pulled out of my daughters file folders, and you are seeing me, that must mean that Thomas and Josephine arent happy with the way I left things. To remedy that, maybe you should hear from me why I left things the way I have. The doctors keep telling me I wont be around much longer, weeks if Im lucky. Its a strange concept to wrap your brain around, the fact that youll be dead in a matter of weeks, but Im not that overly concerned. Dont get me wrong, if I could I would change my fate, but alas I cant. My life has been good, I have lived it all in the last eleven years with a wonderful person named Poppy," said Carly. She stopped and made their I love you sign with her left hand for Poppys benefit.
"As you probably know by now, Poppy has a shit load of cash piled up in the bank. Sorry judge, but what are you going to do, kill me?" asked Carly. The jury, along with the judge, laughed at the line. "After she started to do well, Poppy gave me a trust fund as an anniversary gift. Her reasoning was that she didnt want me to feel trapped by life ever again. I was too beautiful to do anything else but spread my wings and fly, she told me. It was the one gift that ever meant anything to me, not because of its size or because it meant that I was rich. It represented the fact that she had listened to me and took me seriously. This big lug, that I love more than my life, gave me something that not everyone experiences, she made me feel like I was worth more to her than even the ten million she had given, no strings attached," Carly stopped and pulled a tissue out of her pocket and wiped her eyes. The big lug that she had referred to sat next to Elizabeth and had trouble seeing the screen because of the tears streaming down her face.
"Poppy loves all of me. She has taken the last eighteen months off to take care of me and to spend time with me. I laughed when she first told me that, because we have been together and worked together for the last ten years. Thomas and Josephine, you should know that Poppy, your sister and I have crammed the world into four months while you stewed in your hatred of me, but I forgive you. Weve returned here to the place that we began a lifetime ago, and we will add one more memory on this beach. Ooh la la, the stories I could tell," said Carly with a beautiful smile.
"I cant help you anymore in trying to sort out your feelings about me Tommy and Jo, but I wont allow you to take your bitterness out on Poppy. You shouldnt have jumped so quickly at all that free money to build houses, to impress your friends, it came with a price. Ill leave that up to Poppy on how she wants to deal with that. Pray that the old Cuban temper isnt flaring on the day she does," Carly stopped to take a sip of tea and tilted her head back into the sun. Poppy looked at her and remembered how frail she had gotten at the end, but the sense of humor had remained. I miss you so much, baby.
"Dry your eyes now my love and shed that sadness. I love you ya, big guy and dont you forget it. Take it easy on my babies and Ill be seeing you in your dreams honey."
The cameraman panned back and filmed the others present while Carly was talking. The person behind the camera captured the image of Ginger, Matlin and Elizabeth crying at the words Carly had shared. At the end, a message that verified the last will and testament of Carly Virginia Valente scrolled up the screen.
"Your honor, we also have copies of my mothers written will for all the jury members if they would like to review it," said Elizabeth. She was encouraged by the fact that a majority of the jury was crying. Mama you can even wow them from the grave, thought Elizabeth.
The judge gave the jury their instructions and released them into the custody of some waiting deputies who would escort them to a conference room for deliberations. Elizabeth kept her seat at the table and split her attention between Susanna and Poppy. Poppys assistant used the time to go over legal documents for the new resort that needed Elizabeths signature, and the attorney tried to follow what she was saying as she watched Poppy talk quietly into the small phone in her hand. Whomever she was speaking to was making the tall woman smile and it piqued Elizabeths curiosity as to who it was.
"She wants to live on an island and she gets seasick?" asked Poppy. Miguel had called her to report on the status of the new arrivals. The rest of the staff would be culled from the near by islands and would arrive within the next two days. For those who lived within an hour boat ride, they would take the shuttles in and out every day cutting down on overcrowding in the resident bungalows. They would start with small groups of old customers to make sure things were running smoothly before opening their beaches completely.
"Si, she does Poppy, so I think the helicopter was the best idea you could have," conveyed Miguel. He sat in his office and propped his feet on the desk. The opportunity that Poppy had given him was overwhelming at times. It saddened him to think that the one property the energetic woman had seen through from beginning to end was the one that she would enjoy the least in the future. Miguel had been part of the ground crew when Poppy had bought her first place in Cancun. The son of poor farming family, he had become the top wage earner, which made him responsible for keeping food on their table. He remembered the first time he had seen Poppy. It was right after New Years years at the Cancun location.
She walked out by the pool with a guitar in hand, and for an hour had the guests out there singing old rockn roll songs. The bar manager told him later that they hadnt done that brisk a business in years. Miguel went up to her the next day when he took a break from his raking duties and introduced himself. It was thirty minutes into their conversation when he figured out this woman that looked like a beach bum, was in actuality the new owner. When he met Carly, Miguel had wrongly surmised that this was the rich older woman who was financing the operation. Over the months he watched as Poppy charmed the guests into spending money, while Carly and her two friends brought new life back to the old resort. Miguel grew to love the couple, whom he could see were devoted to each other, and because of his daily talks with Poppy saw his responsibilities change.
Both Carly and Poppy saw the mans potential and promoted him from laborer to junior management. The day Miguel put on his new uniform and collected his new high wage was the day he promised he would follow wherever Poppy wanted to lead him. It wasnt the money or the clothes that were the best part of what she had given him, it was the look in his childrens eyes when he left everyday for work. Miguel knew that they would be able to stay in school and have more opportunities in life. His oldest son had one more year at Poppys alma mater in New Orleans before he graduated then started to work for the company. The other two children, twin girls, were still in high school but had already been accepted into Tulane. Leaving his wife and daughters behind in Mexico, not getting to see them except for summer vacations and frequent trips home, was the only draw back to taking the job at Carlys Sound. Poppy had promised that as soon as the other junior managers ran the place without problems, Miguel could start making the trips home more often.
"Did everyone like their accommodations?" asked Poppy.
"Si, they like that it is like a home instead of living in a hotel room. When we get to see you Poppy? Gisella and the girls will be here soon and they want to cook for you," said Miguel.
"Sooner than you think amigo. Let me go, they jury is coming back in," said Poppy.
"Adios Poppy, que Dios te bendiga," said Miguel. May God bless you.
"Gracias Miguel," said Poppy. She snapped the phone closed and turned to look at the jury as they came back in and took their seats. "Isnt this a little early for them to be coming back?" asked Poppy as she leaned over and whispered in Elizabeths ear.
"This could be good or bad. Lets wait and see," whispered Elizabeth back to her.
The bailiff took the note the foreman handed him and gave it to Nancy. She looked at it and handed it back for the foreman to read to the gallery.
"Have you reached an consensus?" asked Nancy.
"Yes we have your honor. In the matter of Stevens versus Valente, we the jury find for the defendant. It is our opinion that Carly Valente meant for the trust she was given by Raquel Valente to revert back to her at Ms. Carly Valentes death," the man read. They had been sitting in the jury room for the past thirty minutes just so it wouldnt look like it had been a hasty decision on their parts. The first vote they took was unanimous in Poppys favor. The mostly middle-income people that made up the jury saw the two plaintiffs as greedy, ungrateful vipers that had let their mother die without making peace with her.
"Thank you for your time ladies and gentleman you are free to go," said Nancy. She rapped her gavel once before she stood up and headed back to her chambers.
Poppy sat while the verdict was read and showed no outward emotion when the foreman read the verdict. It was finally over. The last tie she had with Carlys less than charitable side of the family would be severed after today, leaving only Elizabeth as her link to the Stevens family. Elizabeth stood next to her chair and waited for Poppy to acknowledge her.
"I guess in this case it was good," said Elizabeth before she was swept into Poppys arms.
"You did it kid," Poppy told her. She stood up and hugged Elizabeth tightly to her body to congratulate her for her victory. Poppy looked out into the gallery and saw Charlie, Elizabeths law partner, sitting in the back. His briefcase sat on his lap and he nodded his head in Poppys direction.
"Dont call me that Poppy," said Elizabeth.
"But youre so short, how can I not call you that?" teased Poppy. Elizabeth wondered if her mother always felt this good in the warm embrace that surrounded her. Whoever won Poppys heart next would be very lucky in Elizabeths mind. She refused to believe that the thirty year old would go through the rest of her life alone.
"Look Lizzy, Charlies here," said Poppy. She turned Elizabeth around and pointed to the older man at the back of the room. Elizabeth hugged him as well, when he walked forward then stood to the side as Poppy shook his hand. The old and wise business attorney had been Poppys idea when Elizabeth finished school. Semi retired, Charlie jumped at the chance to help start a firm whose sole responsibility was to oversee Valente Resorts, Inc. From the time Elizabeth and he hooked up together, Charlie had spent his time teaching her the finer points of business law. The pupil now could be the teacher, Charlie thought as he had watched her in court.
"Charlie, you came to check up on me?" asked Elizabeth.
"Nope, baby girl, the boss called me here today to have you sign some papers," said Charlie. When he set his case down, Charlie noticed that the rest of Elizabeths family was in no hurry to leave the courtroom.
"What papers?" asked Elizabeth. "Lizzy for once in your life trust me and just sign," said Poppy. When Poppy uncapped her pen, Elizabeth took it and signed her name in each place Charlie pointed out.
"Congratulations, Elizabeth. You are now the recipient of the Carly Valente Trust," said Charlie when the last line was signed.
"What?" asked Elizabeth.
"Think of it as your legal fees for today," said Poppy.
"Poppy this is ten million dollars," said Elizabeth. She sat down in the chair Poppy had just vacated. She hadnt asked for the money just like her mother hadnt, but there would be no giving it back now if she knew Poppy.
"Its more like fifteen Lizzy, so enjoy. You should thank all that dot COM stuff we invested it in, though I wouldnt recommend that now. Please tell me that youll spend some of this on yourself and not just give it away like your mother did. Its your money, enjoy it," said Poppy.
"Youre giving her the money?" asked an outraged Tommy.
"Shut up now, pecker head, and I might not ask you to pay me my money back. I would have to guess that your mom was mighty pissed when she compounded that whole amount daily. That was one of the things I loved about your mother, the woman could hold a grudge and she had a wicked sense of humor," Poppy told him. She crossed her arms over her chest and looked down on the now red-faced man.
"You think this is funny you big freak?" asked Tommy. He had never wanted to hit someone so much in his life, but knew if he took a swing, Poppy would pulverize him. He just stared up at her and clenched and unclenched his fists.
"I find a certain amount of humor in this, yes. The only thing I dont see is how you and the other one over there are related to Carly? I can see how you are related to the old snot with the wife half his age, but not your mother. May I ask you something Tommy? Why is it you hated your mother for being with me, but didnt say anything about the fact your father married Rita a week after his divorce became final? Guess you didnt have the wherewithal to put together that she was just another bimbo in a long line of bimbos, petite Thomas cheated on your mother with. No offense Rita," said Poppy. She looked over Tommys head at Thomass wife and winked.
The woman had married Thomas because she thought that it would be her entrée into the social scene in New Orleans, and a ticket into the good life. What Rita didnt count on was that it was Carly with the social connections that Thomas had married into. When Carly and Poppy had returned to New Orleans after the couple of years they had spent out of the country, the Stevens name had been dropped from all the right party lists and replaced with the name Valente. The citys old establishment didnt care that you were gay. Who would decorate for them if they suddenly became gay bashers? What they did care about was old clout, which Carly had, and money, which Poppy had in abundance. Rita had taken to hiding the social page whenever the golden couple was in town just so she didnt have to listen to Thomas rant about his ex-wife.
"None taken Poppy," said Rita as she winked back. She looked Poppy up and down and figured Carly had made the right choice. It had only taken ten years of marriage for Rita to come to that conclusion.
"Lets go girls, we have a plane to catch," said Elizabeth. The attorney figured that they had gotten what they had come for and there was no sense reliving the past. The jury had agreed with her mother and that was the last legal battle she wanted to fight with her family.
"Youre right Lizzy lets go," said Poppy. She took her dark glasses out of her jacket pocket and slipped them on, then offered an arm to each woman going back with her. As they reached the door the sound of Thomass yelling stopped them short.
"What do you plan to do to my children, you freak? What do you want from them and me? Blood?" the irate man asked.
"Have them pay their mortgage of course, pervert," replied Poppy. She heard both Elizabeth and Susanna laugh when she issued the insult. She turned and looked Thomas in the eye before she headed back up the aisle toward him. When Poppy reached the railing, Thomas took a couple of steps back and raised his hand up as if to order her to stop. Poppy could see the thinly veiled hatred in his eyes.
Thomas had never liked the tall woman from the day he first saw her. Poppy had an easy charm about her that Thomas would never achieve. He was good at what he did, and people respected his opinion when it came to the law, but they didnt want to sit and talk to him as a friend, and women had never looked at him like they wanted to devour him. It was only after he started to make money that the woman dilemma became easier, but even now years after their first encounter, Thomas could still hear the snickers behind his back that Carly had left him for a woman.
"Tom I want a divorce," said Carly. Her luggage sat in the foyer in the same place the cabdriver had left it an hour before. Tom sat and just looked out the window and tried to process what his wife was saying. It couldnt have been the cheating, after all he had been doing it for years and it had never bothered her, why would it now? No I think this has to do with something else, thought Thomas as he tried to think of something to say. He tapped his index finger on the arm of his leather desk chair and pushed the tips of his toes into the ground to make it rock.
"Why?" he asked. He still wouldnt look at her, it was one of the ploys he used to unnerve her.
"Thomas, this is no time to start to play the ignorant one, it insults the intelligence of both of us. I want nothing from you, other than my freedom," said Carly. She ran her hand through her unruly hair and prayed for patience. A deep breath escaped her lips in a rush as the thought that her husband was daft entered her mind. Didnt the conversation we had last week and the fact that I have rented a house mean anything to him? I did not move out because I had a burning desire to be with him for the rest of my life, thought Carly.
"I just came to pick up Lizzy then Ill be leaving. You and she can work out some sort of schedule of time together later. I just came from the airport to pick her up since she has my car. I left the number and address by the phone in the foyer if you need to get in touch with me. All I want Thomas, is my familys home in Metairie and for you to pay Lizzys tuition," said Carly.
"I will never let you take my daughter Carly. You want out then get out, but Elizabeth stays here. Be careful what you ask for Carly, you might just get it and then some. Once you see how it is in the real world, youll be back. Only you might find that Ive changed the locks on your cushy lifestyle," Thomas shot back. He gripped the edge of the desk and swiveled his chair around to face her. Thomas looked at her as he leaned back in the chair and waited for the next round.
"Daddy, Im not staying here with you, Im going with mom so dont make this harder on yourself. Im sure that Rita lady, who was here last week, will take good care of you. Call me next week and well go to lunch or dinner," said Elizabeth when she walked up behind her mother. She hugged her mom from behind to welcome her home and looked over Carlys shoulder to gauge her fathers reaction. That morning she had packed the last of her things and was anxious to go. Her mother seemed like a different person away from the house, and while they had been decorating the new house her mother had looked like one of her teenage friends, especially when the phone rang sometimes. The way Carly twirled the cord in her hand and laughed made Elizabeth hold out hope that her mother would find happiness.
The youngest of three, Elizabeth had been the child that Carly had spent the most time with. Bright from the beginning, the little blonde had figured out, a long time before that day, what the cause of her mothers unhappiness was. Her father didnt hide the truth of his extra women very well. Elizabeth didnt hate him, she just didnt respect him.
Thomas waited a month before he called, figuring that it would be sufficient time for Carly to cool down and be ready to come home. Rita was becoming too much like a wife and that was making his ardor cool considerably. He parked his car three blocks away from the address Carly had left him and walked along the uneven sidewalk in the August heat. He carried in his right hand a bouquet of roses just to prove to Carly that he still cared and wanted her back.
He stood in front of the little house and surveyed the yard. The grass was neatly trimmed and the flowerbeds already held Carlys distinct signature of care. Maybe shes gotten over her fear of the lawnmower, thought Thomas laughing to himself, thinking that maybe he could let the lawn maintenance service go.
The house before him represented everything that he wanted back, the life he had before Carly left. Thomas was not a man that liked change of any kind, and this past month had rocked him, especially two weeks prior when he had been served with divorce papers. Carly hadnt called and she hadnt asked him for anything, just like she had promised that afternoon when she had come back from her trip. He remembered the tan color of her skin and her casual dress. When had he forgotten how beautiful Carly was?
Thomas pushed the bell and waited for Carly to come to the door. The sharp buzz he heard echo through the house corresponded to the button he had pushed, and he found himself comparing it to the doorbell that chimed at home. As Thomas shifted from foot to foot, he heard Elizabeth scream at her mother that she would get the door.
"Daddy? What are you doing here?" asked Elizabeth. His daughter looked at him with hurt in her eyes, from the fact Thomas hadnt called her in over a month. She looked him over seeing the seersucker suit and the flowers in his hand, and for a moment she felt sorry for him. Behind her, she knew without having to look, was a huge arrangement of wild flowers that had been a gift from Poppy. Elizabeth didnt know where she got them, but they were replaced every week with a new batch, after her mother had told her tall friend that they were her favorite flowers.
"Its nice to see you too Elizabeth," said Thomas sarcastically. "Is your mother here?" he asked as he pushed past her.
"Shes in her room getting ready daddy. Were spending the day at the zoo, Ill let her know that youre here." When Elizabeth turned to walk toward the back of the house, Thomas took the opportunity to look around. In the corner of the living room stood a black guitar case and next to it a picnic basket. He recognized the furniture as the antiques Carly had stored from her parents home after their deaths. Her sentimentality over the pieces had prevented her from selling them, or giving them, to the kids when they went away to college.
"Thomas, is there something I can do for you," her voice caught him by surprise. The woman standing before him caught him equally by surprise. Like Elizabeth, Carly was wearing a white t-shirt with blue shorts. Her hair looked longer and more relaxed, which to Thomas made her look years younger. Carly wore no makeup, and standing this close to him he could tell that she had changed her perfume.
"I came to see when you two were coming home," said Thomas. He held out the flowers for Carly to take and tried to look comfortable in his surroundings.
"Thomas, I wont be coming back, and Lizzy will visit you whenever you like if you just call her. Didnt you get the papers that my attorney sent two weeks ago?" asked Carly. She accepted the flowers and put them on one of the end tables near her. From the front of the house she could hear the rattle of Poppys old jeep. She had left to go and get it so that she and Lizzy didnt have to walk the five blocks in the unforgivable heat.
"Thank you for the flowers, and I wish that I could stay and chat, but Lizzy and I were heading out for the day. They are having story and song day at the zoo and we promised to volunteer," said Carly. She moved to the corner to retrieve the picnic basket as Lizzy ran out the front door.
In the short time Poppy had been back she spent every moment she could with Carly and her daughter. For the first time Carly could remember, she watched her young daughter blossom under the attention Poppy lavished on her. With his career, Thomas had never had time to do things like they were doing today. It was a project the kids from Lizzys school had taken on for inner city kids, and they had needed someone to lead the song hour. Poppy had readily agreed, even though she hadnt gotten home until four that morning. Carly and Elizabeth had been sitting in front of the sofa that morning watching the news and eating pancakes while Poppy slept behind them. They had agreed to not sleep together until the divorce was final, to set a good example for Carlys daughter, so whenever Poppy stayed over, it was on the sofa.
Having heard the jeep, Elizabeth ran past them and out the front door to greet Poppy as she walked up through the yard. The high school junior had come to enjoy the company of her mothers new friend, and had warmed up to the revelation that her mother was gay. "Poppy hurry up were going to be late," Elizabeth admonished.
When he heard his daughters reprimand, Thomas turned around and looked out the front door. She stood there like a garden goddess wearing a variation of what Elizabeth and Carly had on, and tossed her keys to the short blond barreling toward her. She cocked her head up and looked past him as if he were transparent and locked her blue eyes to Carlys green.
Thomas stood frozen in place, as somewhere deep inside his mind he realized that he had lost. Standing there in the yard stood his replacement, and he had envied her from that moment on. Poppy, if he had to sum her up in one sentiment, was someone that looked comfortable in her own skin. Thomas put his hands in his pants pockets as he watched her come up the rest of the way into the house. Her deep voice seemed to wrap around him as she held out her hand and introduced herself to him. It took him a while to register that her hand had been out for a while. By then, she had shrugged her shoulders and went to pick up the guitar case in the corner and relieve Carly of the picnic basket.
"Time to go baby," said Poppy as she lopped down the front steps to join Elizabeth in the jeep. "Ill be there in a moment honey," answered Carly. Carly gently moved Thomas outside as she pulled her house keys out of her front pocket and locked the door. "Good bye Thomas," she said as she joined the two in the jeep.
That day was etched into his memory for life. He remembered every detail. How he sat down on one of the porch rockers as the realization hit him of how happy Carly looked. She had called that woman honey, and it had fallen so easily from her tongue. In their whole time together Carly had only called him Thomas or Tom, never by any endearment and she had never looked back after she walked away.
That had been the one thing he remembered the most. It was as if Carly had given him a message that day, she would never look back on what they had. She had lived a fantasy life after leaving him, one that he was no part of. Thomas tried to convince himself that Carly had left out of selfishness; she had walked out while he was out trying to earn a living. No one had any cause to criticize him for the choices in his life, especially the tall woman standing before him who looked like she wanted to kill him.
"Hit me and it will be the last thing you do," he threatened. Thomas puffed out his chest and decided to take one step forward. Maybe she wouldnt hear the fear in his voice and see the way his hands shook.
"Thomas I have never liked you, I wont pretend to start now. You were a shit to your wife, and never had any intentions of keeping the vows you made to her, but that was between you and Carly. I am not going to waste any more of my time harboring any ill will toward you, as a matter of fact, I will never give you another thought once I walk out that door. What I want from you, is for you and your evil spawn from hell to leave me alone. I want you to start inviting Elizabeth to family functions despite her relationship with me. Consider the mortgage deal null and void, my gift to them," said Poppy. Thomas looked at her and for the first time noticed the dullness of the blue eyes across from him. Poppy looked tired and sad.
"Can I have that in writing?" asked Thomas.
"Old man, dont push your luck," answered Poppy. She ran her hand through her hair and laughed. "The one thing that I will send the paperwork for, is the trusts Carly wanted to set up for her grandchildren. They are set up to be collected on their thirtieth birthday, and they come with videotapes she made for that occasion as well. Their granny wasnt interested in paying for their schooling, but she was interested in them having fun once they finished. Lizzy is putting the final touches on it now. Have a good life Thomas," said Poppy. Like Carly she never looked back once she turned and headed toward the door.
Continued in Part 3
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