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Authors: Claire Matturro

Wildcat Wine

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Wildcat Wine

Claire Matturro

Dedication

TO

JOHN THOMAS HAMNER

Prologue

I wasn't at all sure
I had a real life anymore.

Here it was, a perfectly fine Friday night, and instead of being out having fun, I was about the last person inside the Smith, O'Leary, and Stanley law firm.

Reviewing paper. Looking through stacks and stacks of paper for just the right words in all of the words in all of the paper in all of the files for something that might save my butt—I mean, that is, technically, my client's butt.

Sometimes being a lawyer sucks.

Nursing a cup of lukewarm green tea and a bad attitude, I riffled through my files, seeking inspiration. I sighed, rubbed my eyes, and read on.

My office windows were open, so I could breathe real oxygen, not the stale refrigerated air of the law firm. The humidity of a Sarasota night drifted in, dispersing a subtle scent of orange blossoms, car fumes, and fishy low tide throughout my office. The classic spring bouquet on the Gulf Coast of Florida.

But I had barely settled into rereading my client's deposition when my door banged open, and critically overchilled air rushed in. I had my mouth prepared to say something rude to whoever dared intrude when I saw Jackson Winchester Smith, the firm's founding and controlling partner, my mentor, the living, breathing reincarnation of Stonewall Jackson, standing there in my doorway, big as a mad grizzly.

“You got everything under control here? Cases all right?”

“Yes, thank you. Everything is under control.”

That was a whopper, but I held my eyes steady on Jackson and nothing in my body language gave me away.

“Good, good.”

I waited during the pause for the real reason for Jackson's visit.

“Man bought a Hummer and now he's demanding a bonus to pay it off.”

Okay, nothing to do with me and I had work to do. I blinked twice, hoping that would make Jackson go away.

“That son of a bitch. A Hummer. A yellow one, color of a legal pad. Piss ugly.”

“Who got a Hummer?” Not that I really cared, but if I ignored him, Jackson would just get louder.

“Kenneth Mallory.”

Well, of course, the only partner in the firm vapid and pretentious enough to pay twice the average salary of the secretaries at the firm for a large, yellow box with wheels and an ad campaign that appealed equally to the insecure and the show-off.

Having hexed my first year at the firm, Kenneth was the one partner I studiously avoided and hoped, frankly, that he would one day drop into the Gulf of Mexico and get eaten by an octopus, or run over by a backhoe, or implode from too much inherent dishonesty in one lifetime, and leave the rest of us to the honorable task of defending hapless doctors, hospitals, and lawyers sued by their disgruntled clients.

“Kenneth is demanding that the executive committee vote him a midyear bonus, then follow up with a larger Christmas bonus.”

“Just say no,” I said. “It worked for Nancy Reagan.”

“He's our top biller, you know.” Jackson paused to glare at me, as if I should be the partner in the firm who billed the most hours. “Son of a bitch's threatening to pull out of the firm and take his clients if we don't give him a bigger cut of the pie.”

“I'm sure you'll figure out how to handle him,” I said, and dusted off my pert smile and fluffed my hair. So, okay, where Jackson was concerned, Gloria Steinem I was not.

“He's got that damn sailboat and that mansion out in the sticks and now that Hummer. So we're supposed to vote him a special-performance bonus at the midyear meeting to pay for all that or he takes his clients and starts his own firm.”

What I wanted to say was, let the bastard leave the firm. We all hate him, he has a profligate lifestyle and rubs our noses in it, and buying a Hummer at least proved that. But I suddenly focused on the finances. If Kenneth went and took his clients, all the income he brought into the firm—and that was a lot—went with him. This wasn't a matter of Jackson's control, it was a matter of money.

At a fundamental level, I understood that the trick was to get rid of Kenneth and keep his clients. So, okay, how hard could that be?

“Let's start a rumor he's on drugs,” I said, inspired by the fact that one of our partners was currently detoxing in a swanky rehab center in L.A. “Maybe tell his clients he's shipping out to a rehab program. I can call his biggest clients, say I'm his partner, and explain that we are transferring his files to . . . me.” Then I could be the top biller.

Jackson glowered at me and I was quick to see my error. I'm only a junior partner, and we don't get such plums.

“Transferring Kenneth's files to you, and, eh, Fred, and some, a few, to me,” I corrected.

Jackson nodded. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a lemon and then reached into his other pocket and brought out a pocket knife, and he cut a wedge out of the lemon and ate the pulp, down to the rind. “Want a slice?”

“No, thank you.”

While Jackson ate his lemon, I pondered the Kenneth problem. Maybe we
could
actually send Kenneth to a detox center. How hard was it to Baker Act somebody? I'd put one of the law clerks into looking at what it took to involuntarily commit someone under that act.

“You might have something there.” Jackson's voice vibrated off my walls. Then he stroked his beard and pitched the lemon rind into the bottom of my potted peace lily. He saluted me and said, “Could've used a good trench fighter like you in 'Nam. You think on that plan some more, bring me the pros and cons, the mechanics.” And he slammed my door on the way out.

Mierda.
He thought of me as a trench fighter. Hardly the image I had in mind.

A trench fighter in a black slip with equally black, lacy bikini panties, and Jackson in a gray uniform with gold-braid trim, wearing a broad-brimmed hat with a plume, and . . .

Needless to say, I didn't get very far in delving into my vats of paper and verbiage, though I did perfect the fantasy.

Chapter 1

It's hard
being Lillian Belle Rosemary Cleary.

And if I didn't know that already, Bonita, my legal secretary supreme and secondary therapist, kept reminding me.

“Carita,”
she said, shaking her head and handing me the pink highlighter at my hyperventilated request so that I could mark another obscure legal point I needed to memorize for my upcoming appellate argument. “You make this so much more difficult than it needs to be.”

So spank me, I'm a lawyer, and complicating things at a high hourly rate is my specialty.

I ignored Bonita's implied protest and recited a choice quote I had just underlined in pink, and Bonita typed it into my laptop for future reference. We were both sitting on my shiny terrazzo floor on pure-cotton yoga mats. I was only on the seventh legal opinion of questionable value for my argument, busily color-coding impressive language from jurists I hoped to twist to the benefit of my client, a charlatan to be sure, but not without his charm and definitely with the liability policy that would pay me.

Thinking of how much work I still had to do made me gulp air and jump up to wash my hands and face.

“I wouldn't be you,” Bonita said, sighing as I plopped down again beside her. This from a widow with five accident-prone children.

While I reached for the yellow highlighter, Benicio, Bonita's teenage son who insisted that we call him Benny, pounded his size-twelve boots into the kitchen, where in one gulp he consumed about three dollars' worth of my GMO-free, hormone-free, fat-free organic milk—slogan: “Our Cows Aren't on Drugs.” He was cutting my grass, apparently at about a square foot per quart of milk, and relentlessly bitching that I didn't have any real peanut butter.

“This soy peanut butter sucks,” he said, eating a spoonful straight from the jar. “Positively sucks,” Benny reiterated, as if somehow I had managed to miss his point.

“Please don't talk like that to Lilly,” Bonita said, her voice low and sweet.

“But this soy stuff is so gross.”

Before we finessed the soy peanut butter debate further, Bearess, my one-hundred-pound rottweiler that I inherited from a dingbat mass-murderer wanna-be, lifted her head and growled at the front door.

“Doorbell,” I said, stifling the urge to jump up and scream that everybody had to get out and leave me alone with my hearing transcripts, my depositions, my photocopied legal opinions, and my multicolored highlighters.

“I didn't hear a doorbell,” Benny said.

Bearess growled again and rose from her organic cedar-chip dog bed, which she drags around the house to follow the rotating patches of sunlight through the windows and which cost me not much less than tuition at my first community college on my seven-year quest for a law degree. The dog advanced on the front door, even as the bell rang.

“Told you,” I said, pulling myself away from the thousands of sheets of paper that I would boil down into a convincing appellate argument to save my client, a pet psychic/alien-abductee counselor.

Edgy with visions of having a judge in a black robe smite me from behind the appellate bench, I opened the door without peeking, as it was the middle of a bright afternoon and having a large celebrity rottweiler vastly reduced the fear of home invasions. Besides, this was Southgate, a Sarasota neighborhood with safe, middle-class streets. I lived on Tulip Street and one didn't have home invasions on Tulip Street.

“Lilly Belle, my old sweetheart,” bellowed a long-haired man in cutoffs, standing barefoot in my doorway. He was built like a middleweight boxer with big, big hands and a face that looked like he had spent about a hundred years in the bright subtropical sunshine. His T-shirt was a crudely painted white dove flitting among red opium poppies—my brother Delvon's handiwork.

“Farmer Dave,” I said, and Bearess stopped growling and stuck her big black-and-tan mug in between us until Dave petted her. Then I let him hug me, biting back my twenty questions and sniffing him, primeval and patchouli.

“Why aren't you at my apple orchard?” I gave in to the primary question. Dave was the caretaker of my 180-acre heavily mortgaged apple orchard in north Georgia, as well as my mad-hatter brother Delvon's best friend.

“ ‘On the road again,' ” he sang out in a decent mimic of Willie Nelson's theme song. Willie is Farmer Dave's secondary god, next to illegalities of the nonviolent persuasion. Willie worship marginally explained the two pigtails Farmer Dave's head sprouted and the long, wayward gray beard.

“You left my orchard for a road trip?” I snapped, imagining rats burrowing through my house and barn and the trees withering from neglect, never to bear fruit again, while Dave went on a frolic.

“Ah, Delvon's up there, now that he's done saving your life and the GBI put him out of business. He's taking care of things. Gave me a chance to get out of Georgia for a while.”

Dave grabbed me again, kissed me on the cheek, and was heading for my mouth when the phone rang. As I moved toward it, I pointed to Bonita and said, “Bonita, meet Dave Baggwell. Dave, meet Bonita Hernández de Vasquez. And this is Benicio, her son, my alleged yardman.”

“Benny,” Benicio corrected, glowering at me as I grabbed up the phone.

“You can't leave that mile-long truck out there,” screeched my neighbor, the hall monitor of the universe. “I'll call the police. It's a violation of clause two of the neighborhood covenants.”

“Move to a condo, you blue-haired Nazi,” I screeched back. I hung up the phone with a clunk.

While Bonita and Dave eyed each other cautiously, I looked out the front window. It was a pretty big truck for a U-Haul. The phone started ringing again, no doubt Mrs. Covenant Nazi next door. “What's in the truck?”

“Wine,” Dave answered. “Cases of pure, organic, muscadine Florida wine. Sells for about twenty bucks a bottle.”

“Muscadine wine? From Florida?” I'd grown up eating muscadine grapes off the wild vines back home in the red hills of southwest Georgia, where we called them scuppernongs. But I wasn't aware of any commercial Florida muscadine wineries.

“Man, there's vineyards popping up all over Florida. Got one in east Sarasota, near Myakka River State Park. It's like a new thing, this Florida wine industry, with muscadine grapes. Can't grow them pinot noir and such grapes here, they can't take all this heat and humidity. Ain't tough like us,” Dave puffed, all but pounding on his chest. “This organic stuff beats the cake. Want to try a bottle?”

Well, certainly, I thought, wine ranking up there with coffee on my list of essential liquids. But not when I needed to be preparing for my appellate argument. “Sure, but I can't drink it now. I've got to work.”

“Sweetheart, it's Saturday.”

Yeah, I should have stayed at the office, I thought, listening to the unanswered phone ringing and wondering how much trouble Dave was going to be. “I still have to work,” I said.

“Tonight then, we'll drink a bottle,” he said, and winked. “My old lady's husband's back, so I need to crash here.”

Bonita tsked-tsked, but we ignored her.

“Hey, I can stay the night, can't I?”

“Where'd you get the wine?” Being a lawyer, I'm trained to never actually answer a direct question unless, possibly, it is asked by a judge in a particularly belligerent mood.

“Long story, Lilly Belle.”

Oh, frigging great, I thought, knowing what that meant. At least the phone stopped ringing.

“Benny,” he said, and turned to Benicio. “Hey, man. I know something about you.”

“Yeah?” Benny studied Dave with far less suspicious eyes than I noted his mother was using.

“Yeah. Lilly Belle here,” he said, pointing at me as if Benny might have forgotten who I was, “she sent me that paper you wrote on the jaguarundi cats in Myakka. I've been driving rock-hoppers out of Lakeland, then I got this, ah, special deal on that wine, but before I truck off to sell it, I'd sure like to see if I can't track me a jaguarundi.”

Benny looked at me. “You sent him my paper?” He couldn't hide his pleasure, though in a too-late attempt to show indignation he squinted his eyes after they had popped open in what looked like pride.

“It was a great paper,” Bonita said. “He got an A.”

Farmer Dave turned to Bonita, tall, perfectly groomed Bonita, with her chocolate-colored hair smoothed back into a silver barrette. As I watched, Dave took her in more fully, and he smiled, big and full mouthed, making me wonder if he hadn't gotten his teeth capped. “Bonita, yeah, we've talked on the phone, at Lilly's office.” Grin, grin from Dave, his pelvis jutting out in a Mick Jaggar imitation. “Your son's a great writer. Fruit don't fall far from the tree.”

Sure, okay, Bonita's a looker, but flattering her son wasn't going to make her flirt back with a man who had two pigtails and a married girlfriend, no matter how pearly his teeth.

“What's all this got to do with Benny's jaguarundi paper?” I asked. Benny had written a paper for school about the elusive South American wildcats long rumored to be living, in scarce numbers, in Florida, and he had collected enough of the old Florida-cracker accounts to make a convincing case that the long-tailed cats prowled around at Myakka, the cypress-swamp state park in the eastern part of the county. Rich travelers from the 1920s had brought the cats back from South America, planning to domesticate them. When that didn't work, the cats were either turned loose or escaped into the wild lands in the area and reproduced.

“Man, that paper convinced me those cats are out there. Hey, man, I'm a real good tracker. Why don't I leave the truck here and borrow Lilly Belle's car and go check it out? Then tomorrow, at the crack of day, I gotta go, get to Gainesville and sell me some cases of wine there. Them college kids suck up that organic wine. After that, up to Atlanta. Got a bunch of health food stores and fancy-ass wine stores in that town.” He grinned again at Bonita, then turned to me.

“Hey, Lilly Belle, why don't you come with me, like old times, you and me in the woods.” He winked, implying exactly the kind of thing I'd rather Bonita never suspected.

“I can't. Not today. I'm getting ready for an oral argument.”

“What's that?”

“It's an appellate argument.”

“Yeah, oh, sure, like all those high-priced boys did before the Supreme Court so we'd know who our president was gonna be.”

“Precisely. I have twenty minutes to convince a three-judge panel in the appellate court in Lakeland to affirm the summary judgment I won at the trial level for my client, who is a counselor, and one of his patients claimed that his, er, his . . . therapy fell below the applicable standard of care.” Yeah, the woman who was suing my guy thought she'd been abducted by space aliens, oh, and get this, had the nerve to accuse my client of malpractice, just because he thought for an hourly fee rivaling my own that he could reduce her lingering emotional trauma. This would, no doubt, play good in the rarified air of the appellate court.

“You always were one to plan everything down to a gnat's eyebrows, but what's so hard about a twenty-minute speech you gotta spend all day working on it?”

“Because, while I'm trying to argue my client's position, the judges can, and do, interrupt with questions. They can ask me anything about the case and I absolutely have to know the answers, no matter how obscure the question, and then I have to twist my answers to support the summary judgment I won at the trial level. See, a summary judgment is when the trial judge rules on a case before it goes to the jury, because the facts are not really in dispute and the law is clear, and in my case—”

“Whoa, Lilly Belle. Stop. TMI, babe.”

“ ‘TMI'?” Bonita asked.

“Too much info. Way too much,” Dave said.

“Hey, bud, you made me listen to your entire monologue on how the combustion engine works in an average car, which took hours, days even, and—”

“Belle, I didn't want you helpless, broke down on the side of the road, or taken advantage of by some mechanic thinking girls don't know spit about cars. But, sweetheart, when do you think I might need to know what a summary judgment is?”

“Okay, but you asked. And no, I can't go with you to Myakka. I'm busy. I already told you I'm working. I work for a living. I have clients. I can't run off with you at the drop of a hat just because you show up from out of nowhere.”

“Whoa. Got it, Belle. Got it, okay.” Dave turned to Benicio. “Hey, Benny, you want to come with me to Myakka, see if we can track us a jaguarundi?”

“Cool,” Benny said before Bonita could object. “We can take my Ford Ranger. It's a 1992, but it's only got 170,000 miles on it.”

“You got a Ford with 170,000 miles, and it still runs? You a mechanic or a mojo?” Then Dave eyed Benny closer. “You can't be no sixteen.”

“Almost, and I got a learner's permit, but I've been driving since I was twelve. Lilly taught me. She got me that truck too.”

Yep, and Bonita was still working on forgiving me for both facts.

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