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It's a company policy - Editor

Sangfroid

by Don Norum

I'm an insurance investigator in a small branch office, small enough that I'm half of it. Davis takes care of most of the office's paperwork and leaves the footwork and math to me.

The main appeal to me is the quantifying of inexpressible amounts of human pain and suffering in a dollar value derived from calculations of expected utility.

The office is a two room suite on the second floor of a bail bondsman's nestled downtown. The outer room has a wall of filing cabinets of policy forms and bookshelves with thick binders of guidelines and bookkeeping.

We keep the actual policies, the signed pieces of Bristol board, in the safe in the other room. That's where Davis spends his time, filling out reports for airmail, phoning out for the advertisements and contracting legwork to sell the safeties.

My days in the office are spent on the faded floral couch in the outer room, crunching numbers on the coffee table, using the tidy strata as a coaster.

I know more than half of the city's doctors' kids by their first names, and a fair chunk of the lawyers' - mostly solicitors, a few barristers. It's not a large city, although to be fair New York's only an hour away, so we could have an airport and a mega-mall and be small by comparison, but I've still filled up more than half a Rolodex.

So when Charles Archibald Lowell, a senior partner in Longfellow, Lowell and Holmes and signatory for a one-point-change million dollar life insurance policy, took a large-bore rifle slug to the chest, I wound up looking into it pretty quickly.

The bereaved wife who came in the day after he died had curves draped with splendor to drive a monk from his vows.

“I'm looking for Mr. Quincy Davis.” she said. I looked up at her.

“He's in there.” I swung my head to the closed door opposite. She walked right over, and rapped sharply on the door. Hard on the knuckles. Not a woman to shy from a fight.

Without losing sight of the lines of paperwork in front of me, I could angle my eyes up to see the hem of her dress at the back of her knees. Red, a dark crimson, cut with a slight flare. A rash color for a brash woman.

I didn't know at the time, although I had my suspicions, that she was holding in her purse a card of paper that made her a millionaire, and the events of the day before would turn out to have secured for her a tidy bit more. That sort of windfall explains a lot of brashness, in my book. Excuses it, even.

Davis opened the door.

“Hello, how may I help you?” I heard the snap of a purse.

“My husband passed away yesterday, and I believe that this is a copy of his insurance policy with you.” He took it and scanned it.

“This seems to be in order, Mrs. Lowell. Now, if you'll come in and have a seat, we can discuss the details of the policy.” Another rustling and a snap.

“Here is a notarized copy of his death certificate, the coroner's memo concluding death by misadventure, and the deposit details for my bank.” That was a bit more brashness than I was prepared to excuse, no matter how much money.

I looked up from the papers. Davis was flushed, a bit put off by the shapely brunette in front of him. More so by the shapely part than the high statistical likelihood that he was staring at someone eligible for the electric chair. Davis was an underwhelming man with a faithful, loving wife, and thus prone to any number of embarrassments and misplaced priorities with the attractive members of the opposite sex.

“Very well, ma'am, but there are still some other, ah, details, that we need to take care of first. If you'll come in, we can sort them all out.” I could see her glare reflected on his face, and as soon as he closed the door I rose, smoothed my jeans, and opened one of the filing cabinets.

They were talking inside. We're part branch office, part franchise. One of several American purveyors of Laurel Insurance, a venerable old British firm catering to the discreetly wealthy. Some of the rules are pretty modern – I have a degree in statistical analysis from my college days, and had I chosen a different path, I could have written a dissertation several times over on the sorts of models they have to govern their policies.

Others aren't.

A few years back, which by the home office's standards was a hundred or so years, there was a problem with some gangsters in New York prepaying insurance policies on homeless folk, then toasting to their health with antifreeze. Laurel ended up playing Laundromat to a thuggery of Italians using hobos as hampers for their ill-gotten gains. Which, once you considered the ten percent premium on our end for such an arrangement, seemed all well and good, until a call from the Yard concerning certain concerns of the US Attorney for New York made them realize that the New York police take cold-blooded murder for profit a good deal more seriously than we take prepayment of term life policies.

The mobsters lost their laundry, the board lost three members and half a year's premiums in fines, fees, and general chastisements, and a few years later as they say, I found steady employment. Each field office now has to have an independent inquest into each policy payout. It doesn't consist of much – just enough to show due diligence to the auditors and ossifers if and when they come knocking.

My days out of the office consist of chatting with various lawyers, doctors, and policemen. I look into the claims just enough to make sure there isn’t a lowlife with a smoking revolver and a deposit slip waiting by the door of the bank, then make like Pontius Pilate at the temple.

I was pretty sure that Lowell's wife killed him, just going by the statistics. Which, working for an insurance company, is what I cleave to for my Ten Commandments.

Of course, wearing red to the funeral and standing outside the door of the autopsy room to get a hot-off-the-presses death certificate on a Sunday morning so she could cash in his insurance the day after was a little bit of abductive evidence in support of my thinking.

I had the file out on the late Lowell and was jotting down the relevant names and addresses when the door opened and the widow came back out. I could tell Davis was flushed inside and out from the stammering yet ingratiating way he explained our firm's obvious, numerous, regrettable, but manageable shortcomings.

“Mrs. Lowell, please understand, that this is company policy. We have no choice here in the matter.” The sweating bloke waved a hand over in my direction, but the tall woman didn't blink.

“Policy? How long do I have to wait, then? Or is that decided elsewhere as well?” Well, yeah - that's sort of the point, I thought.

“Mr. Percy here will complete his report as soon as possible, and, of course, as soon as we go through the necessary clearances – not,” he hastened, “that there should – will – be any complications, we are -”

But she had already left. She spared me a glance over one strapless shoulder as she closed the door, but I was reading the file and learned this later from Davis.

“Davis.”

“Yes, Ian?”

“I'll give you three to one odds that she killed him,” I said without looking up, “with an option for a further ten to one for a hired killer. Two to one on the whole thing that she's never arrested, four to three she's acquitted, exclusive. No hedging.”

“Bastard.” I couldn't tell if he was referring to my exquisite empathy for the bereaved, my blatant attempt to use proprietary corporate statistics to enrich myself at the expense of my supervisor, or if he knew that I was halving the books we kept in taking his action.

“Christ, you're lucky you don't have to do normal front office work. We'd be out of business in a week.”

The red veins in his pouchy cheeks stood out. “Hell, if I knew that you would be out here when Mrs. Lowell came in... You're just lucky she didn't walk out on you.”

I gathered up my notes and my jacket from the seat beside me. Davis was standing at the door, watching me go as if I might give one last jibe.

It might seem like I dislike my job, or something about the office or the companionship, but I hold to a counter-factual bastardization of Herodotus.

“Call every man dead who is content.”

#

If you work this sort of thing long enough, you start to think in expected values. It's just easier that way; the overhead saved makes up for the rare mistakes, which is the whole point, after all.

When I ambled my way into the doorway of Detective Flannerty and saw him slumped with an empty pot of coffee next to a half-written evidence index, with no sign of a final report in sight, neither one of us was especially happy at the scene.

“Morning Ian.”

“Douglas. Brighten my day?”

“Like hell.” He looked up and squinted. “You’re here.”

“Perceptive.”

“Widow?”

“Yeah. Said it was death by misadventure, but I guess that –“ He cut me off with a snort.

“The fucking coroner says it was death by misadventure. All that means is that a five minute exam before cutting him open couldn’t tell him the name of the murderer.” I took a seat.

“So he was murdered?”

“He was shot square in the chest at point blank range, a couple of hundred yards into the woods. Dressed out for hunting. Macerated his heart, killed him standing up. Now, if you can shoot yourself in the chest with this,” he picked up a rifle over five feet long, three of those in front of the trigger, wrapped in a clear evidence bag, “you can call it a suicide.”

I got that warm glowing feeling I get when I’m right.

“So who killed him?”

“Nobody.”

“Beg pardon?”

“The body was found after his boy woke up and heard a gunshot. Mother and maid were asleep upstairs when he came running down the hall screaming, there were no tire tracks on the drive save those from the previous evening, no other footprints, no signs of a struggle, no theft from the body or house, and perfect alibis for everyone we’ve talked to.”

I wasn’t feeling so hot right then. He saw my discontent and shrugged.

“I mean, we know that his wife killed him, we just don’t know how.”

“Oh?”

“Check this out.” He slid two pages across the table, static-laminated in evidence covers. “The one on the left is the copy of Mr. Lowell’s will on file with his lawyer. The one on the right is the holographic copy found in his desk, dated but unsigned. Allow me to translate the legalese.”

One bony finger tapped the lawyer’s copy. “Five hundred thousand dollars in miscellaneous donations and bequests to charitable organizations. A controlling share of the partnership to Longfellow, the remainder of his partnership to be divided in kind among several junior partners. Two million to be established in a trust fund for his son, Henry, and the remainder to his wife.” He looked me in the eye. “And there will be quite a remainder.”

He slid the other copy to me. “What do you notice?”

“No wife.” I didn’t have to look at it.

“No kid, either. Most of it goes to his secretary, referred to in rather glowing language. Leaves his family completely in the lurch, although, to be fair…”

I took a look and finished for him. “He does give a bit more to charity.”

#

The holographic copy was unsigned, but dated Saturday, the day of his death. Which meant that if he had come back alive from his hunting trip that morning his wife would be out close to five million dollars.

As I drove to the late Lowell’s lakefront house, it seemed a little too obvious. Obvious enough to make it clear that Mrs. Lowell didn’t care if anyone knew she killed her husband, because she just couldn’t possibly have killed her husband. Now all I had to do was find out how she had killed her husband.

After all, guns rarely discharge into people’s chests of their own accord, and never when millions of dollars are involved.

The front drive was white marble gravel, doubtlessly carted across the pond from some Italian quarry. It did make a nice picture as it bent around the ten foot fountain in front of the house, a Classical scene in similar marble with fauns and centaurs.

The house itself was a small mansion stretching back as square-shouldered and compact as a prize-winning welterweight. It might almost seem modest, if it weren't as large as my apartment building and a hundred yards from the pier that jutted into the lake, with pristine pine forests filling most of the fifty acre lot.

Tire tracks from the emergency vehicles over the weekend were still visible, as was the gently flickering yellow tape you could see through the trees. I parked and went to the entryway to knock myself in.

The widow herself answered at the door, and spoke before I had a chance. She recognized me from the office, or else she was uncannily perceptive.

“You think that I killed my husband.”

“I'm just here to fulfill the due diligence investigation, ma'am. It's all written out in the policy."

She went on like she didn't hear me which, I thought, she might not have.

“He was writing me out of his will. Leaving all of it to that tramp of a mistress. Even the money he set aside for Henry, which before you get the wrong idea, is for him, only for him, and more of it for him than for me.”

I figured I might as well make it a formal introduction.

"Ian Percy, Laurel Insurance. Company policy; I have to make a formal audit of claims where the provenance is in any doubt whatsoever."

We both knew that I thought that she killed him, so I didn't expect her to be too open. Then again, taking risks in pursuit of financial gain had already been sort of established here.

"Come in. What exactly do you need to see?" The inside of the house was more subdued. Still white, still marble, but not as ostentatious as you'd expect. The kid's school pictures hung on a wall, showing him smiling as he accepts a trophy from a white-haired gentleman.

He has a poster behind him, formulae on it that I can't suss out at a glance, which is saying something, and the academic citations framed in a discreet row below suggested that he hadn't needed mommy and daddy's help.

The kid looked to be ten or so, but he probably could have taken over Lowell's partnership with a summer of cramming for the bar.

"What do you need to see?"

I realized she was repeating herself.

"I suppose if there are any personal papers of his, any business documents or whatnot."

"Very well. You can wait in the kitchen." She showed me through a short hall and into a modern stainless steel dining area, separated by a short half-wall from the refrigerator, range, dishwasher, and so on. With a dip of her head towards the table, she was off to the dead man's office.

#

"Are you a policeman?" I looked down and there was the boy, looking even younger in person than the six, seven years old from the photograph, standing in the door of the kitchen. He wore slacks and a buttoned shirt, hair unruly, and I thought for a moment that he was already dressed out for college.

"No, not really. I try to figure things out, but I'm not a policeman. I work for an insurance company." The boy nodded slowly at this, blinking once.

"So you don't carry a gun?" There came a motion behind me, and a wave of disapproval washed past.
"Henry! What are you doing bothering our guest?" The widow Lowell had returned. I didn't turn around, and she walked past me to scold the kid.

"No, no I don't. Thankfully, there really isn't much need for it." The boy nodded again, his neck and shoulders drooping to one side as his mother shooed him out of the room and down the hallway.

"Go find Maria. Take a walk or something." She turned to me. "I'm sorry about that. He's been a bit off since his father died, and on his sixth birthday too; he's normally a much more polite boy. I don't think it's sunk in yet, and I'm hoping it won't for a while."

She dropped the pile of letters on the counter and started pouring a drink from the cabinet, glassware clinking.

"I don't let him play with guns. His father disagreed, but I simply don't want my son growing up with those things. Look at what happened to him, though."

She sighed.

"I suppose a certain amount of curiosity is inevitable, even in a boy as intelligent and civilized as Henry." She turned around with two drinks in hand and held one out to me.

I picked up the letters and sorted through them. Carbon copies of personal correspondence for the most part, a few letters to business associates, that sort of thing.

"You mind telling me what happened in the last couple of days? Any arguments he might have had, any disturbances?"

"The police already did all of this." She was right, of course.

"Independent inquiry." I lied. Sort of.

"Fine. You can check this against what I told them, if you want." I noticed her put two empty glasses into the sink. "We're divorcing. Were. If he wasn't dead, we'd be divorced of yesterday afternoon."

"Your son's birthday? Drastic." She glared at me as I put the letters down. Nothing useful in them.

"The son of a bitch was screwing his secretary. He was going to change his will to leave it all to her, as soon as he was done with me."

"You know that?"

"I found him in the study Friday night, writing out a new one. We argued. He told me that he was changing the will, that he was going to dissolve the trust fund he had for Henry, and that he'd fight to make sure I never saw a dime of alimony. I told him some things that were a bit more personal than finances."

I had to admit, looking at her clear blue eyes, that she was holding up remarkably well. Well enough for a woman who'd had a vicious fight with her recently dead husband, and even better for one who'd just given up several huge motives for murdering him.

"What happened next?"

"I don't know what would have happened had Henry not shown up at the door of the study. He wanted to know why Mommy and Daddy were fighting so." Her eyes teared up a bit. "Cold bastard. Just stood there trying to look pitying while I took our son off to bed."

#

Maria, the maid, was beautiful – trim in the waist and full everywhere else, dusky skin and deep eyes. I wondered fleetingly if maybe Mrs. Archibald hadn't mixed up her husband's mistresses. From the way she had avoided the widow, she might have thought the same thing – that dinner and a movie and maybe a room one late night must weigh a bit when you figure the woman you work for may have killed her husband over the same deal, different meal.

We made introductions and I decided to try to wrap it up quickly, before I said something stupid. Insurance investigators aren't usually the sharpest tacks with the ladies, and I didn't have the luxury with Maria of assuming she'd murdered a man over the weekend.

"Did you see anything the night before? Mrs. Lowell said there was an argument with her husband in the study."

"No, no I didn't. I was in town, seeing a movie. With the family birthday in the morning, I had the evening off."

"When'd you get back?"

"Must have been eleven, twelve. I checked to see if Mrs. Lowell had left any notes for me, but nothing was wrong."

"What happened in the morning?"

"It was early, and I was asleep still. I don't think that I heard any gunshots, but I didn't wake up until Henry came back in. He must have been awake, or had his window open. I hear him running up the steps, screaming. I threw open the door just as Mrs. Lowell did. She didn't look that good, like she either just woke up or been up all night."

"But was she out of her room before that?"

"I don't think so. Henry heard the shots and he never said anything about seeing his mother."

I thanked her for her time and she shrugged. I guess people thank her more profusely for less help pretty often.

One of the sickest feelings you can have is when something that you know to be true, something that couldn't have possibly happened any other way, isn't, and did. I had that in bulk. Either all of the eyewitnesses were in on it together – which still didn't account for the lack of physical evidence at the scene, nor for how the man was shot from point blank with his own gun – or something unquantifiable had happened.

I let myself out without seeing the widow again, and ducked past the stream of guests that were arriving for what seemed to be a combination of a wake, birthday party, and general social event. It seemed too nice a day to go back to the office in such a bind, so I wandered down to the lakeshore.

There was actually a bit of a beach, pale tan sand studded with gravel and arboreal detritus, and as I walked down the thin strip swinging a stout stick of deadfall, I felt a bit of my composure returning. The back of my mind was already editing and revising what I'd have in the report – leaning heavily on the twin pillars of "the police didn't say murder" and "how the fuck were we supposed to 'solve' this one if they couldn't?"

That's one of the reasons I like this job as opposed to freelance work. If something doesn't work out, I make it sound good and file the report. Figuring these things out is a definite enjoyment, yes, but the goal of it isn't some sort of existential validation, it's a paycheck. So it irks me, but not in a soul-shattering way.

I took to hitting small piles of leaves and sticks out over the water, limb swung two-handed like the golf club I've never held. Then there was a rattle, and I stopped. I noticed that one of the dark ripples on the surface of the sand was perpendicular to the motion of the waves, and one end emitted a buzzing sound.

I possessed enough sense to realize that it was a rattlesnake, and enough sense to realize that swinging wildly at it was a bad idea. Unfortunately, however, I didn't have enough of either common sense or speed of thought to prevent myself from jamming the forked end of my walking stick down on its neck. This pressed it into the sand, but made it understandably irate.

A foot and a half of venomous tubing was whipping back and forth on either side of the stick, and I'm backpedaling as far as I can while still keeping the pressure down. I made maybe the only really good decision of the day and jam the stick down hard as I turn to run.

#

"Did it work?"

"You mean, two hours ago, did a full grown rattlesnake successfully bite the man who's standing in front of you completely comfortable?"

"Well, did it?"

"No, Davis, no it did not.”

I'm back in the office, and have just related the story of my trip to Davis. Of course, he's always happy to see me shown up, and when that showing up involves being able to hand a check worth a cool million to a stunningly attractive and recently single lady, well, he's only human. Me almost getting pre-digested by a rattlesnake's hemotoxin is the sort of detail that lets him tell the story at the dinner table without his wife asking too many questions about just how beautiful he'd been saying the widow was.

"But," I continue, "you'll be happy to know that I finished writing my report on it."

"That was quick."

"Singular occurrences are the easiest to write up."

We've played this game before, so he just leans back in his desk to wait me out. I walk to the closet and return with a yardstick and a length of string, and grab a pen and tape from his desk. I tape the pen at the two foot mark, sticking out at a right angle, and put the long end against the floor. Davis walks around the desk to get a better view of the spectacle.

"I'm walking through the forest hunting. All of a sudden – oh no!" I drop one end of the string to the ground. "A snake, and a venomous one at that. But I can't shoot it or I'll wake the irate wife, and it's right there."

The long end of the yardstick lifts and then pins the end of the string to the ground.

"Problem solved! Now, to see about what to do –" I lean over top of the yardstick, then drape the other end of the string over the pen. "Uh oh."

Davis looks skeptical, so I move to assuage him as to just how a man could be shot by a snake whilst hunting.

"It happened in Michigan once or twice, several times in Kentucky, Tennessee, that area. It fits, gives a plausible reason." My boss pauses, deep in thought at the vast gulf between our definitions of plausible.

"Do you have any references?"

"A Times article mentioning it and a confirmation over the wire at the police station from a patrol officer in Nashville, both cited in the report."

"The police are up on this?"

"Stopped there on my way back."

His balding head glistens somewhat as he considers this. Finally, he shrugs.

"Sure. Killed in cold blood by a snake in the grass. For once, that doesn't mean murder."

Later on, when I've filed away the report, when the policy has been marked for payment, and I've returned to my post in the reception room to update the books, I get that sick feeling again in the pit of my stomach.

#

It's four hours later in the bar down the street, after I've finished my third drink in four songs on the jukebox that Davis senses something has changed. He noticed me flipping through some of the reference books of statute law and then leaving early for the bar. He didn't notice the four drinks I had before he arrived, but he's seen me put enough empties onto the Formica to make that a minor point.

"Ian," he says slowly, "what happened?"

"Didn't I tell you not too long ago?"

"Yes, but I remember you prefaced it by saying that you'd finished your report. You then looked something up and left to get stinking drunk."

"As it happened, so shall I... have be to it written?"

"What happened?"

I take a long pull of my drink and turn. "It could have happened, and is the easiest thing to have happened." Davis continues to stare. "To us, at least."

I sigh. Davis finishes his drink and waits. It didn't matter that it didn't matter; he won't let it go.

"All right. Fine. Here, in New York, if you're under the age of seven, you can't commit a crime. At least, you can't be convicted of one. You aren't judged to have the legal culpability to be held responsible."

"That's it?"

"Well, yeah. I mean, murder's a legal term. And if there can't be a murderer, there can't be a murder."

He doesn't get it. So I say it again, a little bit clearer. Davis says that he just doesn't get it, so I ask him which part he doesn't get.

"That Lowell's six year old kid shot him? That this kid – precocious, if anything a genius – overheard an argument and realized that if Daddy ran away with his typing girl, he'd lose out on a couple of million dollars? That the next morning, Mr. Charles Archibald Lowell, in an attempt to curry his son's favor in the face of a likely bitter divorce and custody battle, took the boy hunting – a special treat, given that his mother hated for him to even play with toy guns? And that this kid supposes that sometimes things can happen accidentally on purpose, especially with guns?"

He's quiet for a moment. Then he tells me which part he doesn't get.

"You really think that happened?"

I shrug and put money on the bar. "Your pick, Davis. That or the snake thing, although it bears noting that the only native rattler to these parts is not only the sole venomous species – a fact that any hunter would know – and distinctively colored, but never grows to a length of more than about twenty inches." I shrug my coat on and turn to leave for the evening, not looking forward to the next morning.

"Either way, it's a reach."

©2009

 

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