Read an Excerpt
The Scared Stiff
By Donald E. Westlake
MysteriousPress.comCopyright © 2002 Judson Jack Carmichael
All rights reserved.
I don't know, maybe it's because we wanted so much, Lola and me, that we wound up with so little. So far, I mean. The moneymaking schemes, the trends we latched onto, the brass rings we kept reaching for, none of them ever worked out.
The problem is, the world keeps changing. It just keeps changing all the time, too fast for a simple little couple like us to keep up, much less to succeed. Today it's VCR, tomorrow it's DVD. Today it's day-trading, tomorrow it's Chapter 11. Today it's dot com, tomorrow it's dot bomb, and we managed to get burned, one way or another, on every one of those. But through it all, through it all, Lola and I just kept hustling. What else was there for us to do?
When I first met Lola, fourteen years ago, I knew; I absolutely knew, and so did she. Alone, what were we? Not much: me, a middle-class nobody from Long Island with a community college degree in Communications (even I didn't know what that meant exactly); Lola, a penniless South American beauty with a charity scholarship to some minor Florida college because she was the brightest child of her generation down there in Guerrera. Alone, each of us was just another anonymous commoner, shuffling along with the crowd.
But together? Together we were special; we were fantastic from the very beginning. We were glamour and we knew it; we could sense it, feel it. We could see ourselves dancing in the moonlight, the couple everybody looks at and wants to be, swirling to the music that played just for us.
All we ever wanted was to live the life we'd imagined: fascinating, enchanted, forever above the herd, deserving simply because we were, we existed, together.
But it wasn't enough. It was never quite enough. We had scrapes and close calls and financial disasters over the years, tough times when our most exciting ideas just somehow never panned out. We lived on whatever credit we could find. When I told landlords, "I've been thrown out of better places than this," it was usually the truth. For most of our married life, we had to pretend to be a visiting houseguest if we ever answered a doorbell or a phone, and usually we preferred not to answer at all. Nor read much of our mail.
Still, we kept one jump ahead of the bill collectors for a good long time, fourteen years of perilous off-balance joy. The rackety life itself became our glamour, a desperate romantic struggle to remain true to our image of ourselves, like spies, more charming than those base creatures who could think about nothing but money.
Finally, though, there came the moment when it all caught up with us. The debts were too heavy, the most recent debtors too ruthless, the situation too dangerous, the peril finally too real. We might get our legs broken; we might even be killed.
So it was with a real sense of last resort that I at last turned to Lola and said, "There's nothing for it. We have to borrow on our life insurance."
"Oh, Barry," she said, sudden tears glistening in her eyes. "Is there no other way?"
It may seem strange that people who care as little about sordid reality as Lola and I do would even bother with life insurance, but that had also been a part of our commitment to each other from the beginning. We knew we were bound to one another, we were something more than true, something more than faithful constant. In an inconstant world, we would be, for one another, the only constant.
But what if one of us were to die, young or even not so young? The other might want to follow, but shouldn't. So the first thing we did, home from the wedding trip to Guerrera, was take out the life insurance policies, three hundred thousand on each of us, naming each other as beneficiary. That way, if one died, the last gift to the other was a starter kit for the new life.
I never thought we'd touch those policies. But now our straits were truly dire. "I hate the thought, Lola," I said. "You know I do."
"I know you do, Barry, of course you do." She put her arms around me, kissed me, and said, "Tell me what you want to do."
"I'll call the insurance agent," I said, "and ask him how much equity we've got. In fourteen years, it ought to add up to something."
She sighed. "You know best," she said.
So I made the call. "Steve, I was wondering. Our life insurance policies. How much equity do we have in them?"
He said, "Equity?" as though it were some word in a foreign language.
But that is the word they use in the insurance business, isn't it? The cash-in value of the policy, slowly growing over the years? I said, "Value, Steve, what's the value in there now, if we wanted to borrow against those policies?"
"Barry," he said, "you don't have that kind of insurance."
"What? I'm talking about our life insurance policies."
"I know you are," he said. "Those are term policies."
Right then, I knew. I didn't yet know what I knew, but I knew. Somehow, there was no salvation for us in those insurance policies. I said, "What do you mean, term policies. Don't we have life insurance policies?"
"Yes, of course," he said. "But you said you weren't interested in building equity."
"How can you have life insurance and not—? Steve, what kind of policy is this?"
"I thought you understood," he said. "Back when you took out those policies, you and Lola, you both said all you cared about was maximum survivor's benefits at minimum premium cost, and I said term insurance, and you both said yes. The term you chose is five years, remember?"
I did remember something about terms and five years and automatically renewable at adjusted premiums and all that, but who listens to such things? I said, "Steve. What you're saying. What does it mean?"
"It means," he said, "you carry insurance that will pay your survivor if you die, and double if you die in an accident, but that's all the policy does."
"You mean ?"
"Barry," he said, "you never bought a policy that would accrue equity. That would have cost considerably more, and you didn't want it. You wanted the biggest bang for the buck. Remember saying that?"
I did. "Yes," I said.
"I'm sorry if you didn't follow—"
"No no no, not your fault," I said.CHAPTER 2
"It's unfair," lola said that night, the two of us sitting up in bed, not ready for sleep. "We've put that money in all these years, and it should be there to help us when times get bad."
"Not with that kind of policy," I said. "It is fair, the deal they've made, if we listen to them. They'll only help us if we're dead."
"If one of us is dead," she said.
"Well, yes," I agreed, and very late that night, she woke me by elbowing me in the ribs, crying, "Barry! Barry!"
I opened groggy eyes and blinked at her, and her whole face was luminous in the dark.
"Barry!" she said, in a loud whisper, like a stage aside. "One of us is gonna die!"
Well, that woke me up, all right. Sitting up, gaping at her, I said, "What?"
"For the insurance!" she whispered, bubbling with excitement. "One of us makes believe to be dead, so we get the insurance money!"
I was having trouble keeping up. "How can we make believe we're dead? Fake a death? Lola, they'll catch us right away."
"Not in Guerrera," she said.
I stared at her. Guerrera. Her homeland, her little country down in South America. "Lola," I whispered; now I was whispering too.
"I've been lying here awake," she told me, "just thinking about it. We know people there, we have family there."
"They keep terrible records down there," I said. "The police force isn't the most advanced in the world."
"The death can be there," Lola said. "The funeral, too."
As excited as Lola by now, I said, "We can get a death certificate in Guerrera for a pack of cigarettes!"
"A little more than that," she said, "but not much."
I contemplated this wonderful idea. "It could work," I said.
She pointed at me. "It has to be you," she said.
I said, "It has to be me? Why?"
"If I go down there," she told me, "and have a convenient accident, a local girl who moved to the States and her husband insured her for a zillion siapas, everybody will smell a rat. We don't want to raise suspicion."
"Okay, you're right," I said. "It has to be me."
"But not now," she said. "It's too soon since you talked to Steve about life insurance."
"You're right. We'll wait till January," I said. "We can hold off for four months. We'll wait till we'd normally go down there anyway, for our post-Christmas visit."
"Perfect," she said. "Then the gringo has his accident, and his grieving widow can talk both to the locals and to anybody who comes down from the States."
"That puts it all on you, Lola," I said. "That could get pretty tricky."
"I'd love it," she assured me. "Come on, Barry, you know me."
I did. I grinned at her. "Okay," I said. "Looks like I'm gonna die."
"I'm sure you'll do it very well," she said.
"Thank you. Only, what then? I don't want to spend the rest of my life in Guerrera."
"Barry," she said, "I thought about that too. All I've been doing is lying here thinking. I don't know everything, we'll have to figure some of this out together, but I know how to get you back to the States when it's all over."
"Good. Tell me."
"I had two brothers that died young," she reminded me. "There's birth certificates on file up in San Cristóbal but nothing else. With a birth certificate, you can make up a whole new identity.
"You mean, become one of your brothers."
"Grow a mustache," she said. "Work on your tan. You could look Guerreran with no trouble at all. Wait a minute, my brothers' names " She thought, trying to remember, then remembered. "Who would you rather be, Felicio or Jesus?"
"Jesus!" I said.
She looked at me in some surprise. "Really? I didn't think you'd—"
"No no no no no, I don't want to be Jesus; that's not what I meant. I want to be the other one."
"Felicio. That's not bad."
"It means happy," she said.
"Oh, good," I said. "I've become one of the seven dwarfs."
"Felicio Tobón de Lozano," she said, rolling the name around in her mouth.
I said, "So I'd come back to the States as him—"
"And live with your sister."
"I'd like that," I said.CHAPTER 3
The first time lola and I flew from New York down to Guerrera, it was to meet her parents, Alvaro and Lucía, and her brother Arturo. The second time, three months later, was when we got married in the little white stone church in Sabanon, the up-country town where Lola grew up.
Since then, we visit Guerrera regularly once a year, in January, bringing belated Christmas gifts, escaping the northern winter for two weeks, usually maxing a credit card or two. The transition from Long Island's icy damp to Guerrera's humid heat is always blurred by several hours of air-conditioning in planes and airports, but it's still a kick to step out onto the portable stairs and suddenly feel that warm moist hand of the tropics press against my face.
General Luis Pozos International Airport at San Cristóbal, capital of Guerrera, was built with American money, to keep the Commies out, and you have to admit it worked. Communism has not taken over in this part of the world; it's still feudalism around here, same as ever. But the American money meant American design, great flat open paved areas baking blindingly in the sun, surrounded by squat square buildings with flat roofs. The local people would have left trees wherever possible, and open walls and wide eaves, so shadows and breezes could moderate the air without killing it. But it wasn't their money, was it? So there you are.
The local officials, young, in their pressed uniforms and close neat haircuts, tend to be very serious, very dignified. As usual, I handed over my passport without a word and tried to look innocent. Or at least not guilty.
Lola has dual citizenship but has never renewed her old maroon passport. She travels as an American, though she always does say something to the immigration official in guttural Guerreran Spanish to let him know she's really a local, and he always smiles and thaws and welcomes her home.
Unfortunately, though I've learned a rough-and-ready Spanish over the last fourteen years, I never did become fluent, which I lately regret. It would really come in handy. Because we were doing it, we were going to do it.
That's the way it's always worked with Lola and me. One of us gets an idea, we discuss it, the enthusiasm builds, we say, "We'll do it!"—and we do it and never look back. (Usually don't look forward, either, which frequently becomes a problem, but let's not dwell on that.)
When officialdom finished with us, we went out the other side of the building, and there was Arturo, leaning on the twenty-year-old pale green Chevy Impala that's his pride and joy. It rocks and rolls on Guerrera's smallpox-scarred roads like a fishing boat in a high sea, and Arturo loves it, left hand out the window to press palm down on the roof, right hand clutching hard to the steering wheel.
Arturo's a big guy, big-boned, thirty-eight years old, three years older than Lola and me. He works in the tobacco fields sometimes, uses his Impala as a taxi sometimes, does fairly good carpentry and adequate plumbing and terrifying electrical work sometimes, but mostly he just hangs around. He has a wife and some children in San Cristóbal, and technically he lives with them, but where you'll find him is at his parents' house.
Now he threw us a big grin and an "¡Hola!" and relieved Lola of her big leather shoulder bag and canvas overnighter. I went on carrying my own two bags, and we went around to the back of the Impala for Arturo to unwind some wire and open the trunk. In the bags went, the wire was refastened, and we all slid onto the wide front bench seat, Lola in the middle.
Arturo started the engine, and Lola said, "So, Artie, how are you?"
"How could I be?" He grinned and winked past her at me, then spun the wheel and drove us away from the anticommunist airport building. "Same as ever, I'm great," he said.
We drove through the chain-link fence, its gate kept open by day and closed by night; no red-eye flights in or out of Guerrera.
Lola said, "How about the other thing? Are we all set?" We'd been scheming with him the last four months, by e-mail.
We were on the highway now, the Impala gathering speed. The capital, San Cristóbal, stood just a few miles north of the airport, but Arturo had turned the other way, toward Sabanon, eighty-five miles to the south.
The flat baking airport disappeared behind us. Dark-green hilly jungle out ahead. A few trucks laden with coffee sacks or beer cases or workers or sugarcane, and us. The wind felt good and smelled alive.
Arturo leaned forward to look past Lola at me, and grin his wide grin, and call, "¡Hola, Felicio!"
Felicio. Felicio Tobón de Lozano, that's me. Get used to the name. With my own big smile, I called, "¡Hola, Arturo! ¡Hola, hermano!"
Brother. That's a Spanish word I know.CHAPTER 4
Sabanon is prettier from a distance than up close. It's on the Guiainacavi River, a small meandering stream, tributary of a tributary of a tributary of the Orinoco, up in Venezuela. Sabanon is built inside one of its elbows, so that the slow-moving brown water glints past it in the sunlight on three sides.
The main approach to town is from the fourth side, the north, the road down from San Cristóbal, which here is crumbling two-lane asphalt. The first bit of the city you see, and beautiful it is, is the gleaming white steeple of the church of San Vicente, where Lola and I were married. That slender white spire striking up out of the deep greens of the jungle makes it look as though there must be a giant knight on horseback down in there, at the very least. But what's down in there, as you soon see, is Sabanon, a crumbling cluster of low buildings in the brown embrace of the river.
The town is made of wood, most of it decades from its last paint job, though here and there some owner has recently gone mad with purple or carmine or ocher, creating a little extravaganza you can't look at directly until after sunset. The town has a population of four thousand, and there are maybe seven satellite dishes perched on roofs, one of them belonging to my in-laws, which we gave them three years ago when I thought I was, or would soon be, rich.
Excerpted from The Scared Stiff by Donald E. Westlake. Copyright © 2002 Judson Jack Carmichael. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.