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By Warren Murphy
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1982 Warren Murphy
All rights reserved.
There should have been a couple of drunks unconscious on the floor and maybe a hooker sitting at a table, sucking her thumb and making diseased eyes at any man who came through the door. Instead there were just these two old rumdums in the tavern, sitting around the far corner of the L-shaped bar, arguing.
So Julian Burroughs was annoyed. He stopped just inside the door of the tavern to listen to what the two customers were arguing about.
"What do you mean, 'interview ended'?" said one of them. He wore a cable-knit sweater despite New York City's summer heat. His face was genetically red.
The second man wore a blue chambray workshirt and a felt hat with sweat stains around the band. He stared down at his drink as if expecting it to flee.
"Interview ended," he said tonelessly.
"You don't say interview ended to me. I ain't somebody you say interview ended to. Am I, Freddy?" The man in the sweater looked at the bartender who was sitting on a stool, reading a newspaper, guarding his cash register. The bartender looked up in bored annoyance, stared at the man in the sweater and without any glimmer of interest, looked back at his newspaper.
"See? If you don't wanna talk to me, you just don't talk to me. You just don't say interview ended."
"Interview ended," the man in the hat said again.
Julian Burroughs shook his head in disgust, walked the length of the bar, passing up a dozen empty stools, and took the seat directly between the two men. They both turned to look at him and the man in the sweater said, "What do you think? You hear what he said to me? What do you think of that?"
"What do I think?" Burroughs said. "What I think is that this place needs a hooker at a table. It needs classier drunks than just you two. You're hardly enough to give the place any real character and I've got a big business meeting scheduled here. I wanted to impress my boss but this place just isn't tacky enough for that. Nothing's any good in New York City these days. I wish the two of you would shut up. That's what I think. Interview ended."
He asked the bartender for vodka on the rocks.
The man in the sweater said, "What do you ...?"
Julian Burroughs raised his right index finger for silence and shook his head. "Don't say it, pal, or this interview will really be ended."
The bartender said, "Ernie, you come down here." He picked up Ernie's beer glass and moved it down to the middle of the bar. Ernie followed it as if it were the magnetic north pole and he were an iron filing.
"Don't move him too far away," Burroughs said. "The farther away he gets, the braver he's going to get and the more he's going to talk. I'm not really at the top of my form but if he lips off too much I'm going to have to cancel his reservation."
The man with the hat, on Julian Burroughs' right, was silently watching this conversation. Burroughs took a ten-dollar bill from his wallet and put it on the bar in front of him, as Freddy poured bar vodka into a rocks glass.
"Ernie's a pain in the ass," the man in the hat said.
Burroughs said, "I liked you better when you didn't ad-lib. Go sit over there." He pointed to the corner of the bar against the wall, three stools away. The man in the hat moved.
Freddy turned to replace the vodka on the shelf behind the bar, but Burroughs already had drained his drink and said, "Do it again, Freddy."
Walter Brackler, vice-president for claims of the Brokers' Surety Life Insurance Company, stood inside the doorway, as if unsure whether to step farther into the tavern, run away, or issue an urgent appeal to the Board of Health. Julian Burroughs saw him and waved to him.
"Come on in, Kwash," he called. "There's plenty of room here. My friends here, Sweater and Hat, moved just to make room for you."
Brackler walked the length of the bar and climbed onto a stool next to Burroughs. He was a small man, barely five feet tall, and his face was sour and wrinkled as if his mother had been a lemon and he had been weaned on citric acid.
"Nice place you bring me to, Digger," he said. "Just once, couldn't we meet in the office?" He ordered club soda.
"Ahh, anybody can meet in the office," Digger said. "I think you can always get more done in a bar."
"You seem to have gotten a lot done already."
"You mean I'm drinking too much?"
"You always drink too much."
"The infinite variety of the human species, Kwash."
"Don't get started," Brackler said.
"I suppose you're going to ruin the great charm of this place by trying to insinuate work into it," Digger said.
"Read this." Brackler pushed a newspaper clipping toward him. Freddy turned with the club soda and Brackler turned the glass around in his hand, apparently examining it for cracks and dirt, before he sipped the drink.
After Digger read the clipping, he said, "Too bad. But at least they died in a state of grace, on their way to a religious retreat. Right now their immortal souls are with Jesus."
"And their mortal insurance is with Brokers' Surety Life Insurance Company," Brackler said.
"What would you say if I told you six million dollars?"
"Six million? How the hell did you guys wind up writing six million dollars' insurance?"
Brackler shook his head. "You know those airport insurance machines? We just started moving into that. Our luck, everybody on this goddam plane bought insurance from us. I can just see them, putting in their little twelve quarters to buy a hundred and fifty thou of insurance. They must have stood there in a freaking line, buying insurance, trying to bankrupt our freaking company."
"I can understand your being upset, but let's face it, accidents happen. That's why we have insurance companies. What has this got to do with me?"
"They all had the same beneficiary," Brackler said. "The Reverend Damien Wardell, pastor of The Church of the Unvarnished Truth. What kind of name is that for a church? He's going to get the six million."
"Now that's interesting," Digger said. "What do you think happened?"
"I don't know. But for six million dollars, somebody might have planted a bomb on that freaking plane."
"My ex-wife would plant a bomb on my plane for free," Digger said.
"She's in good company. Anyway, Mister Stevens thinks a six-million-dollar claim should be looked into. So do I."
"Look," Digger said, "there were forty people on that plane plus a pilot. Cut me a break. It'll take forever to check that out."
"You've got time."
Digger looked past him toward Sweater who had been trying to eavesdrop on their conversation. He turned away. Digger looked behind him at Hat, who began examining the wall next to his seat.
"Do you know it's a proven fact that everybody in the world has five people who want to kill them?" Digger said.
"You've probably got more than five, but I don't. Only my ex-wife. Maybe my kids, What's-his-name and the girl. The wife has poisoned their minds against me, but I don't think they're dangerous yet. Five potential killers for everybody in the world. Now with forty-one people on that plane, that means ... forty-one times five ... two hundred and five potential murderers that have to be checked out. That's an awful lot."
"The entire claims division is at your disposal. We've got a lot of people working for us. Take what you need."
"No, thank you. If I have to do it, I'd rather do it myself. I've seen your investigative staff. They couldn't find a bull moose in a bathtub. I'll bring my own help."
"You're not bringing that girl, are you?"
"She's a blackjack dealer, for Christ's sakes."
"A good one, too."
"Do you think this plane crash is a Nipponese plot? Besides, she's half-Italian. Actually," Digger said, "she might not want to help us. Insurance work is a comedown for her."
"Do what you want to do. Just do it."
"You say everybody on the plane had insurance?"
"Yeah. Well, everybody but one. Cheap bastard, probably couldn't find the twelve quarters to dump in the machine to gouge us."
"Pilot have insurance, too?"
"Yes. Another one of our airport policies."
"Who was his beneficiary?" Digger asked.
"That's inordinately interesting."
"I thought you'd find it so," Brackler said. "Next time, can we meet in the office?"
"Offices are so inhibiting."
"Dammit, Digger, you work for us."
"Only occasionally. And who is us? Actually, I was hired by Frank Stevens, our favorite insurance company president." He crossed himself.
"To my everlasting regret," Brackler said. "I'll tell Mr. Stevens you're working on it."
"And give Frank my love while you're at it."
"Digger, keep the expenses down."
"As long as it doesn't involve my flying Inter-world."
After Brackler left, Digger went to the public telephone and made a credit-card call to the Araby Casino in Las Vegas. When he got the casino manager's office, he said: "I've got a message for Miss Tamiko Fanucci. She's one of your blackjack dealers."
"I'm sorry, sir, but dealers are not allowed to get telephone calls while ..."
"I know that. Will you please do me a favor?"
"I can't allow ..."
"Take down this number." Digger read the number off the pay telephone.
"Yes," the woman said.
"When Miss Fanucci gets a break, tell her to call that number. On her next break. It's very important."
"This is all very irregular."
"So was my Uncle Mel. Then he started drinking herbal tea. It straightened everything out. He was on the Jewish side of my family. The other side is Irish. They're always regular."
"Excuse me, is your name Digger?"
"Why didn't you say so? I was warned when I first came here that you might call occasionally. I'm supposed to give you anything you want, as long as it doesn't cost the casino any money."
"This won't cost anything. I even paid for the call myself. So you'll tell Koko?"
"Thank you. By the way, how'd you know it was me if you never talked to me before?"
"Mister Needham, the manager, told me how to recognize you."
"How was that?"
"He said you were crazy."
Digger had finished yet another drink when the telephone rang. Sweater started for the phone.
"Don't bother, it's for me," Digger said.
"How's the most beautiful woman in Las Vegas?" he asked.
"You were supposed to call last night," she said.
"Koko, I did call," Digger said.
"You didn't. I was home."
"Okay, then I didn't."
"Where were you?" she asked.
"I don't remember. If I couldn't remember where I was, you couldn't expect me to remember our phone number, could you?"
"Scratch it. What do you want?"
"I want to invite you to go on vacation with me."
"Tonight. Think about it. Ocean. Surf. The lap of luxury. All the things you won't see in Las Vegas."
"I just bought two new bathing suits. How long would we stay?"
"How's a week sound?"
"It's usually seven days," Digger said.
"I'll buy five more bathing suits."
"Good. Charge them to me," Digger said.
"You don't have a charge account anywhere. Nobody trusts you."
"Then pay for them and I'll give you the money back."
"I don't trust you, either, Digger."
"Good girl. Get the suits and come on down. We both deserve a rest from Vegas."
"I know. I haven't had a real vacation in so long."
"Maybe we'll stay longer than a week," Digger said.
"It would be terrific," Koko said. "This is really nice of you."
"I'm just basically a nice person," Digger said. He looked around the bar. Sweater was shaking his head no. So was Hat.
"No matter what anybody says," Digger said, "I am really a nice person."CHAPTER 2
"You're really looking very nice. Is that a new dress? Brown goes with your yellow skin. You look like a very healthy banana."
"Is that anyway to talk to the man who brought you to Fort Lauderdale?"
"No. You're right. You are a pusillanimous, recreant, craven dastard of a prick."
"Dastard's not a noun."
"Yes, it is."
"This is a very unprofessional attitude on your part, Koko."
"I bought seven bikinis. Now I'm supposed to work instead of lying on the beach?"
"You can wear them to bed."
"Bulldookie. I'm wearing chain mail to bed. Armor. Chastity belts. Pull your pudding, you're not touching me."
"I hate it when women use sex to gain their ends," Digger said.
"Nice motel, too. You sure you can afford the eight dollars a day?" She looked around in disgust, then slapped her hand against the ratty blanket on the bed and nodded when a little puff of dust rose from it.
"Everything else is booked up," Digger said. "We're first on the waiting list at the Howard Johnson's. Listen, stop complaining, I'll work, and you lay around on the beach. How's that?"
"Big deal. Except Fleabag Arms here is sixty miles from the beach. Anyway, you'll start bumbling and stumbling around and I'll wind up doing what I always have to do."
"Saving your bacon," Koko said.
"I won't need you this time. This whole job's a chipshot."
"Yes. Only two hundred and five suspects. I proved it to Walter Brackler with infallible Aristotelian logic. He was very impressed and he agreed totally."
"I hate you, Digger."
"As long as you're here, make the most of it. I really wanted you to have a vacation."
"You wanted an unpaid assistant, admit it."
"I don't need you. I'm the expert after all."
"You're nothing without me."
"Oh?" said Digger, as if it were news to him.
"What can you do without me?"
"Light cigarettes in the wind. Women can never light cigarettes in the wind."
"I give up but I hate you anyway."
"Want to make love?"
"Yes, but not to you."
"You'll come around. I'm irresistible."
"I finally know why your ex-wife didn't contest the divorce. What I don't understand is why she just didn't kill you before you left."
"Time out," Digger said. He reached behind him, under his jacket, and through his shirt pressed a button. After a few seconds, he pressed another button. Koko's voice, loud and metallic, filled the small motel room.... "pusillanimous, recreant, craven dastard of a prick."
Koko listened for a few more sentences, then clapped her hands over her ears. Digger turned off the tape recorder.
"Must you always wear that thing? Being with you is like a lifetime pass to the filming of 'Candid Camera.'"
Digger patted the tape recorder on his right hip. "The tools of the trade," he said. "I'd be nothing without it."
"You're nothing with it," Koko said.
"That's fair enough," Digger said.CHAPTER 3
Tape recording number one, 2:30 A.M. Monday, make that Tuesday, Julian Burroughs in the matter of the Interworld Airlines crash.
I'm talking softly because Koko is sleeping. Or pretending to sleep. Koko, your tits are too small. I hate yellow women, particularly when they think they're smart. You're also lousy in bed and I'm glad you lost World War II.
Okay, she's really asleep but I'll talk softly anyway. There is a simple rule in checking out potential insurance frauds. Get on the tail of the guy who gets rich.
That will be the Reverend Damien Wardell, the pastor of, God help me but it's true, The Church of the Unvarnished Truth.
But there are ways of doing it and ways of doing it. I don't like to go right after somebody frontally. I kind of like to nibble around the edges some and get some background. I think I'll just go and hear one of his sermons first. Maybe I can still be saved.
Brackler has promised the list of victims on the plane crash so soon I'll have names and ages and addresses.
I took Koko for a late dinner tonight. I think she really liked the diner down the road. But she said she wouldn't help me. I'll win her over, though. I'd like to think that's because of my charm, but I don't know. She makes a good part of her living by letting people think they're getting over on her. It's part of her casino's hospitality policy, asking her to be nice to high rollers who suddenly get stricken with yellow fever. Ahhhh, she does what she wants to do and I work for Walter Brackler. So which one's the whore?
I wish my mother liked Koko so I could ask her to explain her to me. Shit. I wish my mother liked me. My mother doesn't like anybody, including my father. Maybe she liked Uncle Phil, the only Jewish drunk besides me in the whole world. His liver exploded in the Bronx one day and closed down the George Washington Bridge in both directions for ninety minutes. Shadow Traffic went batshit.
The question of the day: why did that pilot insure himself at some airport machine? Why did he name some hop-in-the-ass preacher as his beneficiary? I read a book once by Bernard Wolfe. One of the chapter headings was "What Ho. Smelling Strangeness."
I'll do my expenses tomorrow.
Excerpted from Fool's Flight by Warren Murphy. Copyright © 1982 Warren Murphy. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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