By Colin Harrison
Picador Copyright © 2009 Colin Harrison
All rights reserved.
AN UNEXPECTED CALL
In my line of work, I've been asked to do a lot of unpleasant things over the years, and I've performed these tasks more or less without complaint. So maybe certain recent events in my life shouldn't have upset me. Shouldn't have knocked me back a step. But they did. Hey, I'm a little older now. The gray is really coming in, though my wife, Carol, says she likes it. In New York City, guys like me end up accumulating dings and bruises and scrapes, just like the banged-up delivery vans you see in Chinatown. Battered, dented, suspensions shot. Engines work but not at high speed. Run, for now. High mileage. That's me, especially these days, after what I found myself asked to do. A strange and unexpected task. Well, I did it but I can't say it was a good thing for anyone, especially me.
I got the call on the second Friday of last April, a sloppy, cold day. The price of oil was bouncing around violently, pushing gold and the dollar in opposite directions with each move. Oil down, dollar up. Oil up, gold up. Dollar down, gold up. The stock market, so recently up after being so recently down, was down again, and everyone I knew was hoping that we wouldn't all be sucked into a giant, cheap-dollared vortex of inflation. Or jolted by yet another sudden drop in economic confidence. Many of the folks in my firm had been slyly loading up on gold for months and no doubt counted themselves smart for betting against the American economy. Me, I'd done nothing slick to prepare for the fiscal apocalypse of the century. All I wanted to do was to go home and have dinner with Carol, maybe sit out on our balcony and drink some cheap wine while we ate. Usually I ask if she's heard from our daughter, Rachel, who was in her first year in college then. Or we gossip about the neighbors, speculating about their sex lives, pill habits, and overall psychic cohesion. Living in an apartment building, you learn things about people, whether you want to or not. Otherwise we'll often go to the movies a few blocks away on Broadway. Or ride the train up to Yankee Stadium, take in a game. Such is the state of our marriage these days. A lot of domestic ritual, laced with middle-aged decay. The occasional halfhearted fight, over the usual topics. Just to clean out the pipes. But neither of us stays angry too long. There's wine to drink, gossip to enjoy. Carol and I usually check in with each other around 4:00 P.M., to see what the evening's plan is, and that was when Anna Hewes called me from the other side of our floor.
"George, I just spoke to Mrs. Corbett."
"The original Mrs. Corbett?"
"Of course," said Anna. "I'm coming over to talk to you."
Mrs. Corbett's late husband, Wilson Corbett, was the founder of our firm, back in the sixties. Anna Hewes was Corbett's old secretary — and I mean old as in "former" but also as in "long past retirement age." Anna spends her time in the personnel office now; they ginned up a job for her when it was clear she was slowing down. But she still arrives early, makes the coffee on her floor, sits in for the receptionist on her breaks, alphabetizes files — that kind of thing. Back in the day she sat in the red-hot center of the universe, when Wilson Corbett was personally running thirty cases at once, sometimes on two phones, working the London bosses, the Chicago investigators, all of them. The guy was a pistol, buckets of energy. He had Anna, and she had two younger women working for her, just trying to keep up.
I'd really liked the guy, admired him. And I owed him a lot. It was Wilson Corbett who'd hired me when I was a kid, pulled me out of the muddy waters of the Queens DA's office back in the eighties. I've been here ever since, too. After Corbett retired, he showed up from time to time, trying to get a whiff of the good old days, but he slipped fast. He'd worked so hard all those long decades that not much was left. Within a few years he didn't recognize people, forgot how to get around the office. His visits dribbled down to just the Christmas party, when he'd shake hands with the people who still remembered him, and then he finally went off and died, as we all do. The whole firm attended the funeral. No one had much discussed Mrs. Corbett, figuring she had plenty of money, a couple of sons — Wall Street guys, as I remembered — and would do whatever old ladies who live on Park Avenue do with themselves at that age.
Now Anna Hewes poked her head in my office. She takes great care with her appearance. Makeup tasteful, dye job perfect, dentures glued in.
"What's Mrs. Corbett want?" I asked.
"She says please tell George Young to come up to her apartment at five o'clock today."
"That was it?"
"If I knew more I'd tell you."
"I'm surprised she even knows my name."
At this Anna gave me a little extra look, but then glanced down, as if she were keeping something to herself. I didn't give it much thought, though; Anna's been at the firm so long that she's gone a little bat-wango. I've learned over the years that 15 percent of the staff is either useless, incompetent, too old, or plain nuts. We get our occasional drunk or heroin addict, too. Anna's been in the 15 percent category for some time now, if you ask me, and frankly, I've wondered why she's still around. But this is the kind of thing the managing partners worry about, not me.
"You have the address?" I finally said.
Anna handed me a piece of paper.
"You have any idea what she wants?"
"She didn't say much, except that her health isn't good."
"She wants me to drop all that I'm doing, prance uptown, and go see her, with no explanation?"
"I'd rather go another time, when it's not totally inconvenient."
"She wants you now, she said."
"I'm very busy shuffling around the fates of desperate people here, Anna."
She gave me a look. She does know the business, I'll give her that.
"It's the right thing to do, George," Anna said. Then she left.
I returned to the work on my desk. I had a lot to do. I always have a lot to do, and generally I get it done in the time there is to do it. The firm is busy, carries about 160 cases at any one moment. Not bad for a small shop. Just a few partners. Plus a handful of career pack mules like me, and the young hotshots who don't stay long once they realize not much changes at the place. Why? Because Patton, Corbett & Strode has a very specialized clientele. One client, actually, a huge, multinational insurance company headquartered in one of the major European capitals. It has a famous old name, but I'm not going to say what it is. Everyone has heard of it, but this company is our client, and we maintain their confidentiality. People hear the company's name and think, What's a few hundred thousand, a million, for a company like that? It's exactly what it sounds like: money. We protect their money. Especially these days, when there's so much risk out there.
Our client's business is simple. Some people can't get insurance. Why? They once filed for bankruptcy, they have credit problems, or they own companies in dicey industries. Or maybe they have funny friends. Maybe a criminal record. Or their nationality is a matter of interpretation. They state one thing, the fine print says another. In any case, these people can't get coverage for fire, theft, natural disasters, embezzlement, liability, et cetera. Yet they must have insurance. Must! Somebody insists they have coverage. Who? The bank that so happily wrote them the giant mortgage. Or government regulators. Or business partners. But the applicant can't get insurance through the regular domestic carriers or the mainstream brokers, so they go to high-premium coverage. They pay extra — a lot extra. The previously unnamed company headquartered in a major European capital charges them an enormous premium, all based on the actuarial probability that these customers will, someday after disaster strikes, make a claim. Risk is monetized this way. It can be a very lucrative business. Most people don't realize that the insurance industry has more than two hundred years' worth of data about what human beings do with themselves.
Wilson Corbett himself used to say as much. "People think insurance companies are just mountains of abstractions," he once told me. "But all insurance companies really do is quantify faulty human behavior. They know a very regular percentage of people fall off ladders, crash their cars, and burn down their businesses. They know people are likely to cheat and lie and steal. Can't help themselves from doing it! And one thing correlates with another and that second thing correlates with a third thing, and pretty soon the underwriters know things about individuals before these people even know it about themselves. Sounds impossible, George, but it's true. I've seen underwriters jack up their premiums because they didn't like the tie the guy wore or the kind of car he drove. And they aren't wrong, either. Pretty soon there's a problem."
That's where we come in. When our client receives an American insurance claim it doesn't like, that smells funny, we get involved. I'm not talking petty fender benders or fake slip-and-fall cases. I mean fraud, arson, records destruction. We start asking a lot of questions. How did the warehouse burn down? What exactly was in it? Can you show us the suppliers' receipts to prove the inventory? We always ask for these answers on paper, mailed to us. Why? Because if a claimant lies in his answers and uses the U.S. mail to do so, that's mail fraud. Title 18 of the United States Code, Chapter 63, to be specific. We have special archival files we put envelopes in, so that the ink of postmarks does not fade. So we can use them in court as evidentiary exhibits. When we point out that lying by way of the U.S mail is itself a federal crime, that fact often has a motivating effect on the claimants. So busy were they brilliantly falsifying some other detail that they didn't think of that. The work can be exciting and a little nasty. Which, I confess, is interesting.
This was the business that Wilson Corbett pulled me into all those years ago. I'd soon realized I had to be tough-minded and professionally distrustful. But I liked the work, and it had paid my bills for a very long time now. I owed him a lot, and I try to keep my accounts in order. If Wilson's widow had asked for me, I really did have to go see what she wanted. Plus, if I didn't go, she'd ask someone else in the firm and it might get around to the managing partners that I had turned her down. That was part of my motivation, too, I admit it. Not that it does me any good now, though.
I slipped out at 4:30, not a bad time to get a cab uptown from Rockefeller Center, and by 5:00 was standing in the marble lobby of Mrs. Corbett's apartment building. The tall bellman was a piece of fossilized Irish timber, and his white hair and stiff blue uniform made him look like a retired admiral.
He was hesitant, inspecting me. "Mrs. Corbett, you say?"
I nodded. Maybe this meant she didn't get many visitors.
He dialed. Listened. "Yes, Mrs. — Yes, of course, right away."
The bellman set the phone down, then eyed me. "Now, can you do me a wee favor?"
"Keep an eye out for candles. She's been lighting them lately and forgetting. We've had a couple of incidents."
"And if I spot any?"
"Just let me know as you leave. I go up myself to blow them out."
A moment later I rang her bell. The door opened, and a thin, white-haired woman stood there, not smiling, not shaking my hand.
"Mrs. Corbett," I said.
She dropped her eyes down from my face, over my suit and tie and shoes. She'd seen a lot of lawyers in her time, and I suspected they didn't much impress her.
"So you came," she allowed, with no discernible tone of gratitude.
Mrs. Corbett turned and slowly led me back to the living room, a cave of pillows. The place had that sick old-person smell, which was not masked by the candles, their flames flickering. She sat back in an immense sofa.
"Mr. Young, my husband always said you were one of his smartest young fellows, and so I'm depending on him, you see."
"I liked Mr. Corbett a great deal," I told her, glad to say it. "He built the firm."
She settled in, preparing herself. Her ankles were swollen in the way of older people. "I'm going to try to tell you everything," she began. "I'm eighty-one years old. Life isn't exactly what it used to be. It becomes a series of shocks, Mr. Young. Things you never expected." She took a breath, and as she exhaled, she said, "My son Roger died a few months ago."
"I'm sorry to hear that. I don't think the firm got the news."
Mrs. Corbett nodded in a way that meant she preferred not to become emotional. "He was only fifty-one. Divorced, I'm afraid. There had been some business problems. He'd been married about twenty years. I really do like Roger's wife a great deal. Ex-wife, I mean. She's been very good to me, like a daughter. Did you ever meet him?"
"Maybe, if he came to any of the firm parties."
She sighed. "Anyway, Roger was killed in an accident. A plain old stupid accident. I don't want to describe it to you, but all the information is in that big green envelope over there." She pointed to a mahogany table. "He'd just walked out of a bar. He'd been sitting there alone for almost four hours. That much I do know. He wasn't a heavy drinker, absolutely not someone who spent a lot of time in such places."
Mrs. Corbett was looking at me intently now. "Mr. Young, the next thing you need to know is that I'm due to have surgery for a very leaky valve in my heart in six weeks. They say that if I don't have the surgery, I'll be dead in about three or four months. Dead as a doornail, my husband used to say. Or if I'm lucky and not actually dead yet, then I might as well be." She smoothed her old hand across a pillow. "So I'm going to do what the doctors tell me. But the operation is almost never done at my age. An old body doesn't take surgery too well. They give me a forty percent chance of surviving."
Bad odds, but she had to take them.
"The operation was only done two times last year in Manhattan on someone my age. One was to that nasty what's-his-name, very rich, trades in his wives every ten years or so. Has that awful orange hair. My husband used to play golf with him, said he cheated when he hit the ball in the rough. Well, he lived, unfortunately. The other man, a fine fellow, went kaput on the table."
"So either you die sometime this summer or you have the operation and have a chance to live awhile."
"Maybe even as long as five years. I'll get to see my grandchildren move along. That would be pretty darn good; that would make it all worthwhile, I hope. Now, I called you because I want to know something before I have the operation." She paused, looking at her candles. "I want to know why my son sat in that bar for four hours." Her voice held frustration, even anger, and she twisted the gold bracelet around her wrist. "I want to know what Roger was doing."
"You want to know why he died?"
"No. I know the accident was in fact an accident, but it happened just after he came out of the bar. He was in that bar for a reason."
"You want me to figure this out?"
The city was crawling with retired NYPD detectives trying to pay child support, augment their twenty-years-and-out pensions. "Why not hire someone who —?"
"I did, Mr. Young. He was highly recommended. He got some of the information that's in that green envelope. But he couldn't do it. He said he tried but it couldn't be done."
"I don't know why I —"
"My husband thought you were very capable. Said you were tenacious. I stay in touch with Anna Hewes. I know who's doing what there, you might be surprised to know."
I doubted Anna knew more than what she heard around the coffee machine on her floor, but then again, that might be enough.
"I realize your time is valuable," Mrs. Corbett went on, "and that this might take quite a bit of it, so I'm more than willing to pay whatever you think will be —"
I was already shaking my head. "If I help you I won't accept any money. We can call it repaying an old debt of gratitude to Mr. Corbett, okay?"
She seemed pleased to hear this. I, meanwhile, felt pretty glum.
"That envelope has some other things about Roger. His address, things like that. Some papers and keys."
I had a lot of questions, but Mrs. Corbett eased herself up, overly aware of how much strength it required. She kept one hand on the arm of the chair. With the other she handed me the large green envelope.
"I'll need to think about this for a few days," I said. But we both knew I was going to do it.
In the lobby on my way out, I saw the admiral. "Six candles," I told him. "Five in the living room, one in the hall."
He touched the brim of his blue cap. "Much obliged." (Continues...)
Excerpted from Risk by Colin Harrison. Copyright © 2009 Colin Harrison. Excerpted by permission of Picador.
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