When con artistry yet again fails to make Barry Lee rich quick, he figure he's got only one asset left: his life. Or, rather, the insurance on it. So it is that Barry and his beautiful South American wife, Lola, set out to play the globalization of the insurance industry to their fiscal advantage. In Lola's native Guerrara where corruption comes disguised as efficiency and a coroner finds it unnecessary to see the corpse before certifying its decease, they successfully stage Barry's spectacular and very public accidental death.
Barry's afterlife, though proves to be more problematic, especially when Lola's blunt-minded and ham-fisted cousins reckon there's less profit in a con than in a corpse.
Fleeing the alarming discovery that he's not dead enough, Barry runs through a series of identities from a native taxi driver to a Hollywood movie producer as he strives to escape the hilarious if harrowing effects of his own demise in this masterfully devised, riotously comic, non-stop suspenseful romp of a tale.
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The Scared Stiff
By Judson Jack Carmichael
Carroll & Graf Publishers
Copyright © 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.
"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."
Excerpted from The Scared Stiff by Judson Jack Carmichael. Copyright © 2002 by Judson Jack Carmichael. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.