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By Thomas Tessier
Dorchester PublishingCopyright © 2007 Thomas Tessier
All right reserved.
Chapter One"So, what have you got for me this time?" I asked.
Steve McAuliffe smiled. "Some mysterious so-called accidental deaths, a few nasty dismemberments. That kind of thing."
"All in one case?"
"That's what I want you to find out."
"Sounds like fun. Where?"
"A town called Winship, in Lauck County. It's way the fuck upstate, out in the middle of nowhere. The next nearest town is Schramburg, and that's more than twenty miles away."
I didn't know upstate at all; it was just a big blank nowhereland to me. But I knew it would be a long drive. That was okay-I'd rather drive than fly anywhere. We were sitting in Steve's second-floor corner office.
He runs an organization that goes by the clumsy name of the Insurance Industry Consulting Group. Some big companies kick in to help fund it, and he has a big mainframe that sometimes spits out very interesting information. Computers are starting to make a difference in this business. A woman is murdered. Her husband is not charged but the police have reason to suspect him. If she happened to be insured for $100,000 nobody would think twice about it, but if there were six or seven different policies on her, each in that amount, with companiesscattered across the land, then the picture would begin to look very different. Steve's powerful little team deals with such cases, and they never lack work.
I am a freelance insurance investigator. For a while I was a cop, but I gave it up. Too much boring paperwork and too many long hours spent hanging around the courthouse for petty bullshit cases. Then I was a private eye: working divorce cases, tracing bad fathers who skipped out on child support payments, looking for runaway teens. But the emotional wear and tear began to take a toll, and I often had to fight just to collect my expense money, so I was ready for a change when I landed my first insurance case. It was painless, elegant, and entertaining, and the company paid promptly.
"Upstate, okay," I said. "Tell me more."
"We're concerned about nineteen claims in the last two years. Call it sixteen-I don't want you to waste time on the three dismemberments. Sixteen accidental deaths."
"How many companies are involved?"
"How many local agents?"
"Right," Steve said with a smile of appreciation. "Three of the policies were bought by the parties concerned, but the sixteen we're dealing with came through one independent agent. A guy by the name of Joseph Bellman."
"Sixteen companies, sixteen claims, and one agent."
All the major insurance companies have their own trained investigators, but in a case like this it simply isn't practical to have sixteen different people out there, each one looking into his own little claim. The total payout on all the claims is more than enough, however, to justify sending in one man who will try to save everybody's money. Someone like me, Jack Carlson.
"Mr. Bellman sure spreads his business around."
"Yes, he does."
"Steve, you want me to look into sixteen different cases, talk to all the major people involved in each one?"
"No, no, that'd be too much," he replied with a wave of his hand. "Look through the files, pick two or three that grab you the most and see what you find with them."
"I trust your instincts, Jack. The companies are under growing pressure to pay up on these claims, and if you tell me everything feels okay, they'll do so. If you think something's wrong, then we'll back you all the way and we'll see where it all leads. You might start with Bellman. He's the central guy in this."
"Oh, I intend to start with him."
"Too many cases, too much money."
"Has anybody been there ahead of me?"
"Three companies not affiliated with us sent their own people in, but they had no luck. They decided Bellman looked okay, the claims were not outrageous, so they paid off and closed their books on it."
"Sounds a bit like Hopeville," I said.
"I had the same thought."
A couple of years ago Steve's people noticed that there had been a remarkable flurry of personal injury claims from the small town of Hopeville, down south, and he sent me to see what was going on there. It was a backwoods hamlet, desperately poor, and the people were very unfriendly. But there were an awful lot of shiny, brand-new Jeeps and pickups around the place. That was because close to half the adult male population of Hopeville had recently suffered an accident and collected the insurance on it. Most of the time it was a hand or a foot that got blown off in an unlikely hunting mishap. A small price to pay for a new Cadillac or truck. There wasn't much that could be done about it, except to put the word out in the industry. The folks in Hopeville are probably still poor, but they've got some pretty toys to help them while away the time.
"What's the total payout at risk here?" I asked.
"Two point four."
I liked that. I get a small retainer up front, and of course my expenses are covered, but in the final accounting I'm paid on a percentage basis, so the more I save the insurers, the more I get to take home. On the downside, if I don't save them anything, all I come away with is that dinky retainer. Sixteen cases, with two point four million dollars at stake. A lot of incentive.
"That's a nice number."
"Don't get excited," Steve said. "This doesn't sound easy."
"I know, but this guy Bellman has put up a lot of arrows and they're all pointing right at him. What's the story with the beneficiaries?"
"Just family members, spouses. Routine, nothing at all out of the ordinary there, or so it would seem."
"What about the local cops?"
"Not much help, but they haven't been a hindrance. They say a couple of the deaths might look a bit funny at a distance, but aren't really, and they haven't come up with anything. You know how it is."
"If it looks like an accident, write it up as an accident."
"Exactly. And I'll tell you right now, Jack, most of these cases do look like relatively simple, unfortunate accidents."
"But the probability is off."
"What have you found out about Bellman?"
"Not much. The State Insurance Commissioner's office has no record of any complaints against him. Ditto the police and civil courts. Seems like he was just an ordinary small-town insurance agent selling all the usual policies. Until the last two years, when people started dropping like flies on his turf."
"What would he get out of it?" I wondered aloud.
"That's your job, to find out," Steve said. "Remember?"
"Oh yeah. You said there were some dismemberments?"
"A few, yes." Steve shrugged. "They might not be connected in any way, but I've got a brief outline of those cases for you too, in case you do happen to come across anything relevant to them. Any significant claim that comes via Bellman is suspect now. Otherwise, don't bother spending much time on them."
I nodded. There was a green folder on Steve's desk, bulging with papers. "Is that my homework?"
"Yes. Sorry it's so big. I've thinned it down as much I can, but with sixteen different claims, well ..."
"That's okay. What about the other three?"
"You'll find a short summary of them in there for information, but they have been settled already. If you did manage to tie them into a fraud case, and any money is eventually recovered, I know that the companies involved would be happy to cut you in for your share."
"I won't hold my breath on that."
Steve laughed. "Yeah, recovery's always a breeze."
"You want this done right away, right?"
"A couple of the parties are now threatening legal action to force payment. So, the sooner the better. As in now. Any problem?"
"No, none at all," I said. "Today's Thursday. I'll make sure Bellman is going to be around next week. Assuming he is, I'll drive up over the weekend and get going first thing on Monday morning."
"Great. Oh, and here's our usual paperwork."
Steve and I each signed their standard hire agreement. I put my copy in my briefcase, along with the big fat file and my retainer check.
"You have the number of my direct line here."
"And my home number?"
"Yep, but I shouldn't need to bother you there."
"Don't worry about it, call any time you need to."
"Take care of yourself up there, it's a long way from anywhere."
I smiled and nodded. "I always do."
Later that afternoon I was back in my little office at home. It was originally the dining room, but from the day I moved in it has been my workspace. Now it's pretty cluttered, with a desk, some filing cabinets, a couple of chairs, and a growing library of reference books on shelves along the wall and stacked up on the floor in various places-they were edging toward the living room.
I looked through the file Steve had given me, just skimming. I didn't find anything that jumped up off the page at me. A good deal of it was vaguely familiar, since even accidental deaths and dismemberments tend to follow certain well-worn paths. You don't have to know anything about insurance to appreciate the beauty of a hunting accident. It has a classic simplicity. I was climbing over a barbed wire fence, my sleeve got snagged, I fell forward, the shotgun got pulled around and blowed my left hand off. Or, Unbeknowst to me, I stepped in a gopher hole and twisted my ankle real bad, and when I hit the ground, boom, the shotgun went off, and the next thing I knew, my other foot was disattached. It's funny, but these accidents seldom seem to happen when you have four guys sitting around together in a duck blind.
To get away with this kind of thing, all you really have to do is endure the pain and stick to your story. It's also a very good idea to have a friend nearby in the woods, not so close that he actually sees what happens, but to get you to the hospital so you don't inadvertently bleed to death.
The three cases that had already been paid off were hunting accidents like that, except that the people involved had died and it was their heads that had been disattached. Other people were in the area, but no one had actually seen the fatal accidents happen. I looked at one of the dismemberment cases, out of curiosity. A guy named Marcie Lebeau was cutting up some logs. A wood chip hit him in the eye, since he wasn't wearing goggles. He jumped, and the chain saw lopped off his hand-his left hand-at the wrist. He wrote that he would have taken the loose hand to the hospital to see if it could be reattached, but he passed out, and when his wife found him a few minutes later, the dog had made off with the hand and it couldn't be found. I kind of wanted to believe that one. Sometimes companies will stall on a claim like that just because the claimant is usually right-handed and the hand that is lost is usually the left one.
The file showed sixteen supposedly accidental deaths in less than two years. Some poor souls are so hard-pressed that they'll commit suicide and try to make it look like an accident so that their families will be left financially better off, though most companies specifically exclude suicides that occur in the first two years of the policy. I hate those cases. And then there's murder, sometimes staged as an accident, that most appealing of crimes-as long as it happens to someone else.
Seven men and nine women. All very ordinary, at first glance. A car crash on an icy road. A gas explosion. Two electrocutions. Not much so far. One man blew himself away with dynamite while working in his own garnet mine. Another man potted his wife while cleaning his rifle ("I would have swore on the Bible that the gun was empty"). A drowning, a fall, and so on, to the inevitable hunting accident ("I still don't believe it was Floyd, not a deer, but I guess it was").
I checked the atlas. Lauck County had a population of about fifty thousand people, of which some eleven thousand were in Winship. Obviously a rural area, and more accidents like these do happen in rural areas-relative, that is, to the population sample. The probability was off in Winship, though, not simply because the number of accidents was too large for that population base and time span, but rather because there were sixteen claims on sixteen different companies. That looked all wrong, downright suspicious, as if the agent were deliberately trying to avoid attracting attention.
Most independent agents steer their business to a handful of major insurance companies, depending on the rates offered and the coverage required-home, life, auto, medical, etc. But sixteen different companies for the same basic life/accidental death policy? Uh-unh. I still could not see how Joseph Bellman might profit from any of this. You can find one evil person to join you in a plot to kill another person and then split the insurance money-but sixteen? Still, it all came back to Joseph Bellman, he was the man at the center, and I was looking forward to meeting him.
"Hello, Bellman Insurance," a sweet young voice answered.
"Hello. May I speak with Mr. Bellman's secretary?"
"I'm Chris Innes, Mr. Bellman's assistant. May I help you?"
"Yes, I'd like to make an appointment to meet with him."
"He's in right now, if you want to speak to him."
"No, that's all right. I have to go out in a minute."
"Okay. Did you want to come in here to our office or would you like Mr. Bellman to visit you at your home?"
"I'll come in to the office."
"Okay. And when would suit you?"
"Is he free Monday?"
"Morning or afternoon?" She quickly added, "He's also available for evening appointments, if that would be more convenient for you."
"Morning would suit me."
"Ten o'clock all right, or something later?"
"And your name?"
"Thank you, Mr. Carlson, we'll see you Monday morning at ten."
"Looking forward to it."
I hung up. She had a nice voice. Untroubled.
Excerpted from Wicked Things by Thomas Tessier Copyright © 2007 by Thomas Tessier. Excerpted by permission.
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