11 • Double Indemnity
Will spent the afternoon in the office. He put his camera card into his laptop and downloaded the pictures from Nina’s fire. He uploaded them, one by painstaking one, into his reporting interface, describing the detail of each shot with phrases like “northeast corner of kitchen burned to studs” and “smoke damage to siding on rear elevation.” At one point during the afternoon he picked up a roll of tape and threw it over the short wall of his office, hoping to clip Mad Dog in the head and disrupt his whistling in the adjacent office while he photocopied a new lawsuit.
Somehow he never seemed able to fully enjoy both parts of his work at the same time. There were days he wanted to do nothing but the paperwork. Compiling estimates in the solitude of his office, not having to go out, not having to deal with difficult customers. Other times he despised the tedium of the desk.
It occurred to him that Barton Keyes had a secretary in Double Indemnity. Someone to take dictation, fill out his forms, assemble his reports into something coherent. He grew weary of pricing sheetrock, deciding whether to allow for one coat of paint or two, and longed for the road, drifting from farm place to farm place, from one small adventure to the next.
The people fascinated him. From scheming Dr. Runyans to sweet little ladies like Pearl to the wild-eyed woman who threatened to close the hatch and trap Will and the carpenter the day they’d crawled under her doublewide to assess the damage to her subfloor. He chuckled. That woman, with unruly red hair that looked like she combed it with a rake, was the only customer who’d ever really terrified Will. Most of the time the threats made him laugh quietly inside his head, but this woman seemed to be part wolf, and when she bared her teeth a guy had to stand back.
Will worked a short stint as a supervisor for Universal Indemnity’s national claim office. The gig turned out to be a lot of adult day care and taking complaints, trying to persuade customers that even if they didn’t get what they thought they deserved, their adjusters were honestly not 12-year-olds and really were skilled professionals. When a customer complained about too much depreciation taken off their settlement, Will loved to say, “Well, I see Bruce only took 30 percent. If I were handling this claim, I’d have taken 50. Looks like you got a good deal. And now I’ll probably have to write Bruce up.” Of course, he wouldn’t be writing Bruce up. But more often than not, the customer would all of a sudden be eager to work with Bruce again.
One afternoon a young woman from New Jersey called, livid because her adjuster had written to put a used bumper on her 22-year-old Honda Civic POS (the informal industry term for a Piece of Shit, an older, high-mileage vehicle that was not much more than a rolling total loss). She told Will she was sending her boyfriend down there to beat the shit out of his sorry ass.
Will had taken one too many cranky phone calls that day, and had no time for someone threatening bodily harm, especially over a few dollars and a repair that probably would improve her car. These were the times he relished putting the small town’s remote location to good use.
“I understand you’re upset, ma’am, ” he said, following the script for empathy. “I would be too. Listen. If you’re wanting to come to the office to beat up my sorry ass (and believe me, it couldn’t be sorrier), here’s what you’ll need to do. You’re in Secaucus, right? That’s not so far from the airport, so that’s good. Get your boyfriend a flight to Minneapolis. It’s lovely this time of year, so you should think about coming along. Oh, and make sure you have a rental car reserved. (I can get you a discount with Hertz, if you’d like.) Just take I-494 out of the airport to the west, then pick up US Highway 12. If he drives straight through, he’ll be at the office in just under half a day. Now, we close at 4:30, so if he gets in late, just have him check in to the Motel 6 on South Elm Street. I’ll be at my desk by 8:00 in the morning.”
The girl hung up around the time he said “rental car, ” but Will kept on for the sake of his office mates who needed a late Friday afternoon laugh.
Sometimes he missed those days, working with people from all over the country. But then he was confined to a desk in a tall brick building and had no windows. Now at least he was on the open road a few times a week. His farmers with their slower and gentler ways were good company, and only one had ever threatened to put the dogs on him. Even then, it wasn’t that the dog was so mean, but he’d been in a recent tussle with a skunk. The farmer made his point.
Will finished his narrative report detailing the likely cause of the fire and apparent damage, stacked the documents into a single digital file and emailed it to the insurance company’s inside claim rep, a short, wiry 20-something named Christopher Davis, who had trouble growing sideburns.
He looked at the clock. 4:28. It felt like he’d been working on the Schmidt case for days. He popped open CNN on his desktop computer. He’d been a news junkie once, from the time CNN changed the news world with the opening explosions of the first Gulf War, covering the conflict 24 hours a day. America got to know Bernie Grace and Wolf Blitzer as they reported from under the furniture in their hotel, having no idea how the news cycle would turn on its ear and begin to dominate American life. Will stayed up until 4:00 in the morning during the 2000 election, anxiously waiting for the Miami-Dade returns to decide the Bush-Gore contest, not realizing it would take weeks and a handful of court decisions to decide how to count all those hanging chads. He thrived on the news then, as it seemed to feed an insatiable hunger for knowledge. No, it was not for knowledge. It was for information. There was a difference.
After another election cycle he’d been done and barely kept up. Most weeks now he only checked in on Saturdays over breakfast, figuring that any event that had staying power would still be active in the headlines by then. But this week the government had run itself out of money and shut itself down for the first time since the Clinton administration, and he wanted to know if anything had changed.
He opened his desk drawer and pulled out a bottle of bourbon and a highball glass. Just then, Mad Dog stuck his head in the door.
“I’m checking out for the night, Phillips.” He shook his keys. “You closing up soon?”
Will leaned back in his chair and put his feet up on the desk, crossing them at the ankles. His boots were still marked with soot from Nina’s fire.
“Come on in, Mike. I’m just winding down for the day.” He held the bottle toward his partner. “Drink?”
Will slid the glass across the desk. Mad Dog caught it as he sat down in the side chair, then sighed and slicked his hand down his face, fingering his neatly trimmed goatee. Will was always a little jealous of his partner’s salt and pepper beard. “Glad today is over.” Mad Dog tilted the bottle.
“Long one, eh? What’re you working on?”
“That Edith Landberg burn case for Alliance Mutual. She’s got Parkinson’s. Shakes like a leaf. She had to go and overfill her coffee mug on a day when the regulator was out on the Mini Mart’s coffee machine. So she spills the coffee all over her hand, burns it right up.”
“Third degree. It’s nasty. ‘Course, all these places are run by teenagers now. Nobody can find me the paperwork to say when the machine was serviced last. I’d like to put it on the maintenance company. Alliance wants me to put it on Edith, like people with Parkinson’s should ever only drink iced tea.”
“Who are you working with there? Alliance is usually pretty reasonable.”
Will whistled and shook his head. “Except Cindy Greenfield.” He tipped back the last of his drink and set the glass on the desk for emphasis. Cindy Greenfield was a tough sell. Will had managed to persuade her to see things his way on a couple of cases over the years but most of the time, when they disagreed, she came out on top. Mad Dog tended to agree with her more often than not, cynically believing everyone was out to make their retirement bucks on his dime. It was unusual to see him siding with a claimant.
“’Course, it’s not like I care about the lady, or anything, ” Mad Dog continued, knowing what Will was thinking. “I’m trying to protect the company. She could have a pretty solid case and we could settle it before it gets out of control, but Cindy will have none of it.”
Will screwed the cap back on the bottle and set it the drawer. “Good luck with that.”
Mad Dog set down his glass and pushed back his chair. “You playing poker tonight, Phillips?”
“Nah, not tonight. Have some things I need to take care of.” He picked up his keys and phone and slapped Mad Dog on the back on his way out the door. “Try not to lose all of it tonight, eh Mike?”
Will walked down Main Street to the flower shop and picked out a small bouquet for Pearl. He didn’t know what kind they were—Pearl surely would—but he liked that they looked a little wild, not like flower shop flowers. Then he crossed the street to Pete’s TV and Appliance to see about a television.
Pete Carlson came up from the back room when Will walked in and set off the bell. Most stores on Main Street installed motion sensors in the front, not having enough foot traffic any more to justify a full time person on the sales floor. Staff could be working in the back room and still know when a customer came in.
“Hey, Phillips. You didn’t have to bring me flowers.” Pete smiled and reached for the bouquet. Will slipped the flowers behind his back and reached to shake Pete’s hand in a single motion.
“These flowers aren’t for you, but I’m sure there’s a gorgeous fella out there who would love to bring you flowers if you didn’t live out here in the middle of nowhere. How’s a guy supposed to know where to look for you?” Will brought the flowers back out in front of him. “These are for Pearl Jenkins. Need to make up for almost knocking her out this morning.”
“Oh?” Pete’s eyebrows arched.
“Long story, but it involves John Keats and Emily Dickinson. You’d enjoy it—over a beer sometime. Listen, I need a TV. Finally going to get cable in my room.”
“Geez, Phillips. You get cable and you’ll never come out again.”
“Nah, just want to be able to watch the Cubbies.”
“You want something big? I can give you a great deal on a 55-inch plasma screen. Mount it on the wall, pivots to any angle. You’ll love it.”
“Hell, Pete. I don’t think my little room has a wall big enough for a 55-inch television. How about something compact, like I can set on my dresser. Maybe 21 inches.”
“Tell me you at least want high def. There’s no other way to watch baseball.”
“Whatever you say I want, Pete, I want. Make it high def.”
Will picked out the TV Pete told him to pick out, paid for it, and carried it out of the store and back down the street to his truck. He parked behind the house and knocked on Pearl’s back door. She answered drying her hands on a blue and white checked apron. Will bowed and held the flowers out.
“Indulgences, Mrs. Jenkins. I am so sorry for nearly letting John Keats split your skull this morning.”
Pearl laughed and took the flowers with a little curtsy. “Come in, Mr. Phillips, before all the flies in the county find my kitchen. I need to put these in water.”
She rummaged through a dark oak cupboard under the sink for a vase, then rearranged the flowers in it until she was satisfied. “I’m glad to see you’ve the good sense to bring a lady flowers, Mr. Phillips. You never know when you might meet someone you take a fancy to.”
(to be continued)