Insurance Claims Can Be Murder

(Due out in the Fall of 2019)

Chapter One – A Damsel in Distress

The air conditioner belched and wheezed, blowing out a steady stream of noise with a small hint of a breeze from a dusty plastic covering providing very little relief with the 90-degree plus August morning. It was the kind of heat and humidity that made the shirt stick to your back when taking the trash out to the curb. It wasn’t even mid-morning and people were looking to escape to any air-conditioned shelter they could find.  

We were in our small one-room office that served as Jeff’s place of business. The reason we didn’t close up and go to the beach was the closest beach was four states away.. Didn’t really matter, we aren’t exactly beach bunnies. Don’t get me wrong. We love watching young ladies with bikinis smaller than post-it notes. Still we are more the cold beer and a TV remote types.

I was lying on the couch next to the doorway. When it comes to being lazy, I can take a gold medal. Jeff, my partner, was seated at his desk reading a detective novel, probably trying to pick up some tips on how to find paying clients. We’re private detectives, at least Jeff is. I just hang around and help him. It gives me something to do in the morning, other than watch TV.  

The day was going the way I liked it – boring. An interruption in the form of an extremely attractive and sexy brunette entered our office. She couldn’t have been more than 30, and the gray, pinstripe pants suit didn’t hide a sensual figure that would turn every head in any room she entered. Her hair fell on her shoulders like black velvet, cascading down to the middle of her back. She had deep brown eyes, which peered out from behind black wire-rimmed glasses. She had a look about her, a professional look, like a lawyer or tax accountant. She wore low heels, the kind of shoe a person wears who is on her feet a lot and wants comfort instead of fashion. From the way she walked and carried herself, it was obvious this woman had intelligence and chutzpah.

She stepped into our humble one-room establishment. All right, the place is a dump. I could see a look of skepticism on her face as she took a minute to decide if she wanted to stay or leave. She wrinkled up her nose as she took note of the aroma of the place. We had used air fresheners at one time, but we got tired of the perfumed wintergreen scent. So now we just let the day-old burritos add to the distinct office fragrance along with old dusty furniture smell from Goodwill and the stale air escaping from an aging air conditioner. However, we do empty the garbage at least twice a week and use Lysol when the odors get too bad. She looked at me on the cloth-covered couch. I noticed her wrinkling up her nose, either from some odor or mild disgust. I don’t know why – I bathe on a regular basis. I should have gotten up and offered her a seat, but I didn’t.  Like I said, when comes to being lazy, I could set a record. Who knows, I probably have. Across the room was Jeff behind his desk. With his sports shirt, chino slacks, and running shoes, he did little to inspire confidence. The brunette glanced from Jeff to see several photos of us on the wall from when we were in the Marines together. She took a quick look at me and then turned to Jeff.

“Don’t you ever answer your phone?” she asked.

Jeff looked at the answering machine. Sure enough, the little red light was on signaling that there were messages. “Sorry,” he said, “it looks like I forgot to check the machine.”

She looked peeved and sighed. “Well, that kind of competence hardly inspires confidence.”

I’ve got to admit that Jeff doesn’t exactly fit your typical image of a private investigator. He’s hardly a wimp, but he doesn’t intimidate you either. With his boyish smile and tossed blond hair, he looks more like a college freshman than a seasoned detective. At five foot ten, he can’t really be called tall. He has a lean frame, which he developed in high school as a cross-country runner. He still jogs every morning when it isn’t raining. The worst part is he drags me along with him.

“Look, I’ll admit I’m a bit absent-minded, but I can get the job done.”

“You are Jeff Terrell, a private investigator?”

“That’s right,” piped up Jeff. “And that over there is Beauford, but everyone calls him Bud,” he answered, pointing to me. “What can we do for you?”

The lovely lady looked at me. “He’s . . .”

“Don’t say it,” Jeff interrupted. “Bud’s very sensitive about that.”

She looked at me again. “Yeah, I can see why. Well as long as he minds his manners.”

“Hey, Bud’s a mellow fellow,” Jeff said with a smile. “So, what can we do for you?”

The woman took a look at me, then turned back to Jeff. “I want you to solve a murder?”

* * * * *

Jeff put down the book so that he could pay attention.

“Do you mind if I sit down? I might have a case for you.”

That was all it took to get me to sit up. Forget being lazy, we needed a case, anything to bring in money. We were so poor, poverty was beginning to look like a step up on the social economic ladder.

She sat down in one of the two chairs in front of Jeff’s second-hand, metal desk. She put her briefcase on the other one, opened it and took out a thick file.

“Do you know Lieutenant Debra Dankton?”

“Of course,” Jeff replied.

“Well, she recommended you for this job,” the lady continued. “She said that you might be willing to take the job on spec. It only pays if you can prove that the victim was murdered.” 

“Well, I don’t know,” Jeff said as he sat back down and moved to put his feet back up on the desk. This guy had definitely been watching too many Humphrey Bogart movies. I wanted to tell him to knock it off, but he seemed to get the idea on his own, so I kept quiet. I know how Sam Spade does it, however Jeff is more like Inspector Clouseau from the Pink Panther. Don’t get me wrong, he’s a fairly decent detective and was a damn good cop; Jeff that is, not Inspector Clouseau.

“Here’s the deal,” she continued as she set the thick file folder on Jeff’s desk. “About six months ago, there was a traffic accident in which the driver was killed. Reportedly, she had been drinking and she went off the road. The car crashed and burned, killing her. But I believe the victim was murdered. I want you to prove it.”

“First of all, what makes you think it was murder,” Jeff said as he opened the folder. “Second, why aren’t the police investigating this?  I know Lieutenant Dankton. She doesn’t gaff off cases. If there was something there, she would stay on it.”

“The police did look into it. In fact, they still technically have the case open, but they have nothing to suggest it’s anything other than an accident,” the lady stated. “I’m now under a deadline. My name is Karen Underwood. I work for International Commonwealth Insurance. In two weeks, it will be the end of six months after the accident and we will have to pay on the insurance policy. I’ve been able to hold off payment, but business is business and the company wants to clear the books before the end of this month. You wouldn’t believe the amount of pressure I’m getting from my boss to pay off on this. The problem is the facts just don’t add up.”

Our prospective client signaled for Jeff to continue to look through the file. “The victim was Sarah McGlennon, a 35-year-old, sales representative for a restaurant supply firm. She reportedly met with a customer for a late afternoon appointment. She had a drink, discussed business and said goodbye. At about five o’clock, she got in her car for a 30-minute drive home. She never made it. She was on her way when she went off a thirty-foot cliff and the car crashed and burned. The corpse was burned beyond recognition. The ID was made from a tattoo on her left leg.”

“Now, here are the strange parts,” she explained as she pulled out more papers from her briefcase. “The blood alcohol level was point three nine, almost four times the legal limit, and yet the bartender who served her stated she had only one drink, although, there were fragments from a whiskey bottle in the car. Second, at the scene, there were no skid marks. The tire tracks go straight off the road, as though she simply fell asleep at the wheel. Yet, she made a phone call to her husband just minutes before she died.”

“Is that all?” Jeff asked. “She could have been drinking from the bottle in her car. She could have fallen asleep after she made the phone call. What makes you think this is a case of murder and not just an accident with a drunk driver? There has to be something more.”

She leaned back, looked down and took a deep breath. She stared directly at Jeff with her dark eyes. “It’s a hunch. That’s all. I don’t know how to explain it, but it just didn’t feel right. Call it intuition. During the funeral, and all through the claim process, I got the feeling the husband was playing a role. Yeah, he cried at the appropriate times. He had the shocked look. But, like I said, it just didn’t feel right.”

Jeff leaned back in his chair. “Intuition is one thing, and it’s usually based on something, something unusual. Intuition won’t hold up in court.”

“Well,” she continued, “it really wasn’t much. Usually when I deal with grieving families, they talk about the deceased, tell me stories of how the person reacted when that person got a special birthday or Christmas gift, or how they met, or how they got engaged, or some quirky daily habit. But this husband didn’t do any of that. He rarely said anything about his wife. He would answer questions, but didn’t volunteer any information. Also, his answers were fairly consistent, as though he had rehearsed them.”

“How much is the policy for?” Jeff inquired.

“The victim had a one million dollar life insurance policy, but there was a double indemnity clause in case of an accident, which means the final payment will be two million,” was her answer.

Now here was something that really got our attention. Two million dollars was a great motive for murder.

“Here’s the difficult part. The police wrote it off as an accident, even though they kept the case open as a favor to me. Unless, I can prove it was murder, we have to pay two million to the family. If you could prove it, before the deadline, which is in two weeks, then we, International Commonwealth Insurance, would be willing to pay you twenty thousand dollars, which is one percent of the policy and the money you would save the company. The thing is, once we pay the money, the deal is off. So you only get paid if you can prove it was murder.”

“Excuse me, but exactly what is your job with International Commonwealth Insurance? Don’t you have your own investigators?” Jeff asked.

The brunette looked down at her hands and then reached into her briefcase to pull out a business card. “I’m a sales rep. I sell insurance. I’m the person who sold that life insurance policy to the McGlennon family, less than two months before Sarah died. I just can’t accept the coincidence. You see, I’m hiring you personally, not the company. If you can prove it was murder, then I’ll give you the entire commission from proving fraud on the policy. But once the policy is paid, there is no commission, even if we can prove murder later on. So you see. I really need your help.”

“I’d like to help you, but I can’t accept your terms. In all probability, it really was an accident and if that’s the case, then I would have put in all that work and have nothing to show for it.”

“I understand,” she replied as she started to gather her things.

“But, if you could give us a small retainer, say one thousand dollars, then we could spend the next few days checking things out. If there is anything to this, then we will pursue it further.”

Did I mention this woman was a professional? She put down her bag, leaned forward and stared directly into Jeff’s eyes. “Look, I can’t afford much, that’s why this is on spec. I can give you a small retainer, but no more. Unfortunately, all I can afford is five hundred dollars. If you have any ideas of milking this into a long drawn out affair, you are going to be very disappointed. I will do more than complain. I will not only have your license, but I will also see you in jail for fraud.”

I was thinking the woman really needed to switch to decaf and mellow out. I realize we may appear a bit lazy and may not give the impression we’re the greatest detectives in the state, but really, give us a break. Fortunately, Jeff did set her straight.

“Didn’t you say Lt. Dankton recommended us?” Jeff countered. “One of the reasons is because she knows we’re honest.”

“In truth, she said you were broke and would probably take any case that had a chance of paying the rent.”

All right, we’re poor, but we are honest.

Jeff smiled. “Well, it’s true we are looking for cases. Still, I can’t look into this on spec. I will need a retainer.”

Our damsel in distress pulled out her checkbook and wrote Jeff a check. “Like I said, this is all you are going to get unless you can prove it was murder. I really am depending on you.”

So here we were, a lady sales rep trying to save her reputation, and a detective with his trusty sidekick trying to convince her we were worth five hundred bucks. It looked like I was going to have to get up off the couch.