This is Story #10, entitled Rule Number Seventeen, from my book, Go West or Go Weird.
I was running out of money and realized I would soon have to sell my underground log cabin, get a job, and rejoin the rat race. So I investigated new careers.
Broadcasting had been my first career, where I rode gain on 45’s and LP’s as a country music disc jockey. Then I joined the Air Force and worked for the Armed Forces Radio and Television Service on a four-year hitch.
But I felt reluctant to return to broadcasting. In the military it was a cushy job that avoided grunt work. But as a civilian, the pay was poor, unless one was talented and lucky enough to be hired in a large market, such as Los Angeles or New York City. And I hated big cities. In fact, I hated metropolises so much, the thought of achieving great success in broadcasting felt depressing.
So I tried to find a career that paid well, while allowing me to live in a small town. Yep, I wanted it both ways. Grab that cake and eat it, too.
One career I considered was insurance. But then I learned what insurance adjusters do, and my conscience guided me away from this career avenue.
But the insurance career continued to fascinate me. It paid well enough, but it required a cold heart and unempathetic, no-nonsense business acumen. It fascinated me that quite a few other careers that paid well, were also like this.
I felt inspired. Not inspired to pursue such a career. Hell no. Rather, I was inspired to write the following story. This is an allegory about a dystopian society. In this chiller, insurance has become lethal, and cold-hearted underwriters keep cold-handed undertakers rich and busy.
Rule Number Seventeen
A man in a black suit stepped out of the grayness of the night. He was carrying a valise. He walked up to the front door of a house and knocked. Three sharp, loud, commanding knocks.
The man who answered was wearing blue jeans and a white teeshirt. He had a big belly and an unshaven jaw.
He peered at the man in black.
“Are you Nolan Nailtharp?”
“Who are YOU? What do you want?”
“Are you Mr. Nailtharp, sir?”
“You some kind of bill collector?”
The man in black reached inside his valise and pulled out a piece of paper with a picture on it. He looked at the man in the white teeshirt. He looked at the picture. He nodded his head and put the paper with the picture back inside the valise. Then he pulled out a pistol and pointed it at the man.
“Hey, hey, careful there. I’m Nailtharp all right. What do you want? I’ll try to help you!”
There was a silencer on the pistol. So it merely sounded like a twig had snapped. A small stab of flame. The man in the white teeshirt opened his eyes up wide. Then he fell to the floor and died.
Through the gray night and up the stairs of an apartment building, the man in the black suit stepped. He came to a door on the second floor. He knocked. Three sharp, loud, commanding knocks.
The door opened a small crack, and a little head poked out and looked up at the man in black.
“Excuse me,” he said, “are you Sonya?”
“Yeeessss . . . !” she said.
He looked at her. She was only three years old, but she should know her own name by now. He reached inside his valise and pulled out a piece of paper with a picture on it. Yes, yes, it was her. A little older. But same face. Same curly blonde hair. Yes.
“Is your mother home, Sonya?”
“Nooooo! She’s watching a moobie! Wif Jim! She’s in the bedwoom!”
“Gooood! I tell you what—let’s go for a walk.”
He reached down and grabbed her by the hand. He led her downstairs. He was very gentle and slow with her, because she was so small. And she did not resist. She was glad to have a friend.
When they got to the bottom of the stairs and walked outdoors, he found a dark corner of the building. The security lights didn’t reach deep into that corner, so that’s where he led Sonya. Then he took his pistol out of his valise and put it against her head. There was a small snapping sound, and that was all.
A man sipped coffee at his kitchen table. Suddenly, there was a knock at his door. Three slow knocks. He opened the door and it was the man in black. He invited him in and the man in black sat at the table. He poured coffee for him, and they both sat there for a little while, sipping and chatting. Making small talk about the weather, and current events, and such things that men talk about after their work is done and they need to rest and relax.
After a bit, the man in black pulled out of his valise two pieces of paper with pictures on them.
“Here you are—both jobs are complete.”
“Thank you. I trust you did very well.”
The man in black ignored the compliment. “Hey,” he said, “can you tell me something about this one?” He pointed at the picture of the little girl.
The other man said, “Just a moment.”
He walked over to a gray filing cabinet and pulled out a portfolio. He looked it over, then back at the picture, and shook his head. “This can be a hard job,” he said. “It’s too bad, but some people seem to forget what’s at stake. They forget they’ve staked their own life, or the life of someone they love. They just don’t seem to take us insurance people seriously. But we gotta make a living too, you know.
“Yeah . . .” he looked inside the portfolio again.
“Yeah, it seems about a year ago this dame wanted to get married. But her fiancé didn’t trust her. So they came to us, and she said she’d stake the life of her own daughter that she’d be true to him. So, about two weeks ago he comes to the claims adjustment department I guess, with proof that she’d been stepping out. They verified his evidence and gave the job to my division. So I gave you the assignment. You don’t let sentiment get in your way you know. That makes you the best claims adjuster I’ve got.”
Not even a smile from the man in black. He was all business, that man. He never seemed to notice a compliment, no matter how hard the adjustment manager tried.
The adjustment manager pointed at the other picture and chuckled. “I remember that man. About six months ago he went to a bank and asked for a loan at the prime rate. Didn’t have no collateral, so he offered to stake his own life on the loan. Bank took him right up on it, like they always do. Damn good interest rate, too. Guess he didn’t take the bank’s insurance policy too seriously.
“That’s the trouble with some people. About 99% of our accounts go unclaimed. Most people take us damned serious and they always meet their obligations. But there’s always that one percent who don’t think we’re for real, and let things slide. That’s what keeps you and me in business. Especially when I have a good claims adjuster like you.”
No response. The claims adjuster in the black suit straightened his jaw and stood up. “Guess I should go now,” he said. He put on his coat.
“All right. See you tomorrow. I’ve got three jobs for you to do tomorrow. Looks like we’re having kind of a busy week.”
The claims adjuster left, and the adjustment manager went back to the table and sat down. He thought for a few minutes, then went over to the gray filing cabinet and pulled out the portfolio on himself.
He didn’t like it, but it was a company rule. In order to work for the insurance company, he had to take out a policy on himself, issued by the company.
Really it was more like an agreement. But an agreement with teeth, because it was written like a policy. Just like any policy a client would have. In the policy, he agreed to follow a list of rules. And he staked his life on the promise that he would follow those rules.
He reread the rules on a regular basis, just as a safeguard so that he would not accidentally break one. After all, his life was at stake. One can’t be too cautious with something like that.
There were twenty rules in all, but it was rule number seventeen that always bothered him. Number seventeen he always reread over and over again.
It was the fraternization rule. In that, he agreed not to fraternize with his subordinates in any manner, as this could create a “conflict of interest.”
He looked over at the coffee cup that the claims adjuster had been sipping from. It was half empty.
No, no, not really fraternization, he thought. After all, he had to get along with his claims adjusters. Promotes the morale of the department. Not fraternization at all. Business, pure business. And if he didn’t do this, he might get on the bad side of his claims adjusters. And he didn’t really trust them that much. After all, they were professional killers, and what if one of them should develop a grudge against him?
He put his portfolio away.
No not fraternization at all, he told himself again.
His job was so nice. He worked out of his own home. He set his own hours. He belonged to a generous retirement plan. And he would not allow a claims adjuster get in his way and spoil that. He would not get on a claims adjuster’s bad side.
He had to get along with his claims adjusters, or else. Or else face some possible deadly consequences. Surely they understood that when they wrote rule number seventeen.
A little while later he washed out the coffee cup and went to bed. He didn’t sleep well that night. But then again, adjustment managers never did.
Click to the next story, to read No Exception.
Categories: Series (Stories): Go West Or Go Weird