Shlomo Nagila‘s office overlooked Hanover Place, a narrow alley cut into the base of two skyscrapers. On Hanover were red-brick buildings clustered close to their taller, younger brethren, and at the head of the the alleyway was a theatre older even than Nagila’s offices. As he did every morning, he gazed down at the street below and sipped coffee from an insulated mug, wondering whether, today or ever, his business would grow successful enough that he might have to move into one of the black and silver towers surrounding him.
He walked his small, portly frame to his desk and pulled out a list of names and phone numbers. Several of the names were scratched out, others asterisked, but most were unmarked. All were customers of Fidelius Insurance. All were claimants. And it was Nagila’s job to investigate each claim and to report on any apparently fraudulent activity. Unnecessary assurances that this was as dull as airplane food made up much of every evening’s conversation with his wife.
He had called one name on the list and was laying the phone back in its cradle when an irate insectoid buzz sounded in the outer room. After regaining his composure – in almost twenty years he had never grown accustomed to Hanover Place’s angry doorbells – he made his way to the buzzer and pressed the button that linked the video screen to the camera at the front door.
A woman, dark hair tucked behind her ears and a bright red bag hanging from her door-buzzing arm, was moving her eyes from the ground to the small golden plaque that had Nagila’s name etched into it in faded black lettering. He let her in, then went and frowned at his reflection in the office window. With his increasingly arthritic fingers, he combed his combover over and went back to the outer room.
His guest did not knock. Stepping into the room she stumbled an “oh, hello” and held out a hand. He shook it. The woman wore a floral print dress in white and red, her purse of the same colour now hanging by her side. Cut across her forehead in a line were bangs so black that they could not have been natural, and offset with bright red lipstick these gave her face a hint of unintended severity.
“You look like you’ve just come from the 1940s,” Nagila said. She cracked a smile and seemed to be searching for a reply. He turned and walked toward his office. “I, on the other hand, actually do come from the 1940s. Right this way.”
“You are Mr. Nagila?” she asked.
“That’s what the plaque has said for seventeen years.”
“Of course, I…”
“Have a seat. I only have one.” He gestured at the faux leather desk chair. She creased into it and lay her bag over his list.
“Mr. Nagila, my name is Sandra Sussman and I’m looking to employ your services,” she said, adding “Much as I dislike the thought.”
“I think we’re going to enjoy working together. What is it? Divorce? Or maybe we’re not that far, maybe you just suspect your husband is cheating?”
Sussman looked nonplussed and said: “If that’s a convoluted way of asking whether I’m married, then forget it. I’m not. But I notice that you are.” She inclined her head toward Nagila’s left hand. Nagila attempted a lordly well-okay-then bow, smiled as his combover flapped onto his forehead, and asked how he could be of assistance.
“I need you to investigate my boss,” she said.
“Look, Ms. Sussman,” Nagila replied. “I do insurance work, divorce papers, the occasional candy-taken-from-a-baby crime. This one-man, one-swivel-chair office is not quite as chi-chi as it seems.” She looked down at the desk, her eyes scanning the bottom of the Fidelius list. As she pushed her bag to one side and leaned out her arms, her eyes caught the page’s letterhead and widened.
Nagila was asking: “So what’s your boss up to? Embezzling, sexual harassment? Transvestism? I had one of those about two y…”
“You’re working for Fidelius?” she rushed, breathily.
“Like I said. Insurance work.” Nagila spoke carefully, leaned up from the window and took several steps toward the desk. This might, contrary to all expectations, become interesting.
His guest sat upright in the desk-chair, her cotton dress squeaking against the imitation leather. “I’m an underwriter for Fidelius.” She got up and walked past Nagila. She was, he noticed, nearly a foot taller than him. The tips of her old-fashioned bob would have brushed nicely against his flap of hair. Framed by the window against an imposing, chrome-tinted skyscraper, Sussman looked dislodged in time, like she had been transported here from an episode of Mad Men.
“Right there.” She pointed at the barely visible tip of a building toward the harbour. “That’s his office, my boss. Conrad Callow.”
Nagila squinted, unable to make out more than another radio mast steeple on another skyscraper.
“Callow just made some very interesting adjustments to his wife’s life insurance policy, adjustments that I had to sign off on,” she explained. “The premiums went up, but so did the proceeds. And Conrad is the one paying Mrs. Callow’s new premium balance.”
“That certainly sounds both worrisome and tedious. My kind of work,” Nagila said.
Sandra Sussman provided him with photocopied documents, as well as her cellphone number and email address. A promise of down-payment was made in exchange for his assurances that, if all turned out well in the world of Conrad and Stephanie Callow, Nagila would charge only half his normal hourly rate. He agreed, telling her “We both make money from others’ misfortunes, Ms. Sussman” as he escorted her to the front door.
Later that afternoon, Hanover Place was thronging with people. A long, black truck with tinted windows had parked in front of Shlomo Nagila’s building and, from the end nearest the aging Pandoria Theatre, tattooed and bearded men were wheeling around large black and silver cases and traipsing back and forth with guitar-shaped boxes.
In the inevitable dusk, and with his glasses perched at the end of his nose, he could see a clearer outline of the Fidelius building Sussman had pointed out. The radio masts were stark silhouettes against the setting sun, and Nagila imagined for a moment that Conrad Callow might open a window stories above the street and gently tip his wife out into the summer evening air. He knew, however, that insurance fraud was rarely that thrilling.
He turned on the single overhead bulb and picked up the Fidelius List. At the bottom, asterisked because he had been unable to reach her earlier that week, was the name Stephanie P. Callow. He lifted the phone from its cradle and began to dial. [continues]