by Lee Gimenez
The bad thing about the Net is the way it makes you think -- or rather how it makes you stop thinking. I noticed it a few years back. You log online and you read this, jump to that, and never focus on anything. I remember a time when I could read a book. A whole book -- two, three hundred pages. Now, I can barely get through an article online. If can read a couple of paragraphs in a row now, I'm doing good.
Of course, in my line of work, reading a couple of paragraphs is all I need. I'm an insurance investigator -- that's a fancy term for someone who checks to make sure people aren't scamming us. I've seen it all. Fake murders, arson, slip and fall at the Big Mart. My job's pretty easy, really. I log onto Omni and search the database. If you're trying to scam us, there's an e-trail. That's one thing I love about the Net -- there's nothing I can't find out about you. It's even easier now, since all the search engines merged. Omni does it all.
Some people talk about the old days, when there were still newspapers, libraries, and books printed on paper. Now it's all online. Me, I don't care. As long as I get a paycheck every week and can go buy beer, I'm good to go.
I was working on a case a while ago. The usual. A wife took out a million dollar policy on her husband. Two months later, his car blew up and his charred remains were left in the crumpled mess. She filed for the insurance, and I got the case. A million's still a lot of money, even now. So my boss called me over and gave me the file. Check it out Sam, he said. If I find fraud and we don't pay out, I get 5%. Not too shabby for a semi-drunk like me.
After a few days sniffing around, it's looking legit and I'm getting worried. My alimony's due and my second wife has her eye on a new condo. She's a looker but high maintenance. Women.
Anyway, back to the case. One odd thing -- the body was burned so bad, no fingerprints were left (nor fingers, either), and the husband's dental records had been lost. But who loses dental records these days? Yeah, my thought too. So, I kept looking. I did a Net search for the husband's profile: six foot one, two hundred pounds, small scar on his left hand. Then I added his photo and his recorded voice (you got to love that Patriot Act!) into Omni. If he was alive, he'd show up. Trust me.
A week later, he did. The joker was in a flop house in Albuquerque, two states away. He was buying cigarettes at a Quick Mart when the cameras picked him up. He'd dyed his hair and cut it short, but it was him, alright. The face recognition stuff is too good.
I took the photo to the guys' house and confronted the wife. I told her the police would go easy on her if she confessed. Which she did. Mostly they do, once you have the goods on them.
Anyway, the story had a happy ending. The husband got arrested for attempted fraud, the wife will testify against him (probably get probation) and better yet, I got my 5%. And, if you were wondering, the crispy critter in the burned out car was a body the husband stole from the morgue, or so he said. I didn't care really, once I got my 5%. Like I said, the story had a happy ending.
Of course, things aren't always that easy. Sometimes life throws you a curve, and you end up getting hit in the face. Like what's happening now.
There's this case. My boss gave me the file recently. Get on it Sam, he said. Yes sir boss, I said. My wife had picked out the new condo and it was going to cost...well, you don't want to know. Anyway, I can't turn down any case now, no matter how ugly it is. I took it, although it smelled bad from the git go.
It involved a congressman, which is always bad. I hated politics -- I hated politicians even more. They're all crooks, and it's never safe to cross them.
Here's the deal. This congressman had bought this big estate a few years back. Problem was, he couldn't afford it and the bank was about to foreclose. Surprise, surprise, there was fire a week ago and the place burned down. Now he was filing an insurance claim, which would pay off his loan and leave him with a lot of cash to spare. I'm no rocket scientist, but this didn't look right.
The next morning, I went downtown and met with him at his office, a fancy place with flags all around and pictures of him with the governor and senators on the wall.
The Congressman was a big man, fat really, with heavy jowls and a mane of thick white hair. He was wearing an expensive blue gray suit and gold cufflinks. If you heard his voice, the first thing you think would be: a real blowhard.
"Have a seat," he said in a deep baritone. "I understand you've been assigned to my insurance claim. I'm sure you've read the police report. There was some faulty wiring and the house burned down."
I cleared my throat. "I read that. Did you see anything suspicious before the fire, Congressman?"
He pursed his fat lips. "Suspicious? No, this was obviously an accident. The wiring from one of the lamps in the study went bad and set the drapes on fire...it's all there in the report."
I nodded. "Yeah, I read the report."
"The timing seems odd, don't you think?"
"Odd? What do you mean?"
"Well, Congressman, the bank was about to foreclose..."
His jowls rippled and his face turned red. "What are you implying?"
"Well, sir, if you collect the insurance, you can pay back the bank and still have a lot left over."
He bolted out of his chair and stabbed his finger at the door. "Listen, you. Get out of my office right now! I'm not putting up with this for another minute!"
I got up and left. I told you, this case was ugly.
Back at my office the next day, I went through the file again, re-read the printouts of the case. I decided to take a closer look at the bank mortgage for five mill. Maybe there's something there. Logging on the Net, I did another search for the loan. That's strange -- it didn't come up. I looked at the Omni printouts from last week -- yeah, five million from the bank. I rubbed my eyes. Ok, let's look again. I did another search. Nothing came up. Bizarre. That's never happened before. Maybe their servers were down?
I called my buddy on the police force. "Hey, Joe, do me a favor. Look up this bank loan on your system. I'm having a problem with Omni today." I gave him the details.
"I'll look it up," Joe said. "But we switched to Omni last year for our search engine and database, so I'm not sure how much help I'll be. Hold on."
I heard him tapping on his computer; a minute later, he came back on.
"Not getting anything, Sam. The Congressman's house is showing up with no bank loan. He owns it free and clear."
"I can't believe it, Joe. Last week he owed five mill..."
"Sorry, guy. I can't help you."
I hung up the phone. Now I can't prove a motive for the arson, but I need that 5%.
I picked up the phone again and called the bank. I'm not going to lose out on the money. I asked for the manager. "This is Sam McCall, I'm an insurance investigator and I'm looking into Congressman Mitchell's house fire. Your bank has a mortgage on the property."
I heard the man tapping away at his keyboard -- a few minutes later, he came back on the line.
"We give out a lot of loans here, but I kind of remember that one, being the Congressman and all, but I'm not showing anything, which is strange..."
I shook my head. "Don't tell me...you use Omni."
"As a matter of fact, we do. It's very efficient."
"Great," I said, slamming down the phone.
I went to see my boss and told him my tale of woe. "Keep at it, Sam," he said. "There's a lot of money involved."
I nodded. "I hear you."
I decided to visit the Congressman again. Maybe I could shake him up a little, make him nervous. It was long shot, but I was running out of leads. I drove to his office and waited in the reception area. His receptionist kept giving me frosty looks, since I didn't have an appointment this time.
After an hour wait, she led me into his office.
The Congressman stood up from behind his desk, a cold look on his fat face. "What do you want McCall? Shouldn't you guys be finished processing my claim by now?"
I sat across from him. "Well, Congressman, we're still looking into the fire."
The man shook his head, his jowls shaking. "There's nothing to look at. It was an accident."
"Maybe so, but we have to do our due diligence. And anyway, there's the matter with the bank loan..."
"The mortgage you have on the property..."
He cut me off. "I don't have a mortgage on it -- you can check if you don't believe me."
"I've been checking, that's the strange part. You had a mortgage and then you didn't. How's that possible, Congressman?"
His face turned red and his hands balled into fists. "You listen to me, you piece of trash...if you don't lay off this, you'll be sorry..."
"Is that a threat?"
"Take it any way you like...now, get out of here!"
I stood up. "This isn't over yet." I turned around and left his office.
Two days later, driving home from work, a police car pulled me over. The officer approached my car and told me get out of it.
"What's the problem, Officer?"
He unsnapped his holster and pulled out his gun. "Please put your hands on the car and don't make any sudden moves. Are you Sam McCall?"
I put my hands on the car. "Yeah, that's me. What's this about? I wasn't speeding."
He pushed me against the car, kicked my legs apart started to put on a pair of handcuffs.
"Don't move," he growled. The cuffs clicked on my wrists. "Sam McCall, you're under arrest."
The county lockup was a concrete bunker, two floors down from street level. It was dank and stank of body odor. I'd been here many times in the course of my work, but always on the other side of the bars. I'd been in this cell for two days, asking for a lawyer, for my phone call, anything. Finally this morning, they let me make a call. An hour later my cop friend, Joe, showed up.
"How you doing, Sam?" he said, as he walked up to my cell.
I gripped the bars. "It's crazy, Joe. I got arrested and I've been here for days. Maybe I was speeding a little, but come on, this is nuts..."
Joe shook his head. "It's a lot worse than that. I looked it up in the system. You've been arrested for embezzlement. Six counts, from years ago when you lived in New York. Then you skipped bail and went on the run."
"What? That's crazy. I've never committed a crime in my life...and I never lived in New York...look, Joe, you got to believe me, you got to help me...I'm being framed."
He gave me a card. "This is a good lawyer. Give him a call. >From what I saw online, you're going to need him."
Joe gave me a sad smile. "I got to get back to work..." Then he walked away.
I slumped down on the cot in my cell. What the heck was going on? How could this be happening? Then it hit me. Could they do that? Could they change my past, change my personal history?
I looked at the card Joe had given me. I had to make that call. Try to get out of this mess.
"Guard!" I yelled out. "Guard!"
(This story previously appeared in the May 2009 edition of Orion's Child.)
© 2009 Lee Gimenez
Bio: Lee Gimenez is a science fiction writer who lives with his wife in Florida. Lee earned a Bachelor of Science degree in Industrial Design from Georgia Tech University and an M.B.A. degree from Fairleigh Dickinson University. He has had over twenty stories published in magazines in the United States, Australia, Canada and England, including a number of stories in Aphelion (most recently September 12th, in the June 2009 issue). He is a member of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA), and is now working on a new novel. Visit Lee's website Lee Gimenez for news and links to his various published works.
E-mail: Lee Gimenez
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