H Is For Homicide Page 4


CF HAD BEEN buzzing about Gordon Titus since June when the quarterly report showed unusual claim activity. In an insurance office, any time the loss ratio exceeds the profit ratio by ten percent, the board begins to scrutinize the entire operation, trying to decide where the trouble lies. The fact that ours was the California Fidelity home office didn't exempt us from corporate abuse, and the general feeling was that we were headed for a shake-up. Word had it that Gordon Titus had been hired by the Palm Springs branch originally to revise their office procedures and boost their premium volume commitment. While he'd apparently done an admirable job (from the board's point of view), he'd created a lot of misery. In a world presided over by Agatha Christie, Gordon Titus might have ended up on the conference room floor with a paper spindle through his heart. In the real world, such matters seldom have such a satisfactory ending. Gordon Titus was simply being transferred to Santa Teresa, where he was destined to create the same kind of misery.

In theory, this had little or nothing to do with me. My office space is provided by CF, in exchange for which I do routine investigations for them three or four times a month, checking out arson and wrongful death claims, among other things. On a quarterly basis, I put together documentation on any suspect claim being forwarded to the Insurance Crime Prevention Institute for investigation. I was currently pursuing fourteen such claims. Insurance fraud is big business, amounting to millions of dollars a year in losses that are passed on to honest policy holders, assuming there are still a few of us left out here. It's been my observation, after years in the business, that a certain percent of the population simply can't resist the urge to cheat. This inclination seems to cut across all class and economic lines, uniting racial and ethnic groups who otherwise might have little to say to one another. Insurance is regarded as equivalent to the state lottery. In return for a couple of months'premiums, people expect to hit the jackpot. Some are even willing to tamper with the odds to assure themselves of a payoff. I've seen people falsify losses on burglary claims, indicating goods stolen that were never, in fact, in their possession. I've seen buildings burned down, medical claims inflated, wounds self-inflicted, workmen's compensation claims extended far beyond any actual disability. I've seen declarations of property damage, lost earnings, accidents, and personal injuries that occurred only in the inflamed imaginations of the claimants. Happily, insurance companies have been wising up fast and have now instituted measures for sniffing out deceit. Part of my job entails laying the foundation for prosecution of these fraudulent claims. With Gordon Titus due to arrive any day, there'd been a sudden flurry of cases thrown in my direction and I was under pressure to produce quick results.

Vera passed along the latest of these questionable claims on a Sunday afternoon in late October. I had stopped by the office to pick up some estimated income tax files that had to go to my accountant first thing Monday morning. I parked my VW in the back lot as usual, entering the building by way of the rear stairs. I passed the darkened CF offices, let myself into my office, where I checked my answering machine for messages, did a quick sorting of Saturday's mail, and tucked the tax forms in the outside pouch of my leather shoulder bag. As I passed the CF offices on my way out again, I noticed there were lights on. I paused to peer through the glass doors, wondering if a thief was making off with all the office equipment. Vera crossed my line of vision, papers in hand, apparently on her way to the copy machine. She caught sight of me and waved, veering in my direction. She's thirty-eight, single, and the closest thing to a ’’best’’ friend I'm likely to have. The cluster of office keys was still in the lock and they jingled and clanked as she opened the door. ’’Hey, babe. I was looking for you Friday afternoon, but you'd already left. Must be nice knocking off at two,’’ she said as she let me in.

’’Where did you come from? The place was dark when I passed by a minute ago.’’

She relocked the door and continued toward the copier with me trailing along behind. She was talking over her shoulder, her manner relaxed. ’’I just popped by to use the Xerox machine. Don't tell anyone. This is personal business. A list of guests for the reception.’’ She raised the lid on the Xerox machine and placed a paper on the glass, punching in instructions. She pressed the ’’print’’ button and the machine fired up. She was wearing black tights and knee-high boots with an oversize sweat shirt that hit her just below the crotch. She caught my look. ’’I know. It looks like I forgot to put on my pants. I'm on my way to Neil's, but I wanted to grab this while I could. What are you up to? You want to join us for a drink?’’

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