Easy Money by Janet E. Sever
Millions passed through his hands. Not dirty bills, like a drug dealer; it was all electrons, electrons as good as money. With a few strokes on the keyboard, a check for a three hundred dollar auto repair was out the door, a ten thousand dollar bodily injury settlement was on its way to an eager claimant, a fifty dollar payment to the guy who inspected shingles on a house, five dollars for a police report, thousands to defense attorneys. All those payments and many more, flying from Jack’s fingertips every day.
Jack had, along with all the other adjusters in the claims department, his evaluation the first week of January. His supervisor explained that his performance had been average, that he’d “achieved his objectives, but not exceeded them” and therefore, “Mr. Smith, you will not qualify for the performance bonus this year.”
What a surprise, he thought as he looked at his supervisor’s slight smile, like she was holding back a whooping “gotcha again this year, sucker” that she’d let loose as soon as no one could hear. In five years at Universal Amalgamated Insurance Company, he’d never qualified for a performance bonus. He’d given up expecting it. Once putting in fifty hours a week, when he believed there really was a carrot dangling from the end of that stick, now he carefully watched the clock. He never arrived more than two minutes early at his desk, never stayed later than two minutes past five. Lunches were as long as he could draw them out, and he’d recently started smoking, to spend the maximum time possible away from his desk. Sometimes he drank as many as ten cups of coffee so he could trek to the kitchenette and back; the coffee had the bonus of extra restroom time. There were days Jack knew he’d spent less than three hours out of eight at his desk in front of his computer.
Back from his smoke break, Jack revisited last week’s conversation with his supervisor. Performance pay was meant to encourage and reward extraordinary work. From what he could tell, it encouraged the opposite; he noticed that more and more people from the office seemed to have taken up smoking recently. He was willing to bet not a single person at Universal Amalgamated, except maybe management, qualified for that elusive yearly bonus.
Hands hovering over the keyboard, he looked at the claim file in front of him. Small rear-end accident, one person in the car, a lady named Mary Albright, and no police report had been made. Universal Amalgamated’s policyholder was clearly at fault and admitted to reading a magazine while driving.
“What if. . .” murmured Jack, and with a few strokes of the computer keys he wrote detailed file notes, adding a passenger to the car. A passenger named John Smith, Mrs. Albright’s brother. Who happened to have the exact address as Jack himself. Who happened to settle his claim today with Universal Amalgamated for a reasonable twelve hundred dollars. The check would be mailed out from the home office in Chicago. Jack would have it in hand in three days.
He leaned back in his chair. Surprisingly calm. He’d just embezzled twelve hundred dollars, something that he hadn’t even thought about doing until–until he did it. He hadn’t broken a sweat. Jack couldn’t believe he wasn’t worried about being caught, but John Smith was probably the most common name in the United States—-he’d handled claims for a dozen or more John Smiths in the past. The auditors and his supervisor seldom looked at claims that settled for less than five thousand dollars. I think I’m safe, he thought.
Jack picked up the next file and called the claimant to find out where he wanted to have his car repaired. When he got off the phone, he was surprised to find that it was 5:25. He’d worked almost a half-hour late for the first time in at least three years.
Jack waited several weeks to see if there were repercussions from his spontaneous larceny. He pictured his supervisor showing up at his desk with an empty box and ushering him out the door, then he realized that she’d more likely show up with burly cops in ill-fitting suits, stainless steel handcuffs dangling from fingers thick as sausages. Would they be discreet, quietly walk him out into the lobby? Or would they throw him over the desk, wrestle his hands behind his back as a lesson to other adjusters who might be harboring bonus resentments?
None of it happened. He cashed the check.
He conducted research before he did it again. Would a bank cash a check payable to J. Smith? He told friends he was doing an experiment and had them write checks to Jack Smythe, to J. Edward Smith, to Edward Smithee, to Ed Smith. He suddenly reveled in his middle name. He used every permutation, every misspelling he could think of, flashed his I.D. and a friendly smile, and each check was cashed, no problem.
Finding check cashing stores asked too many questions, Jack opened a new bank account. It was easy to cash checks at liquor stores and casinos, not worth the trouble to use grocery stores. A post office box on the other side of town was his alternate mailing address. Three months after that first twelve hundred dollar check—-performance pay, the way he saw it now–he was ready to do it again.
The one question Jack kept asking himself over and over was “How much?” How much money to steal to make it worthwhile? How much money to take so as not to draw attention? He knew anything over five grand was out, but how close could he get to that number, and how many times? Too often would draw attention; too close together, that was bad, too. Were oddball numbers, like $1456.24 safer than round ones? Should he do a quick bunch of big heists, and then get the hell out of Dodge? There were only so many checks to John Smith and its many modifications that he could get away with.
He decided to go with a second injury settlement, for another non-existent passenger in a car. The check was for $4100. Again he waited several weeks before cashing it. He kept looking for the burly cops with the handcuffs, and occasionally startled himself when he saw a visitor in the lobby, but no one came for him.
The next check required a little work. Borrowing his buddy Nathan’s beat-to-hell Mercedes one day when his car battery died, Jack hit upon the idea of having its rear end damage estimated. John S. Edward submitted the appraisal to Universal Amalgamated; not only did he receive payment for the repairs to the rear of his vehicle, he also received an allowance for the rental while the car was in the shop, plus a small amount for the loss of value to the vehicle.
That night, Jack called Nathan. “Thanks, man, for the use of your car. I really appreciate it.”
“Hey, let me take you out to that martini and cigar bar you keep talking about. My treat–I found out today I’m getting a performance bonus.”
One Friday, his supervisor Elaine came over, sat on the edge of his desk and crossed her legs. He noticed how muscular her calves were, recalled how she climbed the stairs at lunch every day. The muscles were sharply defined, and tapered into thin ankles above three-inch heels. There was a time, before her promotion, when Jack thought she was sexy.
Elaine leaned down and said quietly, “I know what you’re doing.”
Jack didn’t move. He was certain his heart had stopped beating. He couldn’t look at her.
“I know exactly what you’re doing,” she repeated.
“You–you do?” Jack felt his face go red, felt sweat bead at his temples. Sausage-fingered cops waited for him in the lobby. There was no other way out of the office. Was it too late to offer Elaine a cut?
“Sure. After not getting that performance bonus last time, you’re buckling down. Working late, not taking those long lunches anymore…and did you quit smoking?”
It was true, actually, although Jack hadn’t consciously thought about it. He had been working harder, spending more time at his desk and making sure his customers got serviced. “Yeah. I mean, I did take our discussion to heart. And I guess I don’t deserve any kind of performance pay unless I earn it.”
Elaine nudged him and smiled. “Keep up the good work. I think it’s going to pay off for you.”
She walked off. Jack’s heart began to beat again. He let out a slow breath, leaned back in his chair and smiled to himself. No cops in the lobby after all.
He hit the icon on the corner of his screen, and resumed issuing a check to John E. Smithson, Certified Property Appraiser, with a familiar post office box address located on the other side of town.
By the end of November, Jack had taken Universal Amalgamated for twenty four thousand, two hundred and ninety-four dollars and sixty-one cents. Last check for the year, he thought as he issued a bodily injury settlement check to J. Edgar Smith. It was for seven hundred five dollars and thirty-nine cents, making Jack’s performance pay this year an even $25,000. A job well done. He hit the Enter key, assembling those chaotic electrons into something that would become money at the other end. That file went into his “Out” box and he grabbed another from the stack on his desk.
“Jack, take a look at this. Is this weird, or what?” Elaine walked up to his desk with a stack of computer print-outs in her hand.
“Look at all the Smiths we’ve issued checks to this year.” She pointed to a list. “Can you believe it? Information Systems was getting ready to delete this report because we never use it, and I ran it to see what was on it.” She laughed. “Lots of people have the same name as you. You should think about changing it!” She walked back to her office, flipping pages.
Jack’s heart hadn’t stopped; on the contrary, it felt like it was about to burst through his chest. “Shit, shit, shit, shit, shit,” he muttered under his breath. “Shit.” He wondered if he’d go to federal prison, where they had tennis courts, or if he’d go to the real prison where murderers incarcerated for life took you as their bitch, where you got homemade tattoos on your face for no other reason than boredom. “Shit.”
Probation. For twenty-five grand, they’d give him probation. Probation. He grabbed hold of that idea and wouldn’t let it go. He’d confess, throw himself on the mercy of Elaine and Universal Amalgamated. He’d give the money back; most of it was still in his bank account anyway. They’d go easy on him. They wouldn’t press charges if he quit and gave them the cash. He could work construction, man a tollbooth. Anything was better than prison.
Elaine was lacing up her sneakers when he knocked at her door. “Got a minute?” Jack asked.
“I’ve got to get my stairs in–I’ve got a meeting in twenty. You want to walk with me for a sec?” she asked. She’d been especially friendly to him since that day she’d complimented his improved work ethic.
“Sure. I could use a workout myself.”
They entered the stairwell and began climbing. Jack’s shoes echoed; the noise traveled ten floors up and bounced fifteen floors down.
“So, what did you need to talk about?” Elaine asked.
Jack found it hard to catch his breath, and he knew it wasn’t from climbing. “Elaine, I–I don’t know how to tell you this,” he began. She smiled encouragingly, continued to climb. “I have, well, for the last eleven months or so, I’ve been–“
Not unlike that first day, never even thinking about it or planning ahead, without considering the potential consequences of his actions, Jack put his foot out and caught Elaine’s rear leg, the one with all of her weight on it, and kicked it out from under her.
She somersaulted backward down the stairs, her head making a sickening noise as it hit the wall of the landing below. Jack didn’t have to check her pulse; he could tell by her blank stare and the unnatural angle of her body that she wouldn’t be supervising any insurance claims again.
He walked up to the next floor and entered the hallway, took the elevator back down to the Universal Amalgamated claims office.
For weeks the office buzzed with the shock of Elaine’s death. “…climbed the stairs every day…no one even heard a scream…how horrible to die all alone…the best claims supervisor we’d had in a long time…” Jack murmured along with them, attended the wake and the funeral, paid his condolences to her family, and hoisted a couple beers in her honor after the service.
On December 31, a shadow passed over his desk, and Jack was surprised to see Marvin Meyers, Senior Vice President of Claims, standing next to him. Marvin held an empty cardboard box in his hand.
This is it, Jack thought. Forget probation now. You don’t get probation for murder. I’ll be a lifer, looking for my own bitch. Did he hear the clank of handcuffs coming from Marvin’s office?
“Jack, it’s not gone unnoticed what’s going on over here,” said Marvin. He plopped the box on the table.
Shit shit shit shit shit. Jack’s heart had stopped again.
“You’ve really turned things around, and while I wish it could be under different circumstances, I’m happy to offer you a promotion to Claims Supervisor.” In a lower tone of voice, he added unnecessarily, “You’ll be taking Elaine’s old office.”
Jack’s heart resumed its normal rhythm. “Thank you sir.” Jack shook Marvin’s hand and looked at the box.
“Thought you might need this, move any personal items,” Marvin said. “We’d like you in there first thing tomorrow.”
The next morning, Jack opened the drawers of his new desk and found the report listing the payments to John Smith and his many relatives by misspelling. He carefully threaded it into the shredder, then leaned back in the leather chair.
“Getting situated, I see.” Marvin, his new boss, stepped in, handed Jack an envelope. “You qualified for performance pay this year. Exemplary work, son.”
When Marvin was gone, Jack carefully opened the envelope to see a check made payable to John Edward Smith, in the amount of twenty five thousand dollars.