*Features adult language and themes.*
“Hello Mrs. Wilkinson. Thank you very much for waiting.” A middle aged woman walked past Simone into the office. “Did my receptionist offer you a drink?”
Mrs. Wilkinson sat down in one of the chairs. “She did, thank you. I’m not particularly thirsty.”
Simone shut the door, dulling the chatting voices and trilling of phones down to a low hum. She went around to the opposite side of the desk. Her side of the desk. When she sat down she felt comfortable; in control. The office layout had been considered carefully. Everything in it was positioned to point in her direction. Her chair was higher than any of the others in the room, elevating her. It made her look and feel superior. She never intended her office to feel comfortable for anybody else. Part of the reason for this was what she had to do next.
“First of all I’d like to offer you my condolences. I know what a terrible time this is for you and while no words can make a difference I offer them regardless.”
“Thank you Ms. Saunders. I appreciate that,” said Mrs. Wilkinson.
“Please, call me Simone.”
Mrs. Wilkinson nodded but didn’t offer her own first name as expected. She kept shuffling her bottom on the chair trying to find a comfortable position. She made no move to take off her coat and held her handbag on her lap as if for protection. It was clear to Simone that the woman was not at ease. And it’s about to get worse.
“I’ve asked you to come in for a chat, so we can go over a few issues we have with your claim.”
Mrs. Wilkinson looked confused. “Issues? I don’t understand.”
“It’s part of my job to look at insurance claims and decide if we are, in fact, liable to pay out on them according to the terms that the customer has agreed to and the circumstances leading up to the claim being filed.” There was no response from the other side of the desk. Mrs. Wilkinson’s face fell a little as Simone’s words wormed their way into her brain. “In your husbands case there are a few points that I need to discuss with you before I can make a decision.”
“Are you saying you might not pay out on my husband’s life insurance?” The woman’s voice had gone up an octave in fear.
Simone held her hands out in front of her. A superficial attempt to keep the customer calm. “I’m not saying that yet. I’m just saying I need to get a little more information from you before a decision can be made.”
Mrs. Wilkinson began to shake her head. Here come the tears. “I don’t see what problems there could be. My husband had a life insurance policy with your company for over twenty years. I remember because he took it out before our first child was born. He always told me that he wanted to make sure we were all looked after if anything happened. No matter what was going on, if money was tight, he always made sure the policy was paid. He was careful about it. The thought of not leaving anything for us scared the hell out of him. What problem could there be? He took out a policy and paid the dues.”
Simone leaned forward in an attempt at false intimacy. Mrs. Wilkinson, in turn, leaned further back. “I know it may seem a little strange. As you say your husband took out a policy and according to our records did keep up the payments. However, he started a new policy less than two years ago…”
“He had to. You told him he had to. His original policy had run its course. By that time my Billy wasn’t a well man. The premiums skyrocketed. The last few years before he passed away we had a struggle to keep up with the payments.”
“Yes, that’s correct. The first problem we have is this: Mr. Wilkinson passed away within the first two years of his new policy. The first two years of any policy is what we call the ‘contestability period.’”
“What’s that mean?”
“It’s something we have written into each policy that protects us, as a company, from fraudulent claims. If the policy holder dies within the first two years of the policy we have the right to investigate the circumstances of the death to ascertain if a fraud has been committed.”
“Fraud? What do you mean? Do you think Billy faked his own death and now he’s waiting somewhere for me to pick up the cheque? That’s bloody ridiculous.”
“That is one example of fraud, Mrs. Wilkinson. But there are many other ways. It could be as simple as omitting information from the questions we ask before the terms of the policy are agreed. For example a person could have a fatal illness, take out a policy without telling us about it and their family collects the money once they pass away. Or perhaps someone could be depressed and think about ending their life, but they still want to support the people they leave behind. They might try to take out a policy then commit suicide in a way that looks accidental.” Simone was leaning forward more and more as she spoke. She pulled back when it felt like she was leering at the woman opposite.
Mrs. Wilkinson was silent. Tears ran down her face falling into gutters created by the lines around her eyes that led towards her jaw. She looked down at the handbag sitting on her lap. “So, that’s what you think Billy did. You think he killed himself?”
Simone leaned back in her chair, trying to seem relaxed. “Nobody is suggesting anything of the sort at this stage. I was merely giving you some examples of why we might feel the need to investigate policies that are claimed within the contestability period. If the claim does fall inside that timeframe we do have the right to investigate and depending on our findings, deny the claim.”
“Not pay out, you mean.”
Mrs. Wilkinson looked up at Simone. The tears were gone. Her eyes were big and fierce, her gaze cold. “What would you like to know?”
* * *
Selling insurance is never anybody’s idea of a dream job. When you’re little you want to be a ballerina, a princess or a singer. It’s funny that they never advertise for Princesses in the job section.
Mrs. Wilkinson had left the office an hour ago. Simone was sitting in her chair, the window open, the lights off and all the blinds closed. A cold breeze blew through and made the blind knock against the frame. She heard the traffic pass four floors below and all the while there was the chatter and chirping of activity in the general office. She was in the dark, cold and smoking her fourth cigarette in a row. Simone was trying to make each one last longer than its predecessor. So far she had managed it.
I have to make a decision that could potentially ruin an entire family.
In truth she had already made her decision. Of course there would be weeks of meetings and investigations. Mrs. Wilkinson would be dragged in two or three more times to meet with other investigators and further proof would be put forth for consideration. But Simone already knew.
I’ll deny the claim. Mrs. Wilkinson knows it too. Over the years Simone had honed the ability to read people. When she walked into a room she knew who was having a bad day and who had sex the night before. It was something she began doing at a very young age after becoming obsessed with Sherlock Holmes stories. She loved the way Holmes instantly commanded any room he entered simply by knowing more than everyone else. It was the first time she realised knowledge could be used as a tool; a weapon. Before then her parents and teachers had given her the impression that learning was just something you did and the reason for it had long been forgotten by everyone. You learned to read and write, you were taught maths and science but nobody really gave you a reason for it, a use. Sherlock Holmes did.
Simone taught herself to observe instead of see. She could tell if any of her staff were having relationships by watching their body language or spotting an unguarded glance. She could tell if anyone was having troubles in their personal life that might affect their work. She had fired a man the previous year for his poor performance just before his divorce. He’d tried to keep the details a secret, but Simone had picked up on the signs. She had enough grounds to dismiss him before he spiralled downwards completely and became a liability.
Simone knew enough to read the look on Mrs. Wilkinson’s face as she had sat opposite her and lied.
The decision itself didn’t bother Simone. It made her sad to think about the hardship that the Wilkinson family would face as a result, but that wasn’t a good enough reason to give them a lump sum of money that was claimed illegally.
The trouble is, it should bother me.
She had sat for the last hour thinking over her career, how she had got to this point. Nobody dreams of being an insurance broker.
* * *
Simone was 16 when she got her first job out of school. She didn’t have fantastic qualifications, but she knew her strengths.
She could read people and she could talk. Selling was the obvious choice of career. She could have sold anything. It didn’t matter what it was. Simone had a talent.
It wasn’t about convincing someone that they needed a product, it was about spotting the person that already wanted it.
The product just happened to be insurance.
She started off in a call centre; cold calling customers and selling over the phone. Within the first six months she was setting company records and alienating the other staff; making them look bad. It wasn’t just that she made them look bad, it was that she was doing it so effortlessly. Something clicked into place. It was like someone picking up a guitar for the first time and knowing precisely what to do to make a beautiful sound.
Simone’s first supervisor told her: ‘The challenge of selling isn’t making someone buy something they don’t need, it’s selling them something they don’t need and then getting them to buy something they don’t want on top of it. Selling ice to Eskimos is simple. It’s selling them the freezer to keep it in. That’s the hard part.’
It didn’t matter. Whatever the challenge, whatever the goal, Simone surpassed it. She managed to read people over the phone. She could sense the tone and timbre of their voice, she could tell if they were a prospective buyer. Her success wasn’t down to talking more people into buying, it was down to making more calls than anyone else and spotting those that would buy.
Within the first year she had been promoted twice, she had been paid handsome amounts of money to train the current and new staff. By the time she was in her early twenties she held an executive position as a personal broker. She met people face to face, travelling around the country and selling policies worth hundreds of thousands of pounds.
Now she found herself in her mid thirties, at the highest possible level of her profession, without sitting on the board of the company. She still dabbled in personal policies for some of her older customers, but her main job was business insurance, dealing in policies worth millions.
She had earned more money than she ever thought possible. She owned and lived in an apartment that cost four times what her parent’s family home would have fetched now. She travelled around Europe meeting interesting people, eating at the best restaurants, staying at the best hotels. All on company expenses.
The only downside to her job was occasionally having to meet with a grieving widow to explain how her late husband tried to defraud the company so she wouldn’t get the pay-out she was expecting.
All in all, it’s a small price to pay. Simone stubbed out her last cigarette. The ash looked like a gnarled, grey finger hanging onto the brown filter for dear life. She got up, opened the blinds and closed the window. She realised she was cold and put her jacket on then sprayed air freshener to hide the smell of smoke. She collected her bag, swinging it over her shoulder and left the office locking the door behind her.
“I’m going for an early lunch. If you need me I have my phone,” she said to her receptionist as she sauntered by. Simone felt a little thrill as the receptionist automatically straightened in her seat and smiled at her as she passed.
* * *
Arlington’s was one of her favourite places to eat. It was close to the office, quite small and tucked away enough that not everybody knew about it.
Simone had ordered a coffee and a panini. She sipped at the dark, rich brew and ignored the food as she leafed through her work schedule. After her meeting with Mrs. Wilkinson she would have to make appointments with other people in different departments. It was a little maddening to know that even though she had made up her mind, the proper wheels of the process would still have to turn. It’s a shame that my word can’t be taken as fact. I know I’m right. The board will trust my decision, but everything must be seen to be done legitimately.
As she leafed to the front of her diary she noticed a few scribbles of her handwriting that didn’t seem to fit in with the usual entries of appointments and meeting notes.
Then she remembered.
It was what she had written when she got back from London on New Year’s Day. She had sought out a copy of the Kurt Sampson article when she got back into town, taking out an online subscription, such was her sudden desperation to read it.
I must have gone temporarily mad.
* * *
5 things that make me Happy.
1. My faith.
2. My bank balance.
4. My job, partly because it creates my bank balance.
4-∞. What else do I need that my bank balance can’t give me? The list could be endless. My luxurious apartment, my expansive wardrobe and its contents, the sports car I keep in the garage and use 2 or 3 times a year, travelling the world, etc, etc.
5 things that make me Unhappy.
2. Feeling disconnected from my family.
3. I don’t have any close friends.
4. The amount of tax I have to pay on my earnings.
5. When Betty doesn’t wipe the steam nozzle on the coffee machine and it’s left covered in crusty milk.
* * *
Simone scribbled over what she’d just read. How much did I drink on New Year’s? I can’t remember the hangover, but it must have been terrible to make me write such crap. Having said that, it does annoy me when Betty forgets to clean the coffee machine.
Taking a nibble of the panini Simone cast her mind back and tried to remember writing those words. She could recall feeling a huge sense of release to get back to work after the New Year’s Bank holiday. It was always unsettling when the rhythm of her consistent work routine was disrupted. Once she had immersed herself back into the day to day business, all thoughts of Kurt Sampson and his hippy-dippy ideas had melted from her mind.
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