Matthew Harrison | The portfolio

That night, over a drink by myself, it suddenly became clear. The whole thing was a hoax. How could I have been fooled by it? The hoax would cost the guy ten dollars, but that wasn’t much–and he hadn’t even paid yet. Maybe there was a reality TV camera hidden in the restaurant. Or maybe the guy had something else in mind. Well, if he had, he’d better watch out–I was around to protect Cathy.

Then I recalled the Mr. Penn’s meek and serious appearance. He didn’t look like a hoaxer, still less a potential rapist. Had I missed something?

I thought I’d ask Greg. After his experience with the stereo agreement he’d be bound to know. But Greg wasn’t much help. When I tried to explain the contract, he kept asking about force majeure and things I hadn’t heard of—although I reckon he didn’t understand them either, and maybe he was angling for a way to get in with Cathy. I showed him the agreement and he said it didn’t look like a standard one to him, but he couldn’t say why. After that, I didn’t feel like asking anyone else.

In any case, surely the best thing was to meet this salesman myself. I might not know much about insurance, but I could surely tell a trickster from an honest man. Cathy was okay with that. So when we both had an afternoon free from class, Cathy arranged for us to meet Mr Penn in the restaurant.

It was a hot day, and I was glad of the air conditioner. Yet when Mr. Penn entered he looked cool, despite his jacket and tie and his excess weight. When he took his hat off and revealed his bald head, I felt how silly I had been to suspect him. He looked like someone out of an old film, more of a joke than anything.

I asked Mr. Penn if he had come by car. He said he was parked two blocks away. He’d been walking round the area to visit potential clients.

“So you’re a door-to-door salesman,” I said.

Mr. Penn nodded meekly. He had a round non-descript sort of face with small eyes that he kept away from you.

“Do people still take insurance like that?” I asked. It was the 1970s, we didn’t have the Internet then, but there were surely more advanced methods than cold-calling.

“They take our insurance like that,” Mr. Penn said quietly. Cathy nudged my knee under the table.

I said I meant no offense. Mr. Penn waved a plump hand graciously.

Then I brought out the contract. The terms seemed a little odd, I said—we would like an explanation before Cathy could sign.

Mr. Penn suddenly became intent. “It is very simple,” he began, leaning forward, his eyes looking at me directly now. “You face certain risks, such as the risk of a life-threatening accident, which you do not want. We, on the other hand, are interested in risks, and we want to take them over.”

“What happens if the life-threatening accident takes place?” I asked.

“It won’t take place for you,” said Mr. Penn, “if you are insured with us.”

Cathy was holding my hand below the table; just then she gave me a squeeze.

I still didn’t get it. “How do you make your money, if you don’t mind my asking?” I said. “We get paid when the contract is signed. When do you get paid?”

Mr. Penn chuckled. “Very shrewd, Mr Cartwright. Let us just say that the event itself is our payment.”

That didn’t seem like an explanation to me. “Another thing,” I said. “How do we know you’ll still be around when the event comes along?”

Mr. Penn’s eyes were still on me, and it didn’t feel too comfortable. He had the air of someone who knew what he was doing. “How do you know if anyone will be around, years ahead when you want to make your claim?”

We hadn’t had the financial crisis then, insurers weren’t going bust so that you’d notice. But he had a point.

“Okay, okay” I said. “But I checked out your company in the directory, and there’s nothing there. There’s no registration for Stetler.”

“We are a discreet private organization,” Mr. Penn said.

This sounded like nonsense to me. Maybe illegal nonsense.

“Mr. Penn,” I began, “I don’t like to say this, but–”

“Then don’t say it,” Cathy intervened quickly. She got up. “It’s been nice meeting you Mr, Penn. Give us a few days to think it over. We’ll call you if we need you.”

Mr. Penn said it was fine with him. We shook hands, and he walked out. He had a limping gait, and as I watched him make his way along the sidewalk, under the hot sun, for a moment I felt sorry for him. No doubt he had sales targets to meet, and with such an odd proposition and such old-fashioned working methods what hope did he have?

He rounded the corner, and disappeared. Yet in my mind’s eye I could still see him, limping along slowly but steadily. There was an inevitability about it, as if he had plenty of time.

I shivered—the air conditioning was way too cold.

Cathy said she wasn’t going to sign if I was uncomfortable with it. So I thought that was the end of the matter. But then a couple of things happened.

The first was that Greg signed up with Stetler. I spotted the contract on the sofa when I swept off some of his clothes lying there.

I tackled Greg about it that evening. He was pretty defensive at first. But then he opened up. “The guy’s a nut. Why not take his money?”

“So you got ten dollars too?”

“Sure,” said Greg. “More than that.”

“More than that?” I echoed feebly.

Greg picked up his contract and showed it to me. I read it, with increasing bafflement. As far as I could make out, he had insured his life, but also other things, namely his car, his limbs—all four of them—and his flat. And according to the contract he had received ten dollars in each case, making seventy dollars in all.

“Hey, it’s not your flat!” I said as it sank in. “It’s not even mine. I’m renting.”

“So?” Greg grinned. “He’s prepared to pay, so I’m prepared to insure.”

It had me. How could Mr. Penn survive if he was fooled as easily as that? Yet he did not seem a fool.



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