Matthew Harrison | The portfolio

I told Cathy about it the following day. She didn’t see the problem; she had confidence in Mr. Penn.

“But Cathy,” I said, “First of all, he’s insuring things that don’t exist, like Greg’s ownership of the flat. And secondly, he’s giving out money when he should be collecting it in. Insurance doesn’t work like that. Nothing works like that.”

“You heard what he said,” Cathy replied. “He said the event itself was Stetler’s payment. I believe him.”

I shook my head, not wanting to argue with her. Although when I thought of Mr. Penn’s serious demeanour, I was less sure. Could I be missing something?

Cathy thought I was. “Insurance is just statistics, you said.  If you were a good mathematician, Sean Cartwright, you would be able to work it out.”

That stung me. A good mathematician was what I thought I was. So I sat down one evening in my flat and tried to puzzle it out.

The first thing was the events insured. Mr. Penn didn’t seem to mind if the event was real or not, provided the insured person attested to it. So he was insuring some imaginary events and some real ones. That was hard to explain, by any measure.

Hold on, though. Math had a way to deal with imaginary events, for god’s sake—imaginary numbers! They’re even used in real-world stuff like engineering. Imaginary numbers could surely help with imaginary events.

Now I had a notation to express what Mr. Penn was doing. He was collecting rights to an array of events that reached across the real-imaginary spectrum.

The second thing was that he was paying a premium to the insured rather than receiving one. That was harder to account for. It seemed just the wrong way round.

But Mr. Penn said that Stetler received value. And that brought me to the third odd thing. He was not insuring against the event happening, but rather promising to take the event over so that it wouldn’t happen to the insured. But that was hard to understand too. Who would want to the right to someone’s death? Who could possibly benefit from that?

Then I thought again. Insurance is taking on a portfolio of risks, and pricing them at the average. Maybe those risks balanced out some other risks or positions that Stetler had. Maybe the whole portfolio balanced.

But how could the addition of a death to a portfolio balance out anything?  Surely death was always a negative?

Or was it? What about an imaginary death? Was death in an imaginary world equivalent to birth in the real world? I got dizzy thinking about such possibilities. And I was young then–death didn’t seem real anyway.

The whole thing was tying me up in knots.  Unless it was magic, there was no way the proposition could hold together.

I explained my thinking to Cathy the next time we met.

“So those are the possibilities,” I said. “Number one, it’s a hoax. Number two, it’s an extraordinary construct of imaginary entities, which we could represent by imaginary numbers. Three, it’s plain magic.”

Cathy mulled it over. “Maybe number two?”

I agreed that that would be the most interesting. “But extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof,” I added. I’d read that somewhere.

Cathy didn’t look very interested.

Then something else came to my mind. “Cathy, how did you hear of Mr. Penn?  Stetler doesn’t advertise.”

“The others have all used him,” Cathy said.

All?” I felt a chill.

“Yes,” Cathy went on, “Joe and Henny and Rachel, Bob and Zach on the other shift, Bill and Margaret and What’s-his-name in the kitchen, and…”

The hairs on the back of my neck were prickling. “And how did this happen? Did Mr. Penn came in and present to all of you?”

“No. At least, Marge said she met him alone a couple of times. And Bob too.  Just like me.”

“How long did all that take?” I asked.

“The week before last, I think it was,” Cathy said.

I did a swift calculation. There must be fifteen staff in the restaurant, counting all the shifts. If Mr. Penn had been around all of them individually in just a week—and Greg too… “I guess he’s more active than I thought.”

“That’s what I’ve been telling you!” Cathy said triumphantly. “Mr. Penn’s no slouch. In fact, he’s quite nice.”

I said we had better meet him again. Cathy agreed.

In the meantime, I did some research. And I found that Mr. Penn had been very active. Almost anyone I asked turned out to have an agreement with Stetler. And all were signed in the past couple of weeks.

“That gives us another problem,” I said to Cathy. We were sitting in the restaurant in the quiet period before tea. “It’s not only the imaginary events, it’s also the imaginary salesman. No real salesman could get around so many people in such a short time. Especially not a guy with a limp.”

“Maybe we can ask him to explain,” Cathy said. “He didn’t seem to mind explaining to us last time.”

I nodded, although I felt nervous at the prospect of meeting Mr. Penn again.  This new evidence of his powers had shaken me.

Just then the restaurant door opened, and the gentleman himself came in. It was as if he was shadowing us—as perhaps he was shadowing half the population of the town.

I got up and managed to clasp his hand. Physically I towered over Mr. Penn—I was kind of strong then—but I looked at him with respect and, frankly, with fear. What kind of being was he?

Mr. Penn asked how we were. Had we thought over the proposal?

I said we were fine with it; we could sign if he liked. Mr. Penn did like, so Cathy signed. I said I’d sign one too, so Mr. Penn brought out another agreement straightaway, and made a note in his book. Then he asked if there was anything else.

I summoned up my courage. It helped that Cathy was holding my hand. “Yes, actually there is. If you don’t mind, Mr. Penn, we’d like you to explain how—how you do it.”

“What do you mean?” he said calmly.

I got bolder. “I mean, how can you get around everyone in town so fast?  Especially when…” I glanced down at his leg.

His eyes were focused on me now. “Shall we say, I work harder than you expected?”

That didn’t seem much of an answer. I pressed on. “The things you insure—they aren’t real. Greg’s flat, for instance. It’s actually mine—and anyway, I don’t own it, I just rent it.”

“I know,” Mr. Penn said quietly. “But of his own free will he granted me the right.”

“Yes,” I countered, “but that was the right to a fire or other disaster affecting the flat, not the flat itself—and anyway, it’s not his flat, for god’s sake!”

Cathy was squeezing my hand now.

“And one more thing,” I blurted out before Cathy could silence me. “How do you afford it, paying all that money upfront?”

The few other customers in the restaurant turned to look at us, but Cathy smiled and shrugged, as if I was always like this and it was nothing to worry about. They turned away again.

Mr. Penn leaned forward. “I see you are a thinking man, Mr Cartwright. May I call you Sean?”

I nodded, and he continued, “I told you when we last met, Sean, that Stetler has interests, extensive interests. We want to, shall we say, balance those interests with other interests, such as those of your friend Greg.”

“How can it benefit you to take over Greg’s interest in a fire in my flat—I mean, my landlord’s flat?  Or to take over someone’s accidental death?”

“Our interests are very extensive,” Mr. Penn replied.

I was beginning to get it. “So extensive that almost any scenario can be offset somewhere?”

Any scenario,” Mr. Penn corrected me.

I felt the chill again. “Any” sounded like a lot of scenarios to me. “Imaginary as well as real?”

“You can put it like that.”

That made it more chilling. “And the upfront payments?”

“We want to be fair,” Mr. Penn said. “We ourselves are satisfied with the deal. We want our clients to be satisfied too.”

I took a breath. We were so far in I had nothing to lose. “Why bother? Why not just take what you want and leave? You could do that, and it would save you time walking round all of us like you do.”

“We want to be fair,” Mr. Penn said softly. “We have our ethical standards, you could say. And we have time.”

I suppose the time thing made sense—if you are facing an infinite set of scenarios, then it makes no difference whether you go about them fast or slow. And I thought of something else. “There’s more than one of you, then?”

Cathy broke in. “What do you mean, Sean?”

Mr. Penn held up his hand for her to be easy. “There is just one of me. But perhaps I am not just in one place.”

That also fitted the imaginary scenario thing. Perhaps imaginary versions of Mr. Penn fanned out to cover all the scenarios. Perhaps the version of him that sat before us—faintly exuding eau de cologne—was imaginary too.

By now, with Mr. Penn quietly answering my questions, I’d lost my fear of him. So I asked him where he came from.

I couldn’t help glancing out of the restaurant window as I said this. Outside above the low buildings opposite, the sky had become a deeper blue and small clouds were touched rose by the setting sun. And beyond the clouds was Venus, pale in the still-bright sky. It was a beautiful view, poised at that moment between daylight and dusk that hints at eternity.

Mr. Penn laughed. He shook his head.

Cathy broke in. “I think we’ve taken up enough of Mr. Penn’s time for one day,” she said, calling for the bill.

Mr. Penn said he was in no hurry. But Cathy insisted, so he said goodbye to us and limped towards the door. I settled the bill, and glanced again through the window. I could see Mr. Penn’s back lit by the setting sun as he made his way laboriously across the street. On the far side he turned and continued walking slowly but purposefully until he passed out of my sight. As I lay in bed that night, the image of Mr. Penn’s unhurried walk replayed itself again and again in my mind.

We never saw Mr. Penn again. The years went by, the town grew, people moved in, people moved on. I married Cathy, we had children, they grew up and left us. I tracked the town’s statistics on car accidents, fires and other disasters, and they declined from the year Mr. Penn came. But without knowing how many people he insured it is difficult to say whether Stetler was the cause. I could have done a proper survey, but was always too busy to start.

As I get older, I think of Mr. Penn more and more. I think of that stooped and limping figure, with his out-of-fashion clothes and his pencil and notebook, and wonder why he was not better synchronized with our time. But I suppose from the perspective of eternity there is no difference between one time and another, and all technologies are the same.

In some other version of reality, Mr. Penn would be limping along the street or what passes there for a street—and doing the same in world upon imaginary world tangential to this. What the final sum would be of all the real and imaginary risks he garnered for his portfolio I could not guess.

But I think I begin to understand his math. For the math to work out, the right to accidental death must somehow have a positive value. And as I get older and contemplate getting older still, as I see in me and Cathy the decline of capability, of memory, of personality itself, I am beginning to understand that it has.






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