Crooked Adjustment by John W Dennehy
Crooked Adjustment by John W Dennehy
Gunshots rang out downtown around lunchtime. Will stepped from a limestone building, taking a lunchbreak from the insurance claims office, thinking about nothing more than a ham sandwich.
Heading for his favorite luncheonette on a hot summer day, the sun immediately baked his dark suit. A scent of fresh flowers drifted up from the beds in front of the building, Bidens and Chrysanthemums in full bloom. Will hadn’t even placed his fedora upon his pate, when the commotion caught his attention.
Machine guns rattled, and bullets ripped down Main Street, ricocheting off the stone façades of downtown store fronts, plugging holes into the clunky fenders of Desoto sedans, and the occasional aging Ford Model A.
Will froze in his tracks. Surprised, he wasn’t sure what to do. Bank heists were something that happened in Chicago, or Atlantic City, but not Nashua, New Hampshire.
Gangsters down the street, shot their way through a police barricade. More coppers rolled up with sirens blaring. Two thugs stippled the patrol cars with Tommy guns. A getaway driver sat in a shiny ‘37 Plymouth De Luxe, black with whitewall tires, while a robber fired a Colt automatic, making his way for the rear suicide door. He got inside the Plymouth, then a gangster with a Tommy gun climbed in next to him.
Standing on the sidewalk, the remaining gangster blasted away at the police. Return fire snapped from .38 specials. Brass bounced on the tar and concrete. As the Plymouth made a U-turn, the shooter hopped onto a running board, a hand slipped through the window, clenched tight, while continuing to fire away.
The car sped off. Scant firepower couldn’t stop it from reaching the outskirts of town.
When the clamor wound down, and the Tommy gun bursts got further away, Will heard a pop, and fell to the sidewalk, clutching his stomach. Pain burned his side as a patch of crimson spread across his starched, white shirt.
Waking to footsteps pattering on a tile floor, Will tried to discern his predicament. His back ached. Antiseptic permeated the room. He’d been asleep but couldn’t remember anything more. Pain shot from his abdomen.
“There you are, finally.” A nurse peered over him.
“What’s going on?” He stared up at her, groggy.
“You don’t know?”
Will shook his head.
“That’s perfectly normal,” she said, matter-of-factly.
He nodded but didn’t understand.
She adjusted her white cap, folded in front with a red cross printed on it. Will felt her hand gently brush the bedside, then she sat down next to him. She considered his eyes earnestly. “You’ve had a bit of an accident.” She ran a hand over his forehead.
“Accident?” He tried to sit up.
“Not quite.” She stood and looked down. “There are men waiting to see you. Best I leave the talking to them.”
Will sighed as the nurse stepped from the room.
Things started coming back, hot sun and machine gun fire. At thirty-seven years old, he’d diligently gone into the insurance office and worked his files, building a secure life. He never married, fearful of taking a risk. Now, he lay in a hospital bed, surviving a brush with death.
Thoughts drifted to Betty, a girl at the office. Attractive, she’d always taken time to chat with him. He’d considered asking her out, but never went through with it. Stan Tompkins garnered all the interest of girls at the office, even though he was married with three kids.
A squeak on the floor caught his attention.
Two detectives walked into the room, rubber heels smacked the waxed tile. Both cops wore haggard, loose fitting suits, and the older one carried a hat. They approached his bedside.
The one with the hat flashed a friendly smile. “How are you holding up?”
Will shrugged. “Not every day you get shot.”
“You remember what happened, now?” the younger detective asked, suspicious. “Because the nurse told us that you didn’t remember a thing.”
“She’s right,” Will replied. “Things are starting to come back, though.”
The older detective nodded. “I’m Detective Sergeant McKinley. And this here is my partner, Detective Johnson.”
Johnson forced a smile, cold.
“So, you know that you’ve been shot,” McKinley said, running a hand through his thinning hair.
“Yeah, I was leaving the office for lunch. There was gunfire.”
“Did you see who shot you?” Johnson interjected.
“No. Figured that it was just a stray. There was a bank heist going down. Did you catch those guys?”
“Afraid not.” McKinley stepped closer. “They were able to get clear of downtown. After leaving that end of town, there was nothing but countryside and open road.”
“What do you fellas want with me? There must be lots of people injured from all that shooting.”
Johnson tensed at the question.
Will looked at the young detective and cool eyes stared back. The suspicious cop turned away and headed to the window. Will glanced at McKinley, searching for answers.
The room went quiet. Light shined from a window into the hospital, bright, almost too bright. “How long have I been in here, anyway?”
The coppers looked at each other. “A little over a day,” McKinley finally said.
“Over a day,” Will repeated. “How could that be?”
“Look, you’ve been shot.” Johnson turned from the window. “You were taken to surgery, then recovery. You’ve been asleep most of that time.”
“So, what’s the big deal?” Will shrugged. “Why all the interest in me?”
McKinley reached into the side pocket of his suit coat. “This.” He placed a discharged bullet on the metal tray by the bed.
Will picked up the bullet and perused it. The tip was peeled back, resembling a tiny mushroom. He thumbed the metal curiously. It was stained, black and reddish. “This thing… it was in me?”
Dropping the bullet onto the tray, it clanged and rolled to the side. Will didn’t know what to make of it.
His routine consisted of getting up early, a morning paper and a cup of coffee. Then he’d head over to the office. Always grabbed a sandwich downtown, and Will usually headed home in the evening. He didn’t stay out with the boys. A simple existence. The house was a small ranch and he hoped to share it with someone, eventually. He’d actually calculated the risk management for taking on a spouse, and then factored additional savings for retirement and the off chance of divorce. The entire consideration of marriage made him uneasy.
The bullet held significance to them, but he didn’t know why. By the time it finished rattling, Johnson had moved closer, and said, “What do you make of it?”
Will looked him over. The skepticism in Johnson’s eyes left him tongue tied for a moment. “Don’t know what to make of it. You guys are the detectives. Maybe you could tell me?”
“The matter is under investigation. We can’t give out any details.”
“Now wait a minute! I’m the victim here.”
McKinley nudged his partner, while squeezing his hat. The older detective had a nervous edge to him.
“Shouldn’t I have a right to know?” Will demanded.
“Afraid with the bank heist,” McKinley said, “we’ve got to keep this under wraps.”
Movement caused pain to jolt though Will’s abdomen. “Sure, sure thing. But fellas, just tell me if I’m in any danger.”
The detectives paused to look each other over. Will knew there was something amiss, but he didn’t know exactly what. And the coppers were holding back, trying to decide if they should let him know important details.
Johnson turned to him. “Now, do you know of anyone who might want to hurt you?”
“What do you mean?” Will stared at him, alarmed. “Like an insured not happy with his claim adjustment, that sort of thing? We get that all the time. But what’s that got to do with all the shooting downtown today?”
“We’re still investigating.” McKinley tried to placate him.
“Seems like a random act of violence. A ricochet from the bank robbery.”
The detectives glanced at each other. Something more was going on. Will had an uneasy feeling. “Hey, you don’t think that I’m mixed up in any of this?” Will looked at McKinley, nervous. “Do you?”
Johnson moved even closer. “Can you think of anyone at all that would want to hurt you? An angry husband, gambling debts, anything?”
“An angry husband? Gambling?” Will repeated. “Heck, fellas, you’ve got the wrong guy.”
McKinley pressed in closer. “See, the trouble is—”
Johnson clamped a hand on McKinley’s arm, as if reasoning against informing Will of important facts. They were holding something back. Will knew it.
“Come on guys,” Will said. “I’m an insurance man. And I’ve investigated more fire losses in New Hampshire than any claims rep around. You can trust me to keep things quiet. What do you say?”
McKinley glanced at the younger detective expectantly. An awkward silence, then Johnson nodded to his elder. Setting his hat on the tray, McKinley took a seat at the edge of the bed. He leaned in about to whisper.
“Hold on.” This from Johnson, who stepped toward the door, shoes squeaking. Will heard the door close. “All set.”
“The thing is…” McKinley cleared his throat, unsteady. “Let me put it this way.”
Will leaned closer, waiting.
“You’ve got to remember to keep this quiet,” McKinley insisted.
Nodding in agreement, Will grew even more curious.
“The thing is…” McKinley rubbed his hands together. “The thing is… you were shot with a .38 caliber bullet.”
“Guess I don’t understand, fellas.”
“All the gangsters,” McKinley continued, “from what we could tell, well, they were all shooting .45 caliber rounds. The Tommy guns and the Colt pistol.”
“So, you think that maybe I was shot by someone else?”
“Just hold on there!” Johnson snapped. “Nobody’s saying anything like that. We’re just investigating this closely. Got a discrepancy with details found at the scene. That’s all.”
Will watched the two detectives stare at one another, dumbfounded. Then, the younger detective jerked his chin at McKinley, like he wanted to leave. McKinley rose from the bed, grabbing his hat. “If you can think of anything else, give us a call.”
“Why would anyone shoot me? I’m straight-laced, boring.”
“Money and love.” McKinley shrugged. “Those are the reasons for murder.”
Murder. The word itself sent a chill down Will’s spine.
McKinley flashed a warm smile, then put his card on the tray. They left the room telling him to check his files for anyone who might hold a grudge.
A week later, Will decided to grab breakfast at a diner downtown, treating himself after checking out of the hospital. He’d woken up earlier than usual to plan extra time before heading into the office.
He backed the Desoto down his driveway, and then wheeled onto the road. Driving through the quaint neighborhood, he felt comfort from the cool morning air. A shimmer of sun broke through the horizon.
The big car rumbled over the smooth roadway, floating along. Will steered with his right hand on the wheel. A nurse suggested keeping his left arm in a sling. His suit jacket lay across the back seat, a tie stuffed into a side pocket. He’d get Betty to help put it on at the office.
When he got into town, Will pulled into a parking spot in front of the dinner. The place sat on the edge of the business district. It resembled a train car, shiny with windows overlooking the street. A few people were scattered about the booths by the windows.
Stepping inside, there was an open spot at the counter. A few folks mingled in the aisle. He plied his way for the empty stool and took a seat. Glancing around, he noticed most everyone had already been served. They were eating eggs or omelets, and sipped coffee.
Reaching across the Formica countertop, Will grabbed a menu wedged between a chrome napkin holder and a bottle of hot sauce. Earl hustled behind the counter filling orders, but made eye contact; he smiled kindly, and shuffled over wearing a soiled t-shirt, chinos, and a white apron.
Earl looked at the sling. “How are you feeling?”
“Doing just fine. This will be off in a week. Then, I’ll be good as new in a month.”
“Takes time to heal. Bet it hurt getting shot.”
“Sure did. Never want it to happen again.”
“Know what you want?” Earl pointed at the menu. “Or do you need some time?”
Will hadn’t really looked at the menu. “Guess I’ll just get an omelet and some coffee.”
“Coming right up.” Earl grinned and reached under the counter. He placed a cup in front of Will, and then stepped over to the Bunn coffee maker. A moment later, Earl poured hot coffee into the cup.
“Thank you kindly.” Will reached for the coffee.
“Sure thing. And we’ll get you that omelet in a jiffy.”
Will nodded and took a sip. As Earl busied himself at the grill, the smell of grease and eggs wafted through the diner. Putting the cup down, someone slapped him on the back. A wave of panic shot through him. He cringed, expecting gunfire to erupt.
Turning, Stan Tomkins smiled widely, and others lingered behind him. The unsettling surprise quickly dissipated. Stan slapped him again on the shoulder. “How are you feeling old boy?” Stan leaned closer and smiled almost as though he really cared.
“Doing quite well, Stan.” Will looked over the crew. Scott Turner, the examining adjuster, and a few others stood behind Stan, smiling kindly. Most had visited Will in the hospital.
The door opened, and Brett Williams walked in. He was the claims manager and carried a presence that went along with his position. Brett walked up to Will and held out a hand, gentlemanly. “How is our number one property adjuster doing?”
“Coming along just fine.” Will shook hands. “Glad to be headed back into the office. The hospital was driving me stir-crazy.”
“We’re glad to have you back.”
“What are you folks up to?”
“Managers lunch,” Stan chimed in.
Will glanced them over. All of them had some level of managerial responsibility, except George Morrill. Ole George was just an adjuster like Will, and hadn’t even been with the company as long. Will wondered what he was doing tagging along with management.
Stan seemed to look the others over. “Maybe Will should join us for a bite, until the meeting gets started.”
He sounded enthusiastic. Hard to dislike the guy when he was always upbeat, playing the team leader role. Will sensed that Brett didn’t like the idea. “That’s okay, fellas. I’ll be off to the office in a few minutes. Need to get caught up.”
Brett clapped him on the back. “There you go.” He smiled. “A company man, through and through.”
They headed over to a booth. Everyone gave Will a pat on the shoulder, stepping away. Earl returned with the omelet and Will ate it quickly. Anxious to finally get back into the office, and for some reason, he wasn’t comfortable with management nearby.
Finishing up, he took a swig of coffee and tossed cash on the counter. The stool next to him had been vacated while he’d been eating. Will noticed a police officer sitting snug to the counter, his belly pushing through the uniform, pressed against the counter.
Turning to leave, he couldn’t help but notice the pistol around the copper’s thick waist, a Smith & Wesson. The police carried .38 specials, the same caliber that he’d been shot with.
That’s why Johnson was so concerned, he thought. The detectives were worried that the police had shot him by mistake.
Will nodded to Brett and the others, and then headed for the door.
Stepping outside, the sun shone hot. He felt relieved the shooting was likely an accident.
He climbed into his car and started the big engine.
As the Desoto grumbled to life, Will glanced around and noticed the shiny new sedans his coworkers drove. Shaking his head, he couldn’t understand how they did it. Most of them had families, houses, and wives that stayed home from work. Sure a few of them made a higher salary, but not that much higher. Yet, they seemed to live much better lifestyles than him.
Pulling away, he shook his head, and then headed toward the office. He drove down Main Street, lined with stores and office buildings. Something about the shooting was still unsettling. Thinking about George Morrill at breakfast with management, he was curious if any changes had taken place.
Stepping into the office was pleasant. Betty sat at the reception desk; she smiled widely. He decided right there to ask her out before the end of the week.
Betty stood up and rushed over. “How are you feeling?”
“Doing a lot better.” He smiled. “Really feels good being back. Nice to see you too, Betty. If you don’t mind me saying, you look terrific.”
She blushed. “Let me take your hat and suit coat.”
His arm in a sling, Will hadn’t put the coat on, but carried it to meet company guidelines. She reached for both items and headed to the coat stand, placing the hat on the rack and carefully hanging up the coat.
Then she led him onto the claims floor. Several metal desks were lined up in two rows, running down the length of the office. Will remembered when he’d started. The adjusters always began at the furthest desk from the door. Each time a senior adjuster got promoted, transferred to another office, or left the company, Will got to move up a desk.
The manager offices ran along an outside wall. It was a branch office, so the claims manager, Brett, got a lavish office, and Stan got one a little smaller; the remaining posh offices were filled by marketing and underwriting managers.
Everyone else adjusting property and casualty losses were located on the claims floor. Will stepped into the broad space and glanced at his desk, the second one from the door.
Betty seemed to notice his dismay.
Photographs and possessions that didn’t belong to him were strewn on the desk. “What’s going on?” He stepped closer. “Whose stuff is this?”
“Well, it’s not what you think,” Betty replied.
Will looked at her, amazed.
“George Morrill is being promoted to examining adjuster,” Betty explained. “Home Office thought it a good idea to have two, so he’s being placed right behind Scott Turner. Your desk is intact, but it has been moved back one, that’s all.”
“In all my years with the company,” Will stammered. “I’ve moved up a desk, never back. This is like getting a demotion.”
“Not a demotion,” she corrected. “You just didn’t get the promotion.”
He shook his head, confounded. Morrill hadn’t been with the company as long. Will couldn’t understand why the new position wouldn’t go to him.
Betty offered to help with his tie. She went to the coat rack, while Will took a seat. It felt like a truck had hit him, almost as bad as the shooting. He was wounded again. His pride took a great blow. It wasn’t like Morrill was a superstar. Far from it, but he’d played the politics well, taking lunch with the bossmen, and occasional cocktails.
While he waited, Edmond Stevens came over and shook his hand. He’d started with the company about a year after Will. His desk had been moved back, too. Ed offered to buy Will a drink after work. Probably made the gesture, expecting Will to refuse, but Will surprised himself and took him up on it.
Betty returned with the tie and helped him put it on. Her eyes glimmered. She didn’t seem to care about the missed promotion. Nothing about her demeanor had changed much.
Looking over Betty’s shoulder, Will saw his secretary glancing at them. He smiled, but she stood frozen. He wondered if she hadn’t seen him, but he couldn’t be sure.
All suited up, Will sat down at the metal desk and started rifling through files and paperwork. He churned through his old claims list, trying to think of anyone that might have had it in for him. A few arson cases had resulted in arrests.
Will put together a list of potential names, and then called McKinley. He gave the list to the detective. McKinley knew that a few of them were still in jail; some others finished up their parole and moved on to New Jersey and Pennsylvania. McKinley told Will to keep at it.
Will headed down into the basement and found the closed files. Flipping through them, he mostly looked for insureds and claimants that might have a beef with him. Now, he wasn’t convinced the coppers had shot him, regardless of how agitated Johnson had been. Just a detective worried about his brothers. The police had shot in the opposite direction.
Engrossed in his investigation, time slipped away. Will worked through the entire morning and into lunchtime. His stomach grumbled, but he wanted to cover a few more files before taking a break.
Will discovered a pattern that made bile rise in his throat.
He’d closed a number of files over the years. The files were automobile wrecks and property losses, fires, and water damage to homes. A methodical adjuster, Will had carefully documented all payments.
Some of the files didn’t make sense. He found one where he’d made payments to a claimant after a collision. Will remembered the case well. The claimant had been a pain to deal with. Then, he found a payment issued six months after Will had settled the case, likely when the case should have been shipped to storage. The payment was made to an entirely different claimant, and the check mailed to an address down in Massachusetts. Their branch office only handled claims in New Hampshire. The adjuster that had issued the peculiar check was Scott Turner.
Several files were handled the same way. Will had plenty of payment authority and hadn’t taken vacation during the periods covered by the transactions, so it wasn’t like someone had filled in for him. Something stunk. And he never liked Turner, didn’t quite trust him. The man had a wife and three kids at home and lived a lavish lifestyle. Turner liked to run around with management, lunches, drinks, and expensive dinners.
Will shook his head, disgusted. The fraud was carried out on Will’s files. Turner’s scam had gotten Will caught in the middle. Maybe Turner had used the bank heist as an opportunity to shoot him, a means to keep him quiet.
He grabbed a stack of files and headed for the stairs.
Will stepped onto the claims floor as people returned from lunch. George Morrill sat down at the second desk and mumbled a greeting, perhaps slightly chagrinned about the swift promotion.
Heading toward his desk, Will ran into his secretary. Jennifer was cool, standoffish. He wondered if she was jealous of him doting on Betty.
Sitting in his desk chair, he placed the files down, and scanned the office trying to decide what to do. Betty exited Stan’s office. The door had been closed, and she adjusted her skirt. He wondered what could have been going on in there during the lunch hour. Will had a sinking feeling.
Then, Scott Turner walked into the office. He glanced at Will, smug, and sat down at the head desk.
Will had enough. He picked up the files and headed for the corner office. He pegged Turner as the one who’d shot him, no doubt. Money was plenty motive for murder. Money and love.
Then, he thought about Jennifer. A woman could pull a trigger at close range as well as a man. Come to think of it, Jennifer typically took lunch the same time as Will, often chatting on the way out. They ate occasionally together at the luncheonette.
Will started thinking that the chance meetings with Jennifer weren’t coincidence. Maybe it wasn’t Turner.
He wrapped on Brett’s door. The claims manager told him to step inside the large office, indicating to a sofa. Will took a seat, placing the files in his lap.
Brett smiled kindly. “What’ve you got there?”
“Just some files that we should talk about.”
“Shouldn’t you talk to your supervisor, or examining adjuster first?” Brett stepped to his credenza. He fixed himself an afternoon cocktail, but he didn’t ask Will if he wanted one.
“My examining adjuster just might be the problem,” Will said.
“Oh,” Brett said, curiously.
Cubes clinked into the glass, then whiskey bubbled over the ice. Brett’s office had an immense desk and trendy furniture, like visiting a partner in a law firm. Will knew the management team was tight. He started having second thoughts about this visit.
The phone rang, and Brett stepped to the desk and answered it.
Waiting quietly, Will glanced around the room. A leather briefcase lay on the coffee table. The clasps weren’t secure, and a newspaper wedged the lid open. The waffled handle-grip of a .38 special poked from beneath the folded gazette.
He thought about the lifestyles of everyone in management. And the clique group lunches and cocktails gave him pause. Picking George Morrill over him was starting to make sense. They’ll blame the scam on me, pointing to the fact that it was my files, he thought.
Straightening the folders, he stood up and headed for the door, feeling dejected. He nodded to Brett, indicating the meeting wasn’t necessary. Brett glanced at the files, and then looked over toward the briefcase, partly open. The claims manager grinned like a Cheshire cat, as though knowing the devious scam would never see the light of day. Will didn’t have the stomach to challenge them.
Copyright John W Dennehy 2019