Authors: Donald E Westlake
Some days you just might be better off dead. At least, that's what smart alec Barry Lee decides when yet another of his get rich quick schemes falls short of perfect and he finds he has only one asset left: his life. Or rather, the insurance on it. Collecting the benefits of life insurance, however, involves some painfully ultimate realities that Barry Lee would sooner avoid. So it is that Barry and Lola, his beautiful South American wife and partner in con artistry, set out to play the globalization of the insurance industry to their advantage. The story of their journey to Lola's native Guerrera and their sure fire scheme to pull off the perfect con, which begins with the staging of Barry's spectacular and very public accidental death, becomes increasingly perilous as he attempts to negotiate his afterlife in a world he in no way understands. To his surprise, some of Lola's more blunt minded and ham fisted cousins are figuring that if the whole family's going to get rich with Barry Lee dead, he's not dead enough...
I don't know, maybe it's because we wanted so much, Lola and me, that we wound up with so little. So far, I mean. The moneymaking schemes, the trends we latched onto, the brass rings we kept reaching for, none of them ever worked out.
The problem is, the world keeps changing. It just keeps changing all the time, too fast for a simple little couple like us to keep up, much less to succeed. Today it's VCR, tomorrow it's DVD. Today it's day-trading, tomorrow it's Chapter 11. Today it's dot com, tomorrow it's dot bomb, and we managed to get burned, one way or another, on every one of those. But through it all, through it all, Lola and I just kept hustling. What else was there for us to do?
When I first met Lola, fourteen years ago, I knew; I absolutely
and so did she. Alone, what were we? Not much: me, a middle-class nobody from Long Island with a community college degree in Communications (even
didn't know what that meant exactly); Lola, a penniless South American beauty with a charity scholarship to some minor Florida college because she was the brightest child of her generation down there in Guerrera. Alone, each of us was just another anonymous commoner, shuffling along with the crowd.
? Together we were special; we were fantastic from the very beginning. We were glamour and we knew it; we could sense it, feel it. We could see ourselves dancing in the moonlight, the couple everybody looks at and wants to be, swirling to the music that played just for us.
All we ever wanted was to live the life we'd imagined: fascinating, enchanted, forever above the herd, deserving simply because we
we existed, together.
But it wasn't enough. It was never quite enough. We had scrapes and close calls and financial disasters over the years, tough times when our most exciting ideas just somehow never panned out. We lived on whatever credit we could find. When I told landlords, "I've been thrown out of better places than this," it was usually the truth. For most of our married life, we had to pretend to be a visiting houseguest if we ever answered a doorbell or a phone, and usually we preferred not to answer at all. Nor read much of our mail.
Still, we kept one jump ahead of the bill collectors for a good long time, fourteen years of perilous off-balance joy. The rackety life itself became our glamour, a desperate romantic struggle to remain true to our image of ourselves, like spies, more charming than those base creatures who could think about nothing but money.
Finally, though, there came the moment when it all caught up with us. The debts were too heavy, the most recent debtors too ruthless, the situation too dangerous, the peril finally too real. We might get our legs broken; we might even be killed.
So it was with a real sense of last resort that I at last turned to Lola and said, "There's nothing for it. We have to borrow on our life insurance."
"Oh, Barry," she said, sudden tears glistening in her eyes. "Is there no other way?"
It may seem strange that people who care as little about sordid reality as Lola and I do would even bother with life insurance, but that had also been a part of our commitment to each other from the beginning. We knew we were bound to one another, we were… something more than true, something more than faithful…
In an inconstant world, we would be, for one another, the only constant.
But what if one of us were to die, young or even not so young? The other might want to follow, but shouldn't. So the first thing we did, home from the wedding trip to Guerrera, was take out the life insurance policies, three hundred thousand on each of us, naming each other as beneficiary. That way, if one died, the last gift to the other was a starter kit for the new life.
I never thought we'd touch those policies. But now our straits were truly dire. "I hate the thought, Lola," I said. "You know I do."
"I know you do, Barry, of course you do." She put her arms around me, kissed me, and said, "Tell me what you want to do."
"I'll call the insurance agent," I said, "and ask him how much equity we've got. In fourteen years, it ought to add up to
She sighed. "You know best," she said.
So I made the call. "Steve, I was wondering. Our life insurance policies. How much equity do we have in them?"
He said, "Equity?" as though it were some word in a foreign language.
the word they use in the insurance business, isn't it? The cash-in value of the policy, slowly growing over the years? I said, "Value, Steve, what's the value in there now, if we wanted to borrow against those policies?"
"Barry," he said, "you don't have that kind of insurance."
"What? I'm talking about our
"I know you are," he said. "Those are term policies."
Right then, I knew. I didn't yet know
I knew, but I knew. Somehow, there was no salvation for us in those insurance policies. I said, "What do you mean, term policies. Don't we have life insurance policies?"
"Yes, of course," he said. "But you said you weren't interested in building equity."
"How can you have life insurance and not—? Steve, what kind of policy
"I thought you understood," he said. "Back when you took out those policies, you and Lola, you both said all you cared about was maximum survivor's benefits at minimum premium cost, and I said term insurance, and you both said yes. The term you chose is five years, remember?"
I did remember something about terms and five years and automatically renewable at adjusted premiums and all that, but who listens to such things? I said, "Steve. What you're saying. What does it
"It means," he said, "you carry insurance that will pay your survivor if you die, and double if you die in an accident, but that's
the policy does."
"Barry," he said, "you never bought a policy that would accrue equity. That would have cost considerably more, and you didn't want it. You wanted the biggest bang for the buck. Remember saying that?"
I did. "Yes," I said.
"I'm sorry if you didn't follow—"
"No no no, not your fault," I said.
"It's unfair," Lola said that night, the two of us sitting up in bed, not ready for sleep. "We've put that money in all these years, and it should be there to help us when times get bad."
"Not with that kind of policy," I said. "It
fair, the deal they've made, if we listen to them. They'll only help us if we're dead."
of us is dead," she said.
"Well, yes," I agreed, and very late that night, she woke me by elbowing me in the ribs, crying, "Barry! Barry!"
I opened groggy eyes and blinked at her, and her whole face was luminous in the dark.
"Barry!" she said, in a loud whisper, like a stage aside. "One of us is gonna die!"
Well, that woke me up, all right. Sitting up, gaping at her, I said, "What?"
"For the insurance!" she whispered, bubbling with excitement. "One of us
to be dead, so we get the insurance money!"
I was having trouble keeping up. "How can we make believe we're dead? Fake a death? Lola, they'll catch us right away."
"Not in Guerrera," she said.
I stared at her. Guerrera. Her homeland, her little country down in South America. "Lola," I whispered; now I was whispering too.
"I've been lying here awake," she told me, "just thinking about it. We know people there, we have family there."
"They keep terrible records down there," I said. "The police force isn't the most advanced in the world."
"The death can be there," Lola said. "The funeral, too."
As excited as Lola by now, I said, "We can get a death certificate in Guerrera for a pack of cigarettes!"
"A little more than that," she said, "but not much."
I contemplated this wonderful idea. "It could work," I said.
She pointed at me. "It has to be you," she said.
I said, "It has to be me? Why?"
"If I go down there," she told me, "and have a convenient accident, a local girl who moved to the States and her husband insured her for a zillion
everybody will smell a rat. We don't want to raise suspicion."
"Okay, you're right," I said. "It has to be me."
"But not now," she said. "It's too soon since you talked to Steve about life insurance."
"You're right. We'll wait till January," I said. "We can hold off for four months. We'll wait till we'd normally go down there anyway, for our post-Christmas visit."
"Perfect," she said. "Then the gringo has his accident, and his grieving widow can talk both to the locals and to anybody who comes down from the States."
"That puts it all on you, Lola," I said. "That could get pretty tricky."
"I'd love it," she assured me. "Come on, Barry, you know me."
I did. I grinned at her. "Okay," I said. "Looks like I'm gonna die."
"I'm sure you'll do it very well," she said.
"Thank you. Only, what then? I don't want to spend the rest of my life in Guerrera."
"Barry," she said, "I thought about that too. All I've been doing is lying here thinking. I don't know everything, we'll have to figure some of this out together, but I know how to get you back to the States when it's all over."
"Good. Tell me."
"I had two brothers that died young," she reminded me. "There's birth certificates on file up in San Cristobal but nothing else. With a birth certificate, you can make up a whole new identity."
"You mean, become one of your brothers."
"Grow a mustache," she said. "Work on your tan. You could look Guerreran with no trouble at all. Wait a minute, my brothers' names…" She thought, trying to remember, then remembered. "Who would you rather be, Felicio or Jesus?"
"Jesus!" I said.
She looked at me in some surprise. "Really? I didn't think you'd—
"No no no no no, I don't want to be Jesus; that's not what I meant. I want to be the other one."
"Felicio. That's not bad."
"It means happy," she said.
"Oh, good," I said. "I've become one of the seven dwarfs."
"Felicio Tobón de Lozano," she said, rolling the name around in her mouth.
I said, "So I'd come back to the States as him—"
"And live with your sister."
"I'd like that," I said.
The first time Lola and I flew from New York down to Guerrera, it was to meet her parents, Alvaro and Lucia, and her brother Arturo. The second time, three months later, was when we got married in the little white stone church in Sabanon, the up-country town where Lola grew up.
Since then, we visit Guerrera regularly once a year, in January, bringing belated Christmas gifts, escaping the northern winter for two weeks, usually maxing a credit card or two. The transition from Long Island's icy damp to Guerrera's humid heat is always blurred by several hours of air-conditioning in planes and airports, but it's still a kick to step out onto the portable stairs and suddenly feel that warm moist hand of the tropics press against my face.