January 25th, 2007

International Kittens of Mystery

Crime and Poetry: Part Four (The Letter)

To recap: it's September 1995. We'd just survived eight months in France and then this happened. Someone stole my identity and grabbed our life savings.

There are eight stages to being robbed, I'm told. Denial, shock, guilt and despair are all in there and I was cycling through them all. Was it my fault? Guilt. Why hadn't I rung up in July and asked what had happened to the second quarterly report? Or queried the non-arrival of Simon's promised six-monthly portfolio evaluation? I'd said I was going to. Many times. But the stock markets were doing brilliantly and I didn't want to bother anyone.

Could that be construed as culpability?

Would the insurer refuse to pay out as I'd been negligent?

Then came anger. Why should the insurer blame me for negligence? It was their fault, wasn't it? There must have been a signature - two signatures - didn't they check them? And weren't they suspicious? Why on earth would anyone take out a bond and then cancel it within a month? Didn't they think it strange? There'd be cancellation fees!

Shit! Cancellation fees. Was that why Mutual Friendly were being cagey about how much money was left?

I ran through to the study and rifled through my desk drawers. How much would they charge? Ten per cent? Twenty? Insurance companies were renowned for fixing high penalties for early withdrawal.

Papers flew through my hands. Where was that booklet? I was sure it was in this draw?

I found it, flicked through to the policy details at the back and...

Eight per cent. There was a full encashment penalty of eight per cent for all policies cancelled in the first year. Our life savings, whose value had dropped by seventeen per cent since this morning, had just dropped another eight. God knows what other penalty clauses there'd be. There was nothing else for it - the cats would have to go out to work.

I think that shifted me into despair. We'd been doing so well, I'd watched the stock markets advance, I'd written a program to monitor all our unit trusts.

Which brought me swiftly into denial. It couldn't be happening. It hadn't happened.

I then, somehow, shifted into detection. I'm not sure if it's a recognised stage of being robbed, but I found it. I was going to solve the case, track down the criminals and hand them over to Shelagh, who was mired in the third stage of being robbed - the desire for vengeance and the speedy return of drawing and quartering.

I cranked up the little grey cells. What do I look for first? Motive? That was simple - greed. Our insurance bond was a tempting target for any latent thief. But opportunity? Who had known of the bond's existence? A handful of people - Shelagh, myself, staff at Mutual Friendly and Eastleigh and Howard. That was all. It's not the sort of topic that crops up in casual conversation - where did you say your money was invested? ... and the account number?

It had to be an inside job. I could see it all. Someone at the Dublin office going through the computer files, looking for people like us. People depositing money before moving abroad, people who might not contact anyone for years. People whose only contact with their money was by letter.

It was perfect. The policy details would be on file, the address, probably copies of the signatures. All you'd need to do was select a few to make it worth the risk without attracting interest. Open a series of false bank accounts in Spain, change the address for correspondence and cash in the policy. Perfect.

I think sleep finally caught up with me then. My little grey cells, whacked from behind by a growing tiredness that lasted all the way through until breakfast the next day.

But a great detective cannot be stilled for long. I was sorting through my correspondence files after breakfast the next day, when I came across a letter from Mutual Friendly, dated 9th June. And it was addressed to our real home - not to any hotel in Boulogne sur Save.

I remembered it now. It asked for the return of the originals of the bond as new regulations required all existing bonds to be re-issued. Amended originals would be sent to us in due course. There was a second page for us to sign and send back with the documents.

I stared at the letter. Two months after I'd supposedly cancelled the bond, here was a letter from Mutual Friendly talking about sending me a new set of policy details.

If I sent them the originals.

Which we didn't have. Eastleigh and Howard held them. So I’d rung Mutual Friendly and told them. Which meant I'd talked to someone at Mutual Friendly in June about a bond that hadn't existed since April.

And I'd talked to the person who'd signed the letter - Elaine Varley.

Or someone calling herself that.

And I'd referred to the letter. I'm sure I had. And she said something like, "oh yes, Eastleigh and Howard, I know them well. I'll get in touch with them."

Had she got in touch with them?

And if she had, and they'd refused to release the documents, why hadn't she got back in touch with me?

The more I looked at the letter, the less I liked it. I checked it against the other letters I'd received from Mutual Friendly - the logo was different. But did that mean anything? Companies change logos like other people change socks.

I checked the address. They were the same, as was the telephone number. And I remembered talking to Mutual Friendly's switchboard. And asking for Elaine Varley by name. Which meant she had to work there.

Or had an accomplice on the switchboard?

(next instalment: the gendarmes)