Dear Mr Huckstein

I don't rightly know how to write you this letter. I know I got to explain what happened out off the I.93 and why I've not been at work since, and maybe that odd phone call you got from me last Friday. I'm not arguing with you firing me because I know I deserve it. But I've got to tell you the truth about Mr Caplin's insurance claim and why you should pay for his bodywork and windshield. And I've got to tell you why I'm not even sorry to be leaving Jenner & Staufman's after nine years working as a claims adjuster.

Yes, nine years. I joined the firm right out of college, back when old Mr Peterson was running the department. I cut my teeth on fender-benders and unsecured losses. After a while I got trusted with more complicated stuff, like the frauds and the questionable valuations and the mixed jurisdiction cross-claims. My first big success was the Wilverdene necklace investigation, and I'm sure Mr Peterson will have told you all about that one.

You'll recall that last Wednesday week we had that great break in the Durnell burglary claim, when the police found the supposedly stolen art in the claimant's lock-up garage. You'd kindly assigned me the whole week to sort that mess out so the sudden conclusion left me with an unusually clear desk. Young Ledder had a pretty full filing tray so I pulled a couple of dossiers out to deal with them. I remember how it felt being the one having to plough through hundreds of conflicting traffic accident statements every day and I thought I'd cut him a break. And it's good to keep your hand in on even the basic stuff sometimes.

So I picked up the Caplin file. I guess I wanted to show young Ledder how it's done so I maybe went over the papers a bit closer than I would've back in the day. At first glance it seemed like a pretty open and shut case. Caplin was travelling alone along the interstate, heading up from Wickenburg towards Kingman aiming to meet old buddies at Lake Mead. About ten-forty at night, maybe eighty miles out on the desert highway, he starts to get engine trouble. First his radio and dashboard lights fail, then his headlamps. As he pulls over his transmission cuts out.

At that point I glanced across at Ledder and asked, "Does this guy have a service history on his vehicle?"

Caplin's claim was that just as he was about to get out and check under the hood he saw a bright oncoming light, a truck maybe. The glare was so intense that he had to shield his eyes. When he looked up again his car was all turned round crosswise to the road, his hood and fender were crumpled like they'd been stomped on, and his windshield was bellied in and cracked into fragments.

It was a hell of a claim, one for the kook wall alright. But Ledder was watching me so I picked up the phone to talk to the client. "Mister Caplin? Jed Wester from Jenner and Staufman. We're handling your vehicle insurance claim. I have a few questions for you."

After a while you get a feel for the ones who are trying it on. I didn't really get that from Caplin, though there was something weird about how he talked, and I don't just mean his backcountry drawl. I checked his claim. "Mister Caplin, you're telling me that something you didn't even see and can't describe totalled your truck past repair and you want us to pay out based on that?"

"I can't tell what I don't know," Caplin argued back. Maybe he'd been drinking as well, because his words kind of slurred. "You don't believe me you come look at my pickup. You come see, you slick…" Well, you know how some of these guys talk to us.

He'd picked the wrong day to call me those things, because for once I had the free time to call a client's bluff. "Mr Caplin, I will come see you. It so happens I'm free tomorrow to come and inspect your vehicle and evaluate the scene."

Caplin went quiet then, and I thought maybe I'd caught him out. Then he said, "Sure, come look if you want, insurance man. But if you're going out on the back roads off ‘a I93 you go without me. No way I'm ever taking that way again."

Anyhow, that's why I arranged a travel chit and headed out to Phoenix and then on to Caplin's compound near Wickenburg. I got there around quarter to noon and rattled the chain link fence till he reigned in his dogs and let me through the gate.

When I'd talked to Caplin I'd mentally pictured him as some kind of big hairy hick in a trailer somewhere. Actually the guy's a plumber in a condo on the edge of town and the worst you can say for his yard is it looks like he's kept every sink and toilet he ever ripped out. He gave me a cold beer and showed me where they'd towed his truck.

Yes, the pick-up was totalled. It was an old Ford F model, thirteen years old with a couple of hundred thousand on the clock. I estimated around $3,000 of work to fix a heap worth maybe $300. Question was, how had it got like that?

Caplin told me the story again, and hearing it from him direct rather than through that scribbled barely-literate description on his claim form I was strangely tempted to believe him. If it wasn't true I was getting the feeling that Caplin thought it was. "Weirdest thing in my whole life, that light," the fat plumber told me. "It wasn't no truck anyhow."

I examined the pick-up more closely. It was a definite impact case, but I was puzzled by the damage spread. The front of the hood was caved in, like a heavy weight had come down on it, but there wasn't the extensive damage to the fender I'd have expected from an impact if he'd driven into something. There were flecks of blood too, and my first suspicion was that Caplin had been drinking and he'd run into a cow or a horse. The beast had been tossed up onto the hood and rolled into the windshield.

Caplin swore he was sober. I checked the floor of the vehicle for any empty beer cans but what I found were a couple of spent shotgun shells. "Yeah," he admitted a bit sheepishly. "I had my gun with me for a bit of shooting up at the lake. I don't remember it being loaded and I don't remember shooting it. I guess I must have."

I could see why Caplin hadn't wanted to put that on his claim form. Things were getting weirder by the minute. I decided I needed to go see the accident site. Since Caplin refused to ride out with me and couldn't quite say where he'd stopped that might have been a problem, but luckily he'd set his mileage counter at journey's start so that gave me a guide. I set off about two p.m. to try and find where Caplin had trashed his car, fired his shotgun – and maybe killed a steer.

By three-thirty I was in the zone. Past the ribbon of the I93 there was a local backroad and nothing but arid wasteland as far as the eye could see. I slowed down to a crawl looking for any tyre tracks or wreckage debris on the roadside.

Just about where my mileage matched with Caplin's I spotted something gleaming. I pulled in and discovered his missing side mirror. There were tyre tracks on the ground too, where he'd pulled off the road. I couldn't find any evidence of his truck getting turned round though. He'd backed away so perfectly there wasn't even any sign to show he'd ever reversed.

I pulled in and took some photos. I was still thinking about contesting Caplin's claim and I guess I wanted evidence. I looked around for a big dead animal he might have hit but I couldn't see one. Of course, this was a week after the fact and predators or a local farmer could have hauled away a carcass by then. I walked a ways along the road either side and even off into the desert a little to check for anything odd.

Only odd thing was a smell, kind of like ozone near one of those bug-zapper things.

It was past half four when I got back to my car and found it wouldn't start. The battery was completely flat. That left me stranded on a desert highway with no way of calling for help. I suppose if I'd been smart I'd have brought flares or something, but this was only half a dozen miles off a major route and there'd been plenty of traffic thundering past while I'd been walking around. Now there was nothing.

By six I was watching a spectacular sunset and feeling like a prize chump. I'd got water and candy bars so I wasn't really in trouble but in the last ninety minutes the road had been completely deserted. I began to curse myself for trying to look like a big man in front of Ledder and hauling myself all the way to the middle of Arizona just to make an ass of myself.

By seven the desert night was on me and that strange transformation that happens when the sun falls over dry dustland had changed the world into cold black shadows. I didn't even have a radio for company or any light to read the paper.

Eventually I dozed.

I don't know what time I got woken because my watch had stopped by then – the hands said eight seventeen. Something rocked the car, like a heavy guy bouncing on one corner of the suspension. I came out of a dream I can't remember, a bit confused by the darkness and the unusual surroundings. I jerked about to see what had shifted the vehicle.

I couldn't see anything. The desert road was deserted and perfectly silent.

Then there was a light in the distance. I scrambled out of the driver's seat, taking my newspaper to use as a flag, and waited to wave down the driver that was approaching.

The light was very bright. I was reminded of Caplin's story. I began to feel kind of spooky and strange. Maybe if I'd had a shotgun on the back seat I'd have loaded it about then.

I waited as the light came nearer. I shielded my eyes with the paper because the dazzle was incredible, brighter than any truck lights I've ever seen. I was still out of the car so I could see plainly as my vehicle rocked a little then shifted as if unseen hands were hauling on it, taking its weight.

The light was all round me now. I saw something move between me and it, a blurred shadow reaching towards the car, and I wondered if whatever-it-was had blood like the stuff crusted on Caplin's hood. I tried to see it but the glaring light was just too intense. I noticed the hairs on my arms sticking straight out.

As I was looking at the shifting mass reaching over my abandoned vehicle I'd failed to notice the person behind me. A slim hand touched me on the shoulder and spoke with an accent I couldn't place.

"Jed Wester. Will you help us?"

I turned round expecting a monster, some kind of bug-eyed alien from outer space. I saw a perfect blonde face and the body of an angel dressed in a tight-fitting white racing suit. I saw eyes that contained universes. I saw the love of my life.

And that's where I've been since then. With her. She let me make a call from a gas station near Prescott to tell you I was okay, but I guess I was pretty spaced out and didn't make too much sense to you. I know this must seem like some kind of madman's tale to you, Mr Huckstein, and sure as hell the damnedest resignation letter you've ever got.

I know she probably doesn't really look like Marylyn Monroe and Lana Turner and Debbie Reynolds all in one package. I know I can't understand everything about the terrible threat her world and her people face. But I know she needs me and I need her more than anything I ever had in a miserable life as a miserable cost adjuster. I'd never fire off a shotgun to chase her away. I love her.

Anyhow, that's why I didn't come into work and why I don't mind being fired. It's why I reckon you should go ahead and get Mr Caplin a new truck. It's why folks will never hear from me again and how I'm going to save a world I never even heard about before.

And tell Ledder not to believe people when they say that insurance work is boring.

Yours sincerely

Jed Wester

Original concepts, characters, and situations copyright (c) 2010 reserved by Ian Watson. The right of Ian Watson to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted by him in accordance with the UK Copyright, Designs & Patents Act 1988. All rights reserved.


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