The Invisible Man in the Iron Mask
M Y NAME'S HOYT GALLIGAN AND I'M a claims investigator for a southeastern insurance company. I'd just entered my office for the day, pulled my jacket off and pushed up my sleeves, when Ed Ivy came in. "Saw your secretary with that," he said, pointing to a folder on my desk. "That was my sale, so I knew you'd want to talk to me."
"Good morning," I said, loosening my tie. "You read it? Know what it's about?"
"I surely do. Another Act of God."
"From one of our clients up north?" There'd been some floods in Indiana that winter.
"No. Alabama." I glanced at the folder and read: "Mr. Dean Russell, Auburn."
"Lightening strike," I ventured.
"Oh, really." There'd been nothing in the news, and, were there other claims, Barbara would've included them for cross-referencing. "Oh," I said. "Great. Freak storm, hits one side of the street but not the other."
Ed nodded and said, "And wouldn't you know it? In
Lee County, tornadoes are double indemnity, death or no."
The flight from Atlanta to Auburn took forty-five minutes. Ed came with me because he'd dealt with Dean Russell personally and had gone to university here. He defended the tornado clause, saying, "In '99, when Floyd hit Charleston, all we felt was a freshening breeze."
A frat house faced the debris, and, although the storm wasn't supposed to have touched it . . .
Two boys sat on a loveseat, next to a dumpster. They watched us take photographs, and one of them said, "Oh, it was a twister all right."
The other did a Walter Brennan impersonation: "Mah knees ah still swollen." He had something there; even for Alabama, the air around the site was humid.
We went to see Dean Russell. It turned out that, when he wasn't teaching university science, he was inventing stuff, so we continued on to his lab and found him hammering dents out of something which I at first took to be a combination spittoon and vacuum cleaner. "It's a sneeze-powered turbine," he said, "dubbed, 'The Nose Hose'." I laughed, and he actually looked hurt. "Well, er, it would conserve energy. And this is the land of invention!"
Ed apologised on my behalf: "He's Canadian. They're critics by default." Then he asked him about the day of the disaster. As a matter of fact, Dean Russell had been collecting data for his machine. Alone? No, forty, paid subjects had been with him. He'd given them snuff -- his own blend -- then measured the velocity of their sneezes. He'd needed personal reassurance that germs actually left people's nostrils at a hundred miles an hour.
We talked to enough witnesses to convince us Russell hadn't lied. Finally, Ed asked me if I thought they'd sneezed the house apart.
"If so, then that condensation was their phlegm, and you ran your finger through it." He laughed and wiped the offending digit on the back of my shirt.
The case closed, the company paid up, doubling the face value of Russell's policy. A meeting was called to discuss flaws in the hurricane clause. Ultimately, we decided to keep it as it was.
A week later, we regretted it.
* * *
Oliver Waller lived in Opelika. He owned a scrapyard with on-site smelting facilities. He, too, had a policy with us, and he, too, had met with a freak storm.
Under no circumstances was I to concede the full amount.
I toured Waller's yard with him, taking note of where the twister had tipped over a pile of flattened cars, upended a crane fitted with an electromagnet, and danced in the asphalt around his office. The same humidity was in the air, and the same dew on every surface, but I ignored both. Waller was the sole witness. A scar ran down his left temple and bisected his eye. It turned purple when I said, "There's no proof it was a hurricane."
He said he'd sue, so I had Ed check him out. That scar had been recent. Had he filed a claim on it? No. He'd got it in a car accident. The other driver had been responsible, so his company had handled things. I asked Ed for more details. Waller had been struck from behind and had rolled into the car in front of him. Because of his short stature, his airbag had struck his face instead of his chest. That eye had swollen up like a Georgia peach (Ed's words, not mine), and the doctor had cut and stitched it. Once it had healed properly, plastic surgery would remove the scar.
"That seems strange," I said. "Perhaps it's not even real. Perhaps the scar's a -- what? No?"
Ed shook his head. "The doctor would've had to arrange everything in advance with the plastic surgeon. Then convince Waller to come in on it. And he submits receipts for -- "
"You're right, of course. It's too far-fetched.
Thank you, Ed."
Another week, another claim from Lee County: Russell, again. This time his lab had been broken into. The thief'd been after one thing: the filter from the nose hose. Apparently it was valuable. Russell, at any rate, had insured it for five grand. It'd been tailor-made, awaiting a separate patent. He wrote: "The prototype resembles a pinwheel in size, shape and spin, but constantly self-lubricates with bactericide."
* * *
Then, one day, Ed came to see me. He thought I'd like to know: two Auburn businessmen had called to ask for policies which included the (soon to be expunged) hurricane clause.
"That does it," I said. "Give me their names. I'm gonna go shake them down."
I checked into a motel, then went to see Russell. He wasn't in his lab, so I left a note, telling him where to contact me. Then I went after the two businessmen. Yes, each said, the size of Russell's settlement had intrigued them, but whom in Auburn hadn't it intrigued? Each wished to know how I could deign to suggest either of them he was uninsurable.
Both times I roared: "I'll tell you how! . . . That is to say, I'll come back tomorrow and tell you how." They each smiled at that. "After I've talked to Oliver Waller!" And they each blanched. Guys who use words like "intrigued" and "deign" and "whom" correctly tend to "blanch."
I drove to the scrapyard in Opelika, but found its gates locked. I honked. Russell must have put Waller up to entering that false claim. Why should he protect him? What had he got for his trouble? If Russell had paid him off, well, I could offer him . . . I honked the horn some more and waved at the security cam. Where the hell was everybody? No doubt at a secret meeting, conspiring to commit fraud. I left a second note.
Carrying a bag of pulled pork sandwiches, sweet potato fries, and sweet tea, I returned to my bungalow. No messages.
The instant I sat on the bed, I felt watched.
But where was the guy? The closet? The bathroom? The roof? Facedown beside the open skylight? Then a sound like mud sucking at a boot rose from the very air in front of me, and I wondered if my attacker weren't invisible.
A fierce wind slammed into my gut and sent me flying. Its plan was to bounce me off the walls, but, as fate would have it, I was raised straight up, squeezed through the skylight, and deposited in a pine tree.
I climbed down, got in my car, and drove. That wasn't the air-freshener I smelled, that was me, reeking of sap. I was bound for Russell's lab with good news: I'd found his filter. The one shaped like a pinwheel. The one dripping bactericide. Before becoming airborne, I'd seen it coming at me.
I burst in, and he dropped his pulled pork sandwich. "Surprised?" I asked.
"Why, yes. However, I'm also -- "
"You knew I was back. Hey, where's that sneeze-powered dynamo? I want a closer look. Oh, and hand over some of that sneesh you've been peddling."
Uncertainly, he fished a gold snuffbox out of his breast pocket. "Galligan, I keep hearing strange noises. Footsteps, I believe. Somebody's after me."
"After you?" I barked. "And well they should be! You've turned this town into Bikini Island!" I grabbed the box and popped open its lid. The snuff inside resembled fluffy pencil shavings. I poked it, and it crumbled into a fine powder. I looked up and said, "That first time was an accident. You didn't know you could trap and release sneezes. Your witnesses had snorted this, so were highly susceptible. They believed your account of a freak storm." I went through it all: the false claim, the windfall, his decision to become a career arsonist: "Your big mistake was to approach Oliver Waller. His business is outdoors, so your machine didn't do as much damage. I hope the both of you rot in jail."
I snapped the snuffbox closed and inadvertently got a faceful. I began to hallucinate. Behind Russell, a whirlwind unfurled, out of which stepped a demon.
"So it was an Act of God after all!" That thought is what kept me fixed to the floor. The wind had already sent the professor crashing through a window. Then I realised: the fiend was really a man, clad in iron, dripping mucus, and spraying bactericide.
The tempest lashed me, but, fed up, I drove myself forward. My enemy turned and vanished, but I pursued him, beyond reality and into subspace.
There, the air was so humid, I could hardly breathe. The pressure was tremendous. I was in an enormous vent: a sewer into which every sneeze in history had been channelled.
The floor was sticky, so progress was slow. After about a minute, my quarry stopped and drove a fist through the wall. Over his shoulder, I glimpsed stacks of wrecked cars. We'd travelled through another dimension to Oliver Waller's scrapyard!
Then I smelled fresh air, and I pushed past him to get at it. It was like being sucked through an airplane window.
I crashed headfirst into the grill of a truck. When I rolled over, I saw his helmet hanging in space. I followed its gaze and noticed a stack of cars about to crush me.
I pushed off and was tossed, rudderless, in a maelstrom. Flattened vehicles careened all around me. It looked like rush-hour in 2-D, and I, like a little old lady attempting to cross the street. Then the tornado took me by the seat of the pants, deftly carried me through the traffic, and raked me over the treads of the crane.
Its windows still hadn't been replaced from the previous storm. I climbed inside and cowered among its levers. The wind picked up. I risked a quick peek and saw him, enlarging his hole with kicks and punches. I got the crane started, swung its arm around, dropped the electromagnet -- and switched on its power.
I caught him by the sole of a metallic boot. His torso remained inside, so he must've took hold of something. I drew in the chain, and he swung toward me, clutching a stalagmite of crystallised nasal mucus. Its base stuck in the aperture, which erased both it and the stalagmite. He rose, upside down, clinging to his helmet with both hands.
With the hole went the wind, and, in the sudden calm, I felt the crane lose its balance and topple forward.
I crawled out of its crumpled cab and searched the wreckage for him. I found his helmet. I spotted the rest of him at the bottom of the car crusher. He was on his knees, toothpicks supporting his eyelids and a pepper shaker under his nose. I grabbed the controls, then experienced a change of heart. I jumped on his head instead. The cocktail sticks snapped and the scar re-opened.
"Waller," I said. "You dope. But of course: your name was on that list of lab rats. We just never reached it. That day at Dean Russell's house, your left eye was still sewn open. You sneezed with it open. You took snuff and did that -- what -- fifteen? Twenty times in a row? And you actually saw your sneezes slip, one by one, into another dimension. You stuck a finger in one of their holes, and so propped open its valve, unleashing a killer wind." I repeated the accusations I'd made to Dean Russell, adding, "Not wishing your clients to know how easily it was done, you fashioned that suit and stole Dean Russell's filter in order to act from within subspace."That weekend Ed took me to a Braves' game to congratulate me. I found him depressed, though, when I returned from the concession stand. It seemed New York would win. However, the Braves were at bat, and Hernandez had been called in to pitch hit. I told Ed to cheer up, then, showing him the toothpicks and packs of pepper I'd picked up, asked, "How'd you like to see Hernandez hit this one out of the park? And the entire New York outfield knocked on its ass?"
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