By Peter DiChellis
Billy Brattenstock treasured misery in strangers. He prized their broken bones, spilled blood, hideous injuries, and lifelong pain. Billy didn’t cause the world’s suffering, of course. He just wanted a chunk of the insurance money.
“William J. Brattenstock, Trial Lawyer” his business cards read. Not quite true. Billy never went to trial. He only used the cards to attract clients.
9am. Billy found a free parking space on a residential street and walked the last few blocks to his cheap, cramped little office. He needed a new client, soon. No clients, no money. Not good. As he neared a modest brick house, Billy spied a potbellied workingman teetering on the sloped roof. Off balance, the man stretched to reach his toolbox. An unmarked truck sat at the curb. Unlicensed contractor. If the man tumbled off the roof, Billy could stick the homeowner’s insurance company for a quick payday.
And it would be quick. Billy specialized in what his Uncle Morty had called “standard settlements,” the customary amount insurance companies would pay personal injury attorneys like Billy, and Uncle Morty before him, to go away. The attorneys were entitled to one-third of the settlement money as a fee. The client got the other two-thirds of the money, but all three-thirds of the pain and injuries. Good deal for me, Billy thought.
He estimated the roofer’s fall at 15 feet, onto grass not concrete. When workmen fell from that height, Billy knew, they often landed feet first, breaking their fall but both their legs too. Then the torso would hit the ground, in this case with a dull thump not a wet splat, causing the roofer severe back pain and probably a mild concussion, but not more broken bones. Because he’d fall onto grass, not concrete.
Billy focused. Uncle Morty had taught him everything about standard settlements, those secret lowball numbers insurance companies tried so hard to conceal from the public. And now, Billy could calculate a standard settlement in his head for just about any popular injury.
He appraised the roofer like a jeweler might value a gem. Standard settlement: $75,000 to $120,000, figuring Mr. Potbelly would be out of work about four months, plus his medical costs and pain and suffering compensation.
Billy held his breath, waiting. He ambled past the house, staying alert for telltale sounds: an anxious curse, work boots scraping on shingles, a muffled thud, a pained groan. Nope, not today. The man just wouldn’t fall. How disappointing.
But in that moment, Billy heard something to raise his spirits again. Screeching tires, a hard slam. One car pounding into another. He sprinted toward the noise. Another block ahead, a brown clunker peeled away, front end smashed, radiator steaming. An old black sedan lay still, crushed inward behind the driver’s seat. A limp figure slumped inside while frantic bystanders yelled into cell phones. Billy knew he had to hurry. Competing attorneys monitoring police and paramedic scanners would arrive any minute.
No fuel leaking, so Billy approached the car. Through the open window he saw one occupant, a large man slouched in the driver’s seat. Blood poured over the man’s brow, dripping off his bent nose and his lips and chin, drenching his shirt. Probably a simple scalp wound, Billy thought. No compound fractures or oddly angled limbs visible. Neck looked normal, no bleeding from the ears, breathing seemed good. Billy couldn’t diagnose more from what he saw, but he tried to remain optimistic. Side impact collisions often created internal injuries that were difficult to detect.
Billy heard sirens. He always kept a contract and a pen in his jacket pocket, but this guy needed to wake up fast. Otherwise Billy would just toss some business cards into the car, race to the hospital, and hope for the best. Not the way he liked to do business.
Yeah, the guy was out cold. Billy flipped a few cards onto the seat, the top of the dashboard, and into the man’s lap. Right then, the man snorted a surprised breath and coughed, spraying blood droplets on the inside of the windshield. Eyes open now, he peered at Billy.
“Sir, my name is William J. Brattenstock, I’m an…”
The man pulled a gun from his jacket and aimed it at Billy’s face. With his free hand, he wiped blood away from his eyes. Then his head rolled sideways and he passed out again. Billy ran, trying hard not to pee his pants.
He scrambled to a tavern near his office, hit the restroom, and then braced himself with a slow Scotch. As he left the tavern, he overheard a loud drunk telling a lawyer joke.
“What’s the difference between a lawyer, a pig, and a snake?” the drunk asked his buddies. He smirked and nodded, setting up for the punch line. His buddies mumbled. They didn’t know the difference.
“A lawyer has to wear a suit!”
Billy chuckled. He hadn’t heard that one before. He also hadn’t bought a new suit in four years. He shuffled away. As he turned the corner, a woman crossed the adjacent street. Late 20s, stylish clothes, maybe a rising manager. Head down, she squinted at her smartphone, tapping the tiny keyboard.
Tricky, but Billy worked through it. If a car traveling 35 mph brakes just before hitting a pedestrian, the impact typically will snap both legs, usually at about the shins, then slam the victim to the asphalt, which probably will break or dislocate a collarbone or shoulder and cause a concussion and neck injury too. Standard settlement: $110,000 to $160,000.
But… if the car doesn’t brake until after hitting the pedestrian, the victim often will fly upward, crack against the hood and windshield, maybe somersault across the car’s roof, plunge onto the road behind the car, and perhaps get run over by a second vehicle. Now you’re talking injuries. Paralysis, brain damage, coma, death, you name it. Standard settlement: mega jackpot.
Not today, though. No cars close enough. When would his luck change, he wondered.
If people could see his thoughts, Billy knew, they would imagine him a monster. But Uncle Morty had told him it’s just a job, a livelihood. And all the pain and suffering is out there anyway, Uncle Morty said. It’s always with us. Sometimes it seems to float in the air, watching, waiting, choosing who’s next. We deceive ourselves that it won’t choose us. But it’s out there. Always. Billy cried at Uncle Morty’s funeral and never cried since.
He wondered again where he’d find a new client. The problem wasn’t a drought of injury and suffering. As always, there was plenty. But the competition! So many lawyers, some even running television ads. Billy couldn’t afford that. Not with alimony and child support to pay. What would Uncle Morty do?
Back at his office, Billy found the door unlocked. He stepped in. A man, hidden behind the open door, snapped it shut. A large man with a bent nose, scabbed scalp, and freshly washed face. He wore a bloody shirt beneath his jacket.
Billy recognized him, of course. The man from the accident. The man who’d stuck a gun in his face.
“Mr. Brattenstock, we meet again. Sit down in the chair in front of your desk with your hands in plain sight on the armrests.”
Billy sat. The man stood, towering over him.
“The police and paramedics found you in a wrecked car with a gun in your hand,” Billy said. “They’ll know who you are, how to track you.”
“No, Mr. Brattenstock, I woke up and drove away before they got there.”
“Lots of people were there. They saw the car, the license plate. Maybe took cell phone pictures.”
“So the cops can talk to the chump who owned the car before me. If they can find him.”
“What do you want?”
The man tossed one of Billy’s business cards onto the desk. Splotches of dried blood stained it.
“I want a lawyer. The kind who leaves a business card on an unconscious bleeder.”
“I’m not a criminal lawyer.”
“I’m not charged with a crime.”
“You were going to shoot me.”
“What do you want?”
“I want you to meet with my brother. Talk to him in confidence. Attorney-client privilege.”
“Talk about what?” Billy asked.
“To start with, tell him to straighten up before something bad happens. He’ll know what it means.”
“I need more than that.”
The man tossed a thousand dollars in hundred dollar bills onto Billy’s desk. Billy watched the money. The man watched Billy.
“I’m a negotiator, Mr. Brattenstock. I can read people, everything about them. And I can read you. By how you conduct business, the size of your office, the booze on your breath, and the way you just looked at that money. Here’s all you need to do…”
Twenty minutes later, an anxious Billy drove toward a warehouse. The man, now his new client Mike, had tried to explain everything. Some of Mike’s story rang false, but Billy needed money, child support for his daughter. Even during his worst times, Billy never missed a child support payment. He wouldn’t miss this month either. Not Billy.
Mike had told Billy he owned a business with his younger brother, Freddie. They did electrical work, he’d said. Mike negotiated the deals and little brother Freddie handled everything on-site. Mike sometimes carried a lot of cash from these deals, so sometimes he carried a gun too.
Mike and Freddie had a business disagreement. Freddie was freelancing his own deals, cutting out Mike. His brother had become too absorbed in the business lately, Mike said, fixated on it.
“It’s obsession, Mr. Brattenstock. Obsession to the point of sickness. He won’t even talk to me, crashed his car into me,” Mike had said.
So Mike just wanted to put the business arrangement back on track, he’d told Billy, even offer his brother a bigger share of the profits.
“Freddie is the key to the deals, Mr. Brattenstock. And I need a deal.”
Delivering Mike’s message seemed simple, but Billy wasn’t naïve. He felt sure something wasn’t right about these two guys. So he planned to give Freddie the message, with a smile, and move on. Nothing more.
Billy followed Mike’s directions, ending at a grungy diner next to a vacant warehouse. No sign of Freddie. Billy wondered whether the squat, ramshackle warehouse would crumble apart while he waited.
He took a coffee to his car and watched for Freddie. He looked again at the photo Mike had given him. Freddie’s face was positioned three-quarters to the camera, shielding his left side. Even so, he’d be easy to spot. There was no mistaking his resemblance to brother Mike.
One hour and two coffees later, a brown clunker cruised past him. Lengths of rope wrapped the car’s smashed front end, holding down the hood. The clunker went behind the diner, out of view. But not before Billy got a close look at Freddie, and the gruesome disfigurement that consumed the left side of his face.
Third degree burns, Billy thought. Nothing else could create such deformity. He drove behind the diner to see Freddie open a dilapidated warehouse door and carry a satchel inside.
Your life can change forever in one frightened heartbeat, Billy had learned, when trivial choices go wrong. If only I’d crossed the street a block before, clients had told him. If only I’d left home five minutes later.
So Billy chose carefully. He stayed out of the warehouse and waited in his car, watching. Black smoke leaked through the warehouse roof. A giddy voice squealed. More smoke, more giddy squealing.
“Arson for insurance money,” Billy said to himself.
He heard a terrified, piercing scream and saw the warehouse windows burst as mammoth flames blew skyward through them.
Flashover, Billy knew. The fire was generating superheated, combustible gases that instantly exploded into hungry new fireballs. Nothing in the warehouse could escape burning, including Freddie.
* * *
“Maybe a handyman,” a firefighter told Billy later. “Wrong place to mess with the electrical system. Old wiring, old wood. Cheap foam insulation, trash everywhere. A real firetrap. Went to flashover in a heartbeat. A horrible way to die.”
Yes. It was the most awful way to die, Billy thought. But what could be done about it now…
* * *
A day later, Mike’s dark gaze cut across Billy’s desk.
“Dead. Burned dead.” Mike’s voice strained at the words.
“I’m sorry for your loss.”
“Freddie was a sick bastard, but he was all the family I had left, Mr. Brattenstock.”
“And you’re saying Freddie died because of a problem with the building? Nothing he did?”
“And there was nothing you could do to help him? Nothing?”
“I’m saying that too.”
Mike stared. “And two-thirds of the settlement would go to me?”
He pointed to a piece of paper Billy had shown him. His eyes widened. “Maybe this much?”
“Standard settlement,” Billy replied.
Mike nodded. “Where do I sign?”
Peter DiChellis writes short mystery and suspense fiction. His sinister and sometimes comedic tales appear in several anthologies and ezines. He is a member of the Short Mystery Fiction Society and an Active member of the Private Eye Writers of America. For more, visit his site Murder and Fries at http://murderandfries.wordpress.com/
* * *
Specifics about fire flashover,
various types of accidental injuries, associated insurance payments,
liability for unlicensed contractors are based on information from
published sources. All descriptive details, however, are fictional and
Copyright © 2015 Peter DiChellis. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of the author is prohibited. OMDB! and OMDB! logos are trademarks of Over My Dead Body!