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by Sheryl K. Lindsay
I stared at the swollen dossier in my in-tray with utter dismay. It took ten minutes and two cups of nerve-jangling espresso before I had the guts to even open it. And, when I finally did, I saw to my horror the name of Peter Cuthbert.
Beneath the flowing blue header of the Allegiance Insurance Company, which promise to offer the best bonuses and premium rates around, were the names of my cases for the day. Over half concerned Peter Cuthbert.
I was on a tight time scale, so I drained my espresso and felt my fingers give a little tremble before I swept out from behind my desk and out of the Allegiance building.
My first couple of cases started me off easy and all were out in the suburbs. Just a few electrical faults to sort out. I drove to Bearsden and the home of Mrs. Laura McPherson, using my Universal Key to gain access.
Once inside I turned off the iron that had been left on.
The next case was similar. The kettle was faulty and would cause a fire at 4:33 this afternoon. I unplugged it and left a standard reminder letter to inform the owners they should have all their appliances safety-checked, otherwise their premium would be increased.
Then came Peter Cuthbert's first potential disaster of the day. The dossier stated an electrical fault with the heater in the bedroom. However, even with our company's 99.99 percent accuracy at predicting accidental probability rates, the equipment still had a problem when it came to Peter Cuthbert.
The fine chiffon edge of the bed's coverlet had been flung onto the bed in a hurry that morning. The heater had been left on. The cloth, precariously close to the heater would, if given the opportunity, burst into flames. Then -- according to our precise statistics -- the fire would travel quickly to the bed, the curtains, and the entire room before spilling into the corridor and resulting in the destruction of the entire house.
I unplugged the heater and made the bed properly.
There were still three other things in the house that needed to be seen to. The shower, which I had already had to deal with an innumerable number of times before, was on my list again. The slow leak still hadn't been fixed, even though I had left reminder letters every time. The only reason Peter Cuthbert didn't get advised to leave Allegiance was because no matter how high we hiked his premium, he always paid it without a fuss.
Unfortunately, because Peter's own aura of neglectful calamity had once again foiled the company's predictors, it meant that time was now against me. I wished the company would front some research into some kind of time-dilation machine -- that would make my life a whole lot easier. It seemed like a ridiculous suggestion, but not so long ago it would have been ludicrous to talk about the kind of equipment I used every day. Field Distorters for invisibility, Universal Keys, accident-predicting computers and Probability Enhancers; not so long ago none of these things existed.
I ran out to my car, turning off the Field Distorter. Surprised at my sudden appearance, Peter Cuthbert's dog went berserk and started barking the place down while chasing me down the path. I jumped the gate and ran across the road, almost becoming a statistic myself as I swerved to narrowly avoid a speeding Mercedes.
I definitely had to get more money for this job, I decided.
In my car I checked the Probability Indicator for my next case. Three-to-one that I could make it in time. After switching on the 'Enhancer, I watched the indicator alter to give me a 2-to-1 chance. It wasn't getting better than 50 percent. I shrugged and floored the car, the Probability Enhancer ensuring that I met with only green lights and that I just missed the broken-down lorry that caused a half-mile tailback off the Kingston Bridge.
After taking a few shortcuts through narrow back streets, trusting the probability enhancer's capability to make sure that the route wasn't blocked by rubbish skips and that no crossing cats slowed me, I made it. Peter Cuthbert's car was still parked in the little bay behind the featureless edifice of the National Savings building where he worked.
If he drove the car as he intended, a pedestrian stepping out in front of him while he tried to change the station on his radio would surprise him. The pedestrian would be killed and three other vehicles would be caught in the resulting smash. All these people held policies with Allegiance, but since Peter Cuthbert was at the root of the accident, it was he who I had to deal with.
I parked my car and dashed over to his. Using my Universal Key, I disabled his alarm, opened the door, and slid behind the wheel. I was just about to start the engine when I heard a sudden, angry shout.
"Hey! What are you doing? That's my car!"
I swore loudly and fumbled for my Field Distorter. I vanished quickly, but the whole manoeuvre cost me valuable seconds and Peter Cuthbert arrived at the car. He stood outside for a couple of moments, scratching his thinning hair. I had no chance to escape the vehicle, so instead slid carefully over into the passenger seat while Peter assumed that he'd scared me off.
This was the closest I'd ever come to Peter Cuthbert, bane of my working existence, the man who had the biggest Potential Accident Quotient of any human being ever taken on by the Allegiance Insurance Company.
He looked harmless enough. Medium height, guileless face creased with old smiles, innocent eyes, a rounded chin with a rather nasty shaving cut, and a high-quality, but rumpled, shirt stained a little with what looked like tomato sauce. I held my breath as he tossed his briefcase into the back of the car and climbed into the driver's seat.
Suddenly my Early Accident Warning device bleeped and notified me that after I had prevented the forthcoming vehicle pile-up, then his cell-phone would ring precisely 3 minutes and 12 seconds later from inside the briefcase. Rather than ignoring it, the conscientious Mr. Cuthbert would attempt to continue driving the car with his knees while reaching for the briefcase. The car would lose control and hit a post box. Peter Cuthbert would be treated for whiplash and the Allegiance Insurance Company would have to pay out 12,000 pounds to replace the car; 800 pounds in private out-patient fees and loss of earnings cover; and 15,000 pounds to the post office to compensate for the loss of mail trusted to the Post Office and damage to company property.
It was more than my year's salary, which was why the company invested in people like me rather than allow the accidents to happen.
Now I had two costly accidents to prevent, and all because of this one man. I was also in the vehicle with him, and consulting with my Probability Indicator, I was informed that although in both cases Peter Cuthbert would emerge from the accidents with only minor injury, I would not be so fortunate.
I rolled my eyes and slumped back in the seat, crossed my arms, and tried to figure out what to do. Use my Electrical Disruptor to disable the engine? Too late, the car was moving. Grab the wheel? My Probability Indicator told me just how much of a stupid idea that was.
Peter had pulled out into the stream of traffic. The figures on my Probability Indicator switched from 2-to-1 up to 50-to-1 and were increasing steadily.
"Damn. Damn. Damn." I cursed softly. Peter frowned and glanced at the radio.
Instantly I realised my mistake.
I looked ahead and saw the pedestrian about to cross the road. Peter reached out to fiddle with the radio.
I panicked. "Goddammit, Peter! Stop the freaking car!" I screamed.
"Huh?" He gaped about, mystified.
"Stop the car! Stop the car!" I was almost weeping.
He stopped the car. There was a flurry of irate honking from the other motorists. I could deal with that. In my relief to be alive, I burst into tears.
"Where are you?" Peter questioned the air around him, "Is this some kind of trick?"
"No trick." I said wearily from the passenger's seat, "but believe me, your insurance company is going to put up your premium. I can't cope with this any longer."
"Again?" He looked dismayed, "But I never have an accident."
I groaned and left the car, leaving Peter to think that he'd been visited by some car-haunting poltergeist.
I staggered onto the pavement and had to sit down. After turning off my Field Distorter and sending an old lady scampering quickly into a florist shop, I remembered that there was still the other potential accident to deal with. I took out my cell phone and called the number of the person who would suddenly decide to call Peter in 2 minutes and 57 seconds.
The phone rang. I took a deep breath. There was a click as Peter's friend answered, "Hello?"
"Hello, Mr. Buchanan. My name is Jarvis MacKechnie of Allegiance Insurance and I wonder if you could spare a few minutes to answer a few questions."
"Er well, not really. I'm at work."
"This won't take long."
Four minutes later I'd sold three new policies and saved my company another 30,000 pounds.
I had to see about that raise.
Story © 2004 by Sheryl K. Lindsay firstname.lastname@example.org
Illustration © 2004 by Romeo Esparrago
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