Agnes’ voice made Milton cringe. Her voice always made Milton cringe, but this time it was worse. This time, he knew, it meant he had a client. He glanced at the clock. 4:58. Two more minutes, and he would have made it. Now, he had to deal with this. He could feel his stomach churning already. This was totally going to ruin his dinner plans.
With a long-suffering sigh, Milton stood up and waved the client over. Milton was on the wrong side of 46, with thinning brown hair and a fleshy face upon which stubble simply refused to look manly. Any muscles left over from his high-school football days and a brief stint in the Reserves had long since lost the battle to sedentary lifestyle and donut infatuation. In short, Milton looked exactly like what he was: a middle-aged insurance adjuster.
The client wove through the maze of cubicles to Milton’s. Milton tried not to judge people, but it was hard not to in this case. The man had clearly not bathed in days, and a wave of stench preceded him that made Milton’s eyes water. The man’s clothes were shabby and torn, deeply stained with what Milton did not care to speculate upon. His hair was matted where it didn’t stick up in tufts, his skin was an interesting shade of used motor oil, and his teeth would give nightmares to all but the most strong-willed of dental hygienists.
Milton was a professional. He tried to ignore how much the client’s presence made him want to vomit, and offered the man a chair. “Hello, and welcome to Lifeways Insurance, Mr…?” He let the title trail off in invitation. The client bit.
“Mr. Garr,” Milton nodded smoothly. He started to offer his hand to shake, but thought better of it. There was something in the client’s eyes, some strange gleam of anticipation, that made Milton reconsider. Instead, he merely sat down and turned to his computer. Wiggling the mouse to shut off the screen saver, he said, “Now, what can I do for you today, Mr. Garr?”
“Gar,” the man corrected him. Milton frowned briefly, the shrugged. He started typing ‘gar*’ into the search engine. When in doubt, the twenty year old kid who came in to teach them about the new software upgrades had told him, always use wildcards. As he typed, the client reached a filthy hand into his coat and produced a piece of paper which he dropped unceremoniously on Milton’s desk.
Even as Milton reached for it, he could see that it was a standard form 1217, Proof of Life Insurance (Insured Copy). The paper was wrinkled and torn in one corner, and had multiple grease and dirt stains on it, but Milton was still able to read the name of the Insured: George Weatherby.
Milton looked at Mr. Gar and cocked his head, waving the paper. “Yes? What is this? Did you find this somewhere?” Milton began to wonder if he should call the police. Maybe this filthy homeless man had killed Mr. Weatherby and stolen his life insurance papers. Not that it would have helped him if he had, Milton thought, since the money only ever gets paid to the beneficiary, not random people who show up with papers.
Milton opened his mouth to explain this to Mr. Gar when Mr. Gar slapped his chest with his hand and said, “Aaaah!” There was an unpleasant wet sound from the vicinity of Mr. Gar’s sternum when he slapped himself, and a fresh wave of putrid stench almost caused Milton to vomit. He held down his lunch by sheer force of will and the dedication to his craft of 26 years.
“I’m sorry,” Milton said, “I don’t understand you.” He was, however, beginning to get a nagging suspicion. It lodged in the base of his spine like an ice cube, and Milton was unable to suppress a shiver.
The client growled wordlessly and slammed a fist on the desk. Milton leaned back in his chair in alarm, one hand reaching for the phone to call the police should the client turn violent. That happened sometimes, especially when a claim was denied for whatever reason.
Mr. Gar lurched to his feet and put one hand behind his back. Milton had the phone in his hand and had gotten as far as 9-1- before he realized that the client was reaching for his wallet, not a gun. It took some doing to retrieve: the client was so angry his hands were shaking noticeably. At last, he managed to retrieve the wallet and dropped it practically in Milton’s lap.
Milton placed the phone back in its cradle gently and picked up the wallet. He opened it, and found the ID card inside. It belonged to Mr. Weatherby. Milton was one second away from calling the police to report a murder when he noticed that Mr. Weatherby bore more than a passing resemblance to a much cleaner and less sickly Mr. Gar. He held the ID in his hand and peered at it closely, then at the client, then back at the picture. Slowly, he put the wallet back on the desk.
“Are… are you Mr. Weatherby?” he asked the client.
The client nodded vigorously. “Aaah! Aaah!” He slapped his chest twice more. Milton thought he heard a faint ‘crack’ on the second impact.
Milton leaned back in his chair and gave Mr. Weatherby a long, careful look. He noticed things he had dismissed earlier, such as the way that Mr. Weatherby was missing a small piece of his lower lip, or how the various cysts and pustules on Mr. Weatherby’s face looked gangrenous.
Milton sighed deeply.
“Mr. Weatherby,” he said, reaching again for his computer. He typed a little typing, clicked a few clicks. Behind him, a laser printer whirred to life. “Mr. Weatherby,” Milton repeated as he collected the papers from the printer tray. “I’m going to print out the full contract you signed with us one more time,” he said, although in fact he had already done so. “Now, I urge to to please, please pay attention to Clause 3A.” He placed the appropriate paper on the desk, turned so that the client could read it, and Milton pointed directly at the clause in question.
“As you can see here,” he said, tapping the paper twice with his index finger, “Lifeways Insurance is not responsible, and will not, under any circumstances, pay out in cases of ancestral curse, voodoo, necromancy, contagion, or any other situation that results in the Insured becoming Undead. I simply cannot help you. Now, I’m sorry, but I’m going to have to ask you to leave now.”
Milton hustled the confused Mr. Weatherby out, who departed with a final, confused, “Garr?”
Once the door was locked, Milton turned to glare at Agnes. “How long have you worked here, Agnes?” he asked, his voice deceptively soft. “You really should know the rules by now. No zombies!”