Life and Fire
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by Fredric Brown
Description: Mr. Henry Smith, agent for the Phalanx Life and Fire Insurance, will stop at nothing to protect the interests of his company.... A classic mystery from the March 22, 1941 issue of "Detective Fiction Weekly."
eBook Publisher: Wildside Press, 1941 USA
eBookwise Release Date: November 2008
3 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [30 KB]
Reading time: 15-21 min.
Mr. Henry Smith rang the doorbell. Then he stood looking at his reflection in the glass pane of the front door. A green shade was drawn down behind the glass and the reflection was quite clear.
It showed him a little man with gold-rimmed spectacles of the pince-nez variety, wearing a conservatively cut suit of banker's gray.
Mr. Smith smiled genially at the reflection and the reflection smiled back at him. He noticed that the necktie knot of the little man in the glass was a quarter of an inch askew; he straightened his own tie and the reflection in the glass did the same thing.
Mr. Smith rang the bell a second time. Then he decided he would count up to fifty and that if no one answered by then, it would mean that no one was home. He'd counted up to seventeen when he heard footsteps on the porch steps behind him and turned his head.
A loudly checkered suit was coming up the steps of the porch. The man inside the suit, Mr. Smith decided, must have walked around from beside or behind the house. For the house was out in the open, almost a mile from its nearest neighbor, and there was nowhere else that Checkered Suit could have come from.
Mr. Smith lifted his hat, revealing a bald spot only medium in size but very shiny. "Good afternoon," he said. "My name is Smith. I--"
"Lift 'em," commanded Checkered Suit grimly. He had a hand jammed into his right coat pocket.
"Huh?" There was utter blankness in the little man's voice. "Lift what? I'm sorry, really, but I don't--"
"Don't stall," said Checkered Suit. "Put up your mitts and then march on into the house."
The little man with the gold pince-nez glasses smiled. he raised his hands shoulder-high, and gravely replaced his hat. Checkered Suit had removed his hand halfway from his coat pocket and the heavy automatic it contained looked--from Mr. Smith's point of view--like a small cannon.
"I'm sure there must be some mistake," said Mr. Smith brightly, smiling doubtfully this time. "I am not a burglar, nor am I--"
"Shut up," Checkered Suit said. "Lower one hand enough to turn the knob and go on in. It ain't locked. But move slow."
He followed Mr. Smith into the hallway.
A stocky man with unkempt black hair and a greasy face had been waiting just inside. He glowered at the little man and then spoke over the little man's shoulder to Checkered Suit. "What's the idea bringing this guy in here?" he wanted to know.
"I think it's the shamus we been watching out for, Boss. It says its name's Smith."
Greasy Face frowned, staring first at the little man with the pince-nez glasses and then at Checkered Suit.
"Hell," he said. "That ain't a dick. Lots of people named Smith. And would he use his right name?"
Mr. Smith cleared his throat. "You gentlemen," he said, with only the slightest emphasis on the second word, "seem to be laboring under some misapprehension. I am Henry Smith, agent for the Phalanx Life and Fire Insurance Company. I have just been transferred to this territory and am making a routine canvass.
"We sell both major types of insurance, gentlemen, life and fire. And for the owner of the home, we have a combination policy that is a genuine innovation. If you will permit me the use of my hands, so I can take my rate book from my pocket, I should be very pleased to show you what we have to offer."
Greasy Face's glance was again wavering between the insurance agent and Checkered Suit. He said "Nuts" quite disgustedly.
Then his gaze fixed on the man with the gun, and his voice got louder. "You half-witted ape," he said. "Ain't you got eyes? Does this guy look like--?"
Checkered Suit's voice was defensive. "How'd I know, Eddie?" he whined, and the insurance agent felt the pressure of the automatic against his back relax. "You told me we were on the lookout for this shamus Smith, and that he was a little guy. And he coulda disguised himself, couldn't he? And if he did come, he wouldn't be wearing his badge in sight or anything."
Greasy Face grunted. "Okay, okay, you done it now. We'll have to wait until Joe gets back to be sure. Joe's seen the Smith we got tipped was coining up here."
The little man in the gold-rimmed glasses smiled more confidently now. "May I lower my arms?" he asked. "It's quite uncomfortable to hold them this way."
The stocky man nodded. He spoke to Checkered Suit, "Run him over, though, just to make sure."
Mr. Smith felt a hand reach around and tap his pockets lightly and expertly, first on one side of him and then on the other. He noticed wonderingly that the touch was so light he probably wouldn't have noticed it at all if the stocky man's remark had not led him to expect it.
"Okay," said Checkered Suit's voice behind him. "He's clean, Boss. Guess I did pull a boner."
The little man lowered his hands, and then took a black leather-bound notebook from the inside pocket of his banker's-gray coat. It was a dog-eared rate book.
He thumbed over a few pages, and then looked up smiling. "I would deduce," he said, "that the occupation in which you gentlemen engage--whatever it may be--is a hazardous one. I fear our company would not be interested in selling you the life insurance policies for that reason.
"But we sell both kinds of insurance, life and fire. Does one of you gentlemen own this house?"
Greasy Face looked at him incredulously. "Are you trying to kid us?" he asked.
Mr. Smith shook his head and the motion made his pince-nez glasses fall off and dangle on their black silk cord. He put them back on and adjusted them carefully before he spoke.
"Of course," he said earnestly, "it is true that the manner of my reception here was a bit unusual. But that is no reason why--if this house belongs to one of you and is not insured against fire--I should not try to interest you in a policy. Your occupation, unless I should try to sell you life insurance, is none of my business and has nothing to do with insuring a house. Indeed, I understand that at one time our company had a large policy covering fire loss on a Florida mansion owned by a certain Mr. Capone who, a few years ago, was quite well known as--"
Greasy Face said, "It ain't our house."
Mr. Smith replaced his rate book in his pocket regretfully. "I'm sorry, gentlemen," he said.
He was interrupted by a series of loud but dull thuds, coming from somewhere upstairs, as though someone was pounding frantically against a wall.