January 2, 2023

Double Bubble Chapter 5: The Terror and the Botanist

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This entry is part 5 of 14 in the series Double Bubble

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There are only two kinds of people who use their middle names with pride, lawyers and serial killers. Terrence Talbot Winch, TT to his friends, missed his calling as a serial killer and went to law school instead.

Not quite as short as a garden gnome but every bit as ugly, Terrence slides through the door of the botany shop and sweeps his head from side to side like a leering hyena searching for dinner. The chirping birds and buzzing insects continue their chorus all around us. He stands silently at the door as if trying to adjust to the jungle he has walked into.

Eventually, his eyes find mine. Recognition bubbles to the surface, and I can see every muscle in his face tighten. His body twitches. His eyes are skittish. He opens his mouth and shuts it again. He’s visibly unsettled. Whatever he expected to find here, it wasn’t me.

“William,” he says. He has a slight, almost imperceptible, stutter when he speaks that becomes more pronounced when he is severally agitated or drunk. I’ve had the misfortune of witnessing both.

“Terrence,” I say with a small nod.

“What are you—“

“You know each other?” Katrina says.

She steps up to stand beside me. The spray bottle is still in her hand. Terrence looks from her to me and back again. He’s off-balance. Unsettled. He’s sweating from the heat. Whatever he had planned, this wasn’t it.

“I…,“ he starts. “I…um…I…I’m sorry, I’m here to speak to Ms. Katrina Harlow. Is that you?”

“And you are?”

“Terrence Talbot Winch,” he says, taking a small step forward and extending his hand. “I work for—“

She ignores his hand.

“Wow,” she says. “That’s quite mouthful. I’ve never met a Terrence before. Terry for sure. Tyrone maybe. But never a Terrence. Terrence is new. And Talbot. Never heard of anyone named Talbot. What does that even mean, Talbot. That sure sounds fancy. Are you a fancy man, Terrence Talbot?”

I stifle a laugh. Terrence is at a loss for words. He’s never at a loss for words. Katrina is growing on me, crazy and all.

“I’m sorry,” he says. “I—“

“You sure are sorry a lot,” Katrina says. “I never would have expected so many apologies from a fancy man named Terrence Talbot. If I told my friends about—”

“I’m sor—” he shuts his mouth. Starts again. “Please, would you just please…are you Katrina Harlow?” he says.

His face is burning. He’s getting angry. She ignores the question. And just like she did with me, she turns and walks away to spritz her flowers again.

He looks at me for help, but I’ve got nothing for him. I don’t hate a lot of people; well, alright, no more than most. But if I had a top ten list, Terrence would hold spots 1 through 9. I am no superhero, but I consider him my mortal enemy. And I don’t mean mortal enemy like he’s the Joker to my Batman or Lex Luthor to my Superman. That would imply I have some begrudging respect for him bordering on man-love.

No, I mean he is my mortal enemy. My own six-fingered man. I’d sooner spare the Devil an archangel’s wrath than help Terrence Talbot Winch cross the street.

She’s not wrong, though. He is a fancy man. The fanciest man I’ve ever known. And also the cruellest. As a serial killer, he’d make a swell poisoner. And not the quick and painless variety. No, Terrence would happily poison his mother slowly over weeks and chat with her amiably while she suffered her way to an agonizing death. That’s what he does as a lawyer. His favourite part of the job. Inflicting suffering on his opponents and their clients. Volley after volley of pointless communications and pointless procedural skirmishes, never in an actual courtroom. Terrence is the kind of lawyer you won’t find depicted on television because he delivers death at a glacial pace and without any drama.

I used to tease him about his cruelty and even took to calling him Terrence the Terror because other lawyers would live in fear of having a file assigned to him. I gave him business cards with that moniker emblazoned in red ink against a black card stock. The Terror. He loved it. He used to hand those cards out to everyone he met. Some men aspire to sainthood, some men scheme to be sovereigns in hell.

It’s fitting, though. That’s he’s here. This case wouldn’t be complete without him. My life wouldn’t be complete without him. Hail, hail, the gangs all here. Crazy loves a circus.

He’s still looking at me, waiting for me to help. When I don’t say anything, he shrugs. He’s on his own. He turns his attention back to her. He decides to press forward, to move further into the jungle.

“Ms. Harlow,” he says. “I’m a lawyer with Dexter Frost. I’ve been asked by our client, First National, to come down here and speak with you. I…I..”

It’s useless. She’s not listening. Or at least she’s pretending not to. I’ve started to acclimate to the lights, to the noise, to the smell, to the heat. I still think it’s crazy that anyone would want to work here, but I wonder if it isn’t all just an act. A show. The plants and vegetation are real. The noise, the smell, and the heat are all real. But standing here, I’m beginning to feel like it has all been orchestrated to create a certain outlandish effect. It’s the Wizard’s smoke and mirrors when Dorothy first gains an audience with him. It’s the Emperor’s darkened throne room.

As I watch her, I have the sense that she’s baiting him. Trying to gain some kind of advantage. It’s a negotiation, and I’m just a spectator. A delighted spectator. She’s still spritzing the plants. Each snick of the spray bottle releases a fine mist into the air.

“Ms. Harlow, please. I really must speak with you about your claim.”

He stops moving toward her. He’s pushed as far into the room as he’s prepared to go. She turns back towards us. Her face is impassive.

“Why are you here,” she says. Her voice is low and difficult to hear over the din of noise from birds and insects.

We are all now standing at arm’s length from one another in a kind of inverted triangle. His eyes dart to mine again. He’s finally figured out she’s crazy. He clears his throat.

“As I said, I’ve been engaged by First National to—“

Her eyes flash. I’ve managed not to speak or move since Terrence walked in, but now I’m worried she might start attacking him like she almost did me. She doesn’t. She shifts slightly to look at me.

“He’s a lawyer?”

I nod. She turns back to him.

“You’ll have to excuse me. I don’t have a lot of experience with lawyers. I hadn’t realized they were ever this stupid.”

“Ms. Harlow, please,” he says. “There’s no call for that. First National asked me to come here to talk to you about your claim.”

She shakes her head, turns, and starts spritzing the flowers again. She loves those flowers.

“No,” she says over her shoulder. “They didn’t. The guy at First National, whatever his name is—“

“Tim Steward,” he says.

“Whatever he’s called,” she says, ignoring the interruption, “told me he was sending an adjuster by to explain the policy and the claim. You’re not an adjuster. So why are you here?”

For the first time since he stepped into the shop, Terrence smiles. Things are back on track. This is the meeting he was prepared for. This is the meeting he knows how to control.

She turns to look at him. She seems surprised by his reaction.

“Why are you smiling?” she says. “Did I tell a fucking joke. Is this fucking funny to you.”

She’s lost her advantage now and substituted her indifference with anger, an emotion Terrence has no trouble managing. He’s accustomed to triggering anger in others. It’s his stock and trade.

“Yes,” he says, grinning widely. “Given your tirade a moment ago about my intelligence, I’d say it is funny, a surprise really, that you haven’t taken the time to read the policy. If you had, you’d know why I’m here.”

It’s her turn to take a step back. He’s rattled her. He’s still smiling, giddy with excitement.

“Of course I read the policy,” she says, trying to recover.

“Excellent,” he says, still smiling. “Than you already know that suicide is excluded. There will be no payment by First National. There is no coverage.”

She stares at him in disbelief. “What do you mean no—“

“What I mean, Ms. Harlow, is that First National will be, or should I say is, denying your claim. There will be no payout under the policy.”

“But—“

“I wish I could help you,” he says, still smiling. “Really, I do. But my client’s hands are tied. There is simply no way around the fact that Mr. Piggott committed suicide. And when he did, he negated any obligation on my client to pay your claim.”

“I don’t understand,” she says. “Why did First National tell me they were sending an adjuster. Why not just send a letter.” She’s shaking her head, agitated, her voice is rising. “I don’t understand why you’re here.”

“My client, Mr. Steward, felt it would be best to deliver news of his decision in person. He asked me to deliver the news personally. I was happy to oblige him.”

The Terror hasn’t stopped smiling. This is the part he enjoys. It isn’t enough that Danny committed suicide. Or that she is devastated by his death. Terrence is here to deliver her another blow. He’s here to witness her suffering. He’s here to add to it. To revel in it.

“Now,” he says. “In matters like this there is always some paperwork to fill out, of course.”

He twists his torso, reaches into his leather briefcase, and draws out a manila envelope. He holds it out to her like he’s delivering the mail.

“Is there some place we can go to sign—“

And just like that, she starts screaming at the top of her lungs. It’s a loud, terrifying scream of anger and hate. She lunges toward him and rips the envelope out of his hands. It skitters across the floor and into the jungle like a gassed-out airplane. The Terror isn’t smiling now. I guess it’s all fun and games until the crazy lady decides to mount your head on a stake in her creepy garden.

He starts backing away from her, slowly at first, but then he actually bolts for the door. I’ve never seen a man bolt before. I had no idea the Terror could run that fast. It’s beautiful. I start laughing but cut it short when she turns back toward me.

She’s not screaming now. She’s still crazy, but her face is serene. I’m worried she’s going to start yelling again, and brace myself for her anger. Instead, she turns and goes back to spritzing her plants. I still haven’t told her about Jean. I meant to, but what good will it do now? There isn’t going to be any payment, and after watching her reaction to Terrence, I’d rather not trigger her crazy again.

“You’re a lawyer,” she says, over her shoulder, her back still to me.

I’m pretty sure I never told her I was a lawyer. When I don’t respond, she turns to look at me and nods her head toward the door.

“You knew that clown when he walked in, so I just figured,” she says.

I nod. She’s staring at me intently. It’s uncomfortable. The female gaze.

“You a fancy man like him?”

“Not any more,” I say.

We go on staring at each other. She shakes her head slightly.

“He’s wrong, you know. I did read about suicide in the policy. I just figured maybe…I dunno…maybe they’d pay it. I’ve never had an insurance claim before. My friends warned me, but I just thought, maybe, I dunno, that they’d have compassion.”

“First National is a tough company,” I say. “They hire a guy like Terrence to fight their claims. They won’t pay if there’s an exclusion.”

“Hmm,” she says. “I still don’t get why he came all the way here, though.” She looks over at the door. “They could have just sent an email or whatever. And he was so…”

“Email isn’t his style. Even if they had suggested it, he would have talked them out that. He’s just a guy who likes making others suffer.”

“Ya,” she says, looking down at her hands, twisting the cap on the spray bottle. It’s still half full.

“Ya,” I say. “Terrence is just that kind of guy.”

She looks up again. Frowns.

“Guess he’s mean but not very bright,” she says.

“Oh, he’s no dummy,” I say. “I mean, if you asked him, he’d tell you he graduated top of his class in law school. Of course, what he wouldn’t tell you is that he was blackmailing the Vice Dean after uncovering certain sexual indiscretions — indiscretions it is rumored he orchestrated — and that the only thing he learned about the law in three years of school was how to twist it, bend it, or break it.”

Her frown deepens. “I hate assholes like him.”

“Me too,” I say.

She looks up and locks eyes with me again.

“Maybe I should hire you,” she says. “You look like you could take him on. Maybe if I hired you, you could get them to pay the claim. I could give you a piece of the policy, and you could take him and the insurance company down.”

She laughs lightly, but I can see it in her eyes, she’s testing the waters. She wants to see how I will respond.

“I don’t think you’d want to hire me,” I say. I leave out the part where I was sent here to call her a murderer.

“Oh,” she says. “I thought maybe.” She shrugs, turns slightly, still twisting the cap on the bottle. “I thought with a piece of the policy you might…but maybe that isn’t how it works,” she says.

“That’s not the problem. I mean, I could take it on a contingency fee,” I say. She looks at me, puzzled. “When a lawyer takes a piece of the policy, it’s called a contingency fee. It’s like the commission you pay a realtor or your car salesman,” I say.

“Oh,” she says and smiles. “So you can take on my case?”

It would be completely unethical of me to act for this woman. Or at least it would be if I had been hired by Jean Piggott. But Jean hadn’t hired me. She just sent me over here to talk to Katrina. I’ve done that.

Still. I should tell Katrina no. I should get the hell out of here. I should leave and forget about her. Forget about Jean. Forget about fucking Danny Quick and his sex fetishes. They are all fucking nuts.

But I fucking hate him. I mean, I really fucking hate him. Terrence the Terror. I would love nothing more than to slit his throat and have a beer while he bled out on my kitchen floor. I know, pretty graphic, right? Like I said, lawyers and serial killers.

Still, as much as I hate him, I would hate losing to him more. If it wasn’t murder and it wasn’t suicide, that means I’d have to prove it was an accident. That will be a tough sell. And to a jury, no less. A tough sell even if Danny hadn’t died with a pair of panties on his head. If I take her case, it will be a fucking nightmare. Crazy on all sides. Still.

“It’s five million dollars,” she says, looking at me. “The policy, I mean. It’s a five-million-dollar payout if we win.”

I really should say no.

But I don’t.

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