Disasters bring out the best in people — but that’s not all they bring.
Scam is such an unpleasant word, all phlegmy and in the throat. I prefer to think of my work as art, performance art, if you will. I have been doing it for many years and have developed a level of skill one can only call expert, if I do say so myself.
My presence in Florida at the time of the hurricane was entirely fortuitous. I came down to these sunny climes on the spur of the moment, to escape the chill of the approaching northern winter, and because a stroke of bad luck had brought me to the attention of the Danbury Police Department. It was merely a fluke. It is, after all, impossible to plan for everything. Some might say I out-stayed my play, but it was a calculated risk, and, as always I was prepared. I disappeared quietly and completely, leaving nothing behind but a handful of unsharpened pencils.
I had been in Steinhatchee for two weeks when Hurricane Inez formed up in the Caribbean. Truth be told, the hurricane was a godsend for me. I was bored with fishing and reading and even the weekly poker games with my fellow lodgers, which I played straight for the novelty of it. So as Inez worked her erratic way up along the east coast of the state, I prepared, and when she swung back out to sea, I thanked my landlady, paid my bill, and headed out of town.
Several hours later I was driving down the interstate on the east coast of Florida, an area damaged, but not devastated, by the storm. To my mind, it is a region singularly lacking in appeal, made up largely of tract housing developments and strip malls lined up along the interstate. But from the point of view of my work, it was ideal. Working this particular play, I never visit two houses in the same area, and the highway would allow me to easily jump from neighborhood to neighborhood. This particular performance is simple and straightforward.
“Good morning,” I begin, having chosen a house where some downed trees or a collapsed pool enclosure indicates some minor damage. “My name is Frank Johnson and I am from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. I am here to assess your eligibility for the SALA program.” A little stiffness in the speech, I have found, adds to the verisimilitude of being a bureaucrat. The clipboard thick with forms and the plastic pocket protector full of pens also help.
“SALA is the Storm Assistance Living Allowance program,” I explain when the homeowner looks blank. “The program provides emergency funds for meals and hotels and even to board pets if the home is unlivable due to hurricane damage.”
I name a generous per diem and explain the process: I inspect the house and determine it is unlivable. Then I fill out the form, sign it and give it to the homeowner. All the homeowner has to do is take it to the FEMA trailer, which is always parked at an address some distance from them, and they will receive cash for eight weeks of living expenses. I emphasize the word “cash”. By this time I am in the house, standing or sitting in the living room.
I look around and say, “However, fortunately for you, it doesn’t appear that your house has suffered extensive damage, so I am not sure you would qualify.”
The next part is the true art of the matter. I must lead the homeowner to make the offer. Oh yes, the offer must come from the homeowner. Complaints to the police are greatly minimized when it was the homeowner himself who suggested the bribe. I have already introduced the homeowner to the possibility of getting money for nothing, now I show him how simple it is.
“Of course, there are no hard and fast rules as to what makes a house unlivable. It is completely up to the inspector,” I say, “and I am allowed a great deal of discretion.”
At this point most homeowners put two and two together and make an offer. I never take less than one hundred dollars, and I’m happy to take more. I give them the form, signed by me, attesting to the fact that their house is unlivable due to storm damage, and they give me the cash. Then they drive off to wherever I have told them the FEMA mobile office is, and I leave the neighborhood before they discover the ruse.
Now it is true that not every homeowner sees my visit as an opportunity for apparently getting something for nothing. But it goes quickly if they don’t, so I maximize my time with the “paying” audience. And that day, things were going delightfully. The roll of bills in my pocket was not inconsiderable.
I decided to visit one final house then drive down to Miami, which is a particularly fertile area for people with my skills. I was in an older development with a number of tall trees and I drove slowly to avoid downed limbs. I stopped in front of a well-kept house at the end of a cul-de-sac. A large oak had fallen over and clipped the edge of the garage roof and now blocked the drive, but that was the only observable damage. As I exited the car, I heard sharp crack coming from the back of the house. Another tree giving way, I thought, and wondered if it might have caused real damage to the home. I decided to chance it and rang the bell.
After a short delay, the door was opened by a woman. She was no longer young but certainly not old, with thick black hair pulled away from a pale oval face and dark blue eyes. She looked at me nervously, then peered beyond me, as if expecting someone else.
“Good afternoon,” I gave my best smile and pulled out my identification. “I’m Frank Johnson from FEMA. That’s the Federal Emergency Management Agency. I’m here in your neighborhood to see if we can be of assistance. We have a new program called SALA. It provides funds to people who have to leave their homes because of storm damage. I am inspecting homes in your neighborhood to determine how much damage they have sustained and whether the owners are eligible for this program.”
For a moment she said nothing, then she smiled and said, “Oh please, come in. I’m Mrs. Williams. But you can call me Ester.”
She gestured for me to sit down on the sofa and she took a chair opposite. Although she was doing a good job of hiding it, I sensed that she was still tense. Most people wouldn’t have noticed, but I am very good at reading people. It is a necessary skill if one is to be successful in my business. It is difficult to keep the attention of an audience so distracted, and I considered making a graceful, if unprofitable, exit. But I looked again into her dark blue eyes and decided to continue. Not that I am open to temptations of the flesh while I am working. I simply decided a distracted audience would make the play a greater challenge, and I am not one to walk away from a challenge.
I went over the details of the program carefully and concluded by saying, “And it is quite easy to obtain this cash payment. The FEMA trailer is parked at the Cross Corners Shopping Center. That’s only a fifteen minute drive.”
By the time I finished she was somewhat more at ease.
“But, do you think our house has been damaged badly enough to qualify for this program?” she asked.
I heard the ‘our’ and presumed there was a husband in the picture somewhere. I found myself happy that he wasn’t here now.
Ordinarily at this point I would introduce the homeowner to the idea that I was the sole judge of whether or not there they qualified for the program. But a successful professional is always ready to modify the script as conditions dictate. I felt she needed more time to calm down and focus on the opportunity I was about to present to her. So I decided to go more slowly.
“Let’s inspect the damage and see what I can do,” I answered.
“Yes, of course,” she said, rising. She led me out the front door and we walked slowly around the house. I made notes as we went. The fallen oak had done more damage than I originally thought to the garage roof. In the back, a large tree limb had fallen and broken a section of fence. The brick patio which bordered the entire length of the house was strewn with branches but undamaged, and the sliding glass doors that led into the house were intact. I wondered about the tree I had heard fall and where it might be.
“There’s no damage at the other end of the house,” Ester said, and took my arm and led me through the kitchen door back to the living room. Now as we sat down, she sat next to me on the sofa.
I looked through my notes, then said, “Of course there isn’t any hard and fast rule about what damage makes a house unlivable. It’s left to the inspector to decide. But it would be difficult for me to say the amount of damage you suffered would qualify you for the program.”
“Yes, I know. We were very lucky.” Ester looked at me, tried to smile, then began crying.
This was an unusual situation. I’ve had many home owners get angry when I announce that they were not eligible for the money, but I’ve never had one cry.
“Please,” I said. “Don’t be upset. Perhaps there’s something I can do.”
I pressed my handkerchief into her hands. They were warm and soft.
“I am so sorry,” she began, dabbing her eyes. “It’s not you, I’m just upset, about…well it’s just…no, never mind. I can’t burden a stranger, it’s not your concern.”
“No,” I protested. “Please, if I can help in any way.”
She cast her eyes down. I could tell there was an element of performance here. She was using what might be called her “feminine wiles” to convince me to assist her, but what else did she have? I silently applauded her. She was very effective and would have done well in my business.
“Would you help?” she began uncertainly. “I’m so scared, you see. It’s Derek, my husband. I want to leave him, but I’m afraid. I told him I wanted a divorce and he threatened me. And now he’s out looking for gasoline for the generator, and I could leave, but that tree is blocking the garage door. I just want to get away.” She began crying again.
“My dear, dear Ester.” I said. “Please, let me drive you somewhere safe, a friend’s house perhaps.”
“Oh, would you, Frank? We can leave before he gets back. He’s dangerous, you know. I’m so scared.”
“Don’t worry now.” I reached over and squeezed her hand. “I’m here. I can protect you.”
“Thank you,” she said. “Thank you so much. Just give me a few minutes to throw some things in a suitcase, all right? You won’t leave, will you?”
“No, of course not. I give you my word. We will walk out of here together.”
She went down the hall and opened a door on the right. She came out a few minutes later.
“Oh Frank, look what I found in his dresser.” She was holding out a small gun. “I didn’t even know he had it.”
I took the gun from her.
“Well, he doesn’t have it anymore.” I said. “Go get ready and we’ll leave.” Before she returned to the bedroom, she turned and gave me a grateful smile.
I put the safety on and stuck in the gun in my pocket. I wondered what sort of fellow this Derek was. A brute no doubt, Ester would be lucky to get away from him. I looked at the bedroom door impatiently. It would be best to leave before he got back. I wasn’t afraid, but I didn’t want a scene, and I certainly didn’t want to draw the gun unless it was absolutely necessary. I hoped her friend’s house was at some distance. It would give us a chance to talk. We could go somewhere for coffee, perhaps. Maybe I would even tell her about myself, I was convinced she would appreciate my skill.
A siren in the distance interrupted my daydream. I was reminded that many types of official emergency workers would be around now. I wanted to be out of the neighborhood before it was discovered that I was not one of them.
“Ester,” I called. “Ester, are you ready?” I went to the bedroom door. Outside I heard a car pull into the driveway and a car door slam. We could go out the patio door to avoid confronting Derek. I stuck my hand in my pocket and held the gun. Knocking gently, I pushed open the bedroom door.
Ester was nowhere to be seen and the door that led to the patio was open. The room was in total disarray. Someone had rifled through the closet leaving clothes and shoes scattered everywhere. All the drawers of the dresser were opened and a jewelry box was spilled onto the floor. The dressing table mirror had been removed revealing the door to a wall safe. And in the corner next to the bed lay the body of a middle-aged man wearing jeans and a sweatshirt. He was lying face up with a small dark hole in the middle of his forehead and a pool of blood around his head. I had barely taken this all in when I heard someone behind me.
I turned and faced two policemen, guns drawn.
I raised my hands and said, “Please, I work for the government.” When faced with the unexpected I always keep the play going.
“Yeah sure, mister.” one of the cops said. ”Turn around and put your hands on your head.”
In an instant I was in handcuffs and one of the cops was checking my pockets. He withdrew the FEMA identification, read it, and handed it to his partner. I thought for a moment things would work out, but then he withdrew the roll of money. It was a large roll.
“So how many places did you have to break into to get this wad?”
Then he found the gun.
“It’s been fired recently,” he told his partner after sniffing the barrel. “Poor bastard. Did he walk in while you were trying to get into the safe?”
“No,” I protested. “I didn’t shoot anyone. Ask Ester, she gave me the gun. It was her husband’s.”
“Well, I don’t know who Ester is,” began the policeman. “Mrs. Sarah Willson, wife of this here deceased, didn’t say anything about any Ester. She said she was checking the neighbor’s house for damage when she heard the shot. She ran back and found the room ransacked and her husband on the floor. So she got out of there quick and called us.”
The other policeman chimed in. “Let’s just go outside and see what Mrs. Willson has to say.” He pushed me out the door.
Outside, Ester, or Sarah, stood next to the patrol car.
“Ester, tell these men I’m here to help.” They looked at her.
“Who is he? Did he kill my Jack?” Her voice rose to an hysterical pitch. “Why is he calling me Ester?”
I could only admire her performance.
Mary Ann B. Lee is a former government worker, now retired and living in Florida. Her crime and mystery stories have appeared in the on-line magazines Mysterical-e, Cynic Magazine and Everyday Fiction.