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Now we’re back to offer our weekly free Thriller excerpt:
by J. W. Becton
Fraud investigator Julia Jackson is back in action, and her next assignment throws her straight into the crosshairs of a bevy of desperate people…and one man who will do anything to keep his secret safe.
Late one night, a car burns on a lonely rural road, and the discovery of a body–charred beyond recognition–in the driver’s seat sets in motion a series of deadly events. And when the wife of the supposedly deceased driver demands her husband’s million-dollar life insurance policy payout before the autopsy can be completed, fraud investigators Julia Jackson and Mark Vincent must determine exactly how the victim died and at whose hands.
As Julia and Vincent interview witnesses and tangle with a host of angry suspects, another man is working behind the scenes to sever his mysterious connection to the body by any means necessary.
Soon Julia and Vincent realize they are not dealing with an average death benefits scam, but with a potential serial killer instead.
Death Benefits is the second book in the six-volume Southern Fraud crime dramedy series, which blends suspense, humor, and Southern charm with just a touch of romance. If you enjoy reading humorous mysteries or watching TV crime dramedies like Castle or The Mentalist, you should like the Southern Fraud series.
And here, for your reading pleasure, is our free excerpt:
The course of his life had already been set—written on his soul as if chiseled in cold, hard stone—and that meant that the bodies would never quit coming.
He’d never be able to stop them.
Resigned to his fate, the man in the baseball cap paused only for a moment to look into the night sky. The oppressive heat of summer had finally begun to taper off, but fall had not yet arrived. During this in-between time, reality seemed suspended somehow—not quite summer, not quite fall—and he felt nothing, neither anger nor pleasure, as he undertook his task.
He simply pushed the limp, lifeless body onward to its final destination.
It was what he must do.
“A dead body, a car fire, and a potentially fraudulent death benefits claim,” Ted Insley announced far too cheerfully for eight o’clock on a Monday morning.
Too cheerfully for anytime, really, but especially for my first day back at work at the Georgia Department of Insurance after a two-week medical leave.
“And good morning to you too,” I tossed back, looking up from my laptop monitor where I’d been catching up on my long-neglected email. I watched my boss saunter into my office, place the new case files in a neat stack on my desk, and take a seat.
Ted chuckled as he picked some imaginary lint from his trousers and leaned back into the beam of sunlight that streaked through the window. His silver hair and starched white shirt seemed to glow, and I squinted at him as he said with exaggerated formality, “On behalf of the Georgia Department of Insurance, welcome back, Special Agent Julia Jackson. We’ve missed you around here.”
“I’ve missed being here,” I said as I crossed my arms in front of me and tilted my chair back. A shrill squeak of springs filled the room, almost as if the furniture were heckling me for bending the truth.
Well, I’d mostly missed being there. Even if I were already mourning the loss of freedom my little mandatory vacation had provided, I could at least be happy about one aspect of my return to the DOI: it meant I’d officially been cleared in the shooting that ended my last fraud investigation.
I knew my actions had been justified. After all, an armed gunman had broken into my house and tried to kill me, but in a society fraught with frivolous lawsuits, you just never know what might happen. I half expected the guy’s widow to sue me.
That would have been a disaster.
Of course, the news of my being cleared in the shooting didn’t fully assuage my conscience. I was still coming to grips with what I’d done—I had taken a life—but at least I knew I wasn’t going to be tried for defending my own.
And I wouldn’t be confined to my desk either.
“So…,” Ted began in an overly cautious tone that had me cringing after only one word. “How are you feeling? Are you healing well?”
He looked pointedly at my left arm, where the bullet had made its impression, and then at my head as if it might conceal a ticking time bomb.
Geez, I wasn’t exactly okay with killing another human or being shot myself, but I was definitely not fragile either. I was just…wounded. I forced my thoughts away from the bandage on my arm and smiled brightly at Ted. “Me? I’m just fine.”
I hated having people tread carefully around me and despised having them question my ability to cope with a difficult, yet regrettably normal, aspect of a law enforcement officer’s career. But what I loathed even more was the fact that I had been asking myself the very same questions that Ted was dancing around now.
“I’m perfectly okay. Thanks for asking,” I repeated in a firm tone that was meant to reassure both of us.
It appeared to work on Ted.
“Excellent! The timing couldn’t be better.” He gestured at the files. “This big case came in late last night, and we need someone on the scene today. I was running out of investigators.”
I smiled to myself, understanding what Ted had not said. If I hadn’t been cleared and healed enough to come in on this lovely Monday morning, Ted himself would have had to go into the field and investigate the case on his own. Although he was a former field agent, Ted was much more suited to—not to mention comfortable with—sitting behind a desk in a nice clean office where everything was ordered and regular. These days, he avoided the field as much as possible.
“Big case, huh?” I asked, already curious about the files in front of me.
“Well, nothing like the last one. No one’s been abducted. But there is a body.” Then he added soberly, “It’s not pretty.”
Even though I’d taken two weeks off and was supposedly recovered from the shooting, I was surprised that Ted would assign me a case involving a dead body.
Why not a nice staged car accident or a simple homeowner’s insurance scam? Heck, even a medical con would be better at this precise moment.
Still, I began to thumb through the paperwork in front of me. I scanned the cover sheets and flipped through the rest of the pages, stopping when I saw a few photographs of a burned car leaning unevenly on the shoulder of a wooded road. I shut the folder before I saw any bodies.
Still a bit early in the day for that.
“It’s not a problem, Ted,” I said, hoping that was the truth.
“I was reluctant to assign it to you”—he looked at my arm again—“given the circumstances. It’s not the ideal case for your first day back, but I really need you on it. Everyone else is busy handling the backlog of investigations that accumulated while you were gone.”
I restrained a sigh. There was no denying that this backlog of cases was the result of my time off. I knew Ted wasn’t trying to be a jerk by handing the death benefits case off to me, but I wondered if he might be testing me, making sure I was really capable of continuing with my duties after what happened.
Well, if that were the case, I would prove to Ted, everyone at the DOI, and even myself that I was more than capable of doing my job.
Determined, I flipped the pages of the files again.
“If it makes you feel any better,” Ted said, his tone still tentative, “you’ll have help.”
I raised my eyes to meet his. “Help?”
“Yeah, you remember those new policies mandated by the Atlanta office?”
I nodded. The new policies had also been the result of my last case. When it became clear that I’d been the target of an abduction and an attempted murder, the DOI went into cover-your-ass mode. Their first mandate was that DOI investigators must be armed at all times during the course of their duties, which explained the Smith and Wesson M&P .40 caliber pistol strapped securely to my hip as I sat at my desk.
Now, apparently, they’d added more stipulations to their new list of rules.
“All major DOI investigations must be run by no fewer than two agents,” Ted said as if quoting from the official memorandum. “This death benefits claim qualifies as a major case.”
“So I’ve got a partner?” I translated.
Ted nodded, his expression uncertain as he looked away from me. I wondered if he thought I’d complain about this new mandate.
I leaned back, causing the chair springs to shriek in protest again and wondering if I should protest too, but truth be told, I didn’t mind the idea of working with a partner. I sure could have used a partner beside me when I was staring down the barrel of a revolver two weeks ago.
“Who? Gershman?” I asked, thinking he’d likely pair me with the other investigator in the Mercer, Georgia, office.
“Me,” a deep voice said.
It was clearly not the voice of nearing-retirement-age Webb Gershman.
I looked up to find Mark Vincent lingering just inside the threshold of my office door, and I took him in for a beat. Tall, broad, and all business, Vincent was the quintessential military man, and even though he was currently dressed in dark jeans and a sport coat, there was no mistaking him for a harmless civilian.
Nope. Not at all. There was a Sig concealed under that jacket, and years of personal protection experience meant he was deadly accurate at 100 yards with his weak hand only.
Well, maybe not 100 yards with a pistol, but with a rifle? Definitely.
I looked purposefully back at Ted, who seemed to be gauging my reaction, so I did my best not to react.
“Special Agent Vincent requested a transfer from Atlanta,” Ted explained, “and you worked so well together last time….”
Of their own volition, my eyes darted back to Vincent’s face, trying to read his intentions there. He’d requested a transfer? I studied his stoic expression. Nothing. He was a complete blank.
And yet I’d witnessed that face so full of longing and pain that it hardly seemed possible that it could ever be void of emotional cues.
My first thought, which managed to teeter on the border of hope and abject fear, was that he had asked to move to Mercer for me. After all, we had shared a bit of a moment after the shooting, but I forced myself to think logically. His son, Justin, was attending college nearby. Yes, that was it. He came for his son, not me.
Why would anyone make a drastic life change after working with someone for just a week and a half? That would be highly unlikely and, frankly, a bit presumptuous.
But given what I knew—and it was admittedly not much—about Vincent’s strained relationship with Justin, he would make such an extreme choice for his son. He would probably move to Antarctica if it meant a relationship with Justin.
Surely that explained what he was doing in my office.
Somewhat relieved, I turned my gaze back to Ted. He said Vincent and I had worked well together, and that was true enough. We had similar investigative styles, and I felt comfortable with him. Not only was I sure he’d have my back, but somehow he’d managed to make me feel freer when I’d been working with him than when I’d been going it alone.
Odd. That was hardly ever the case, at least in my experience as a law enforcement officer.
“Excellent,” Ted said as he slapped his palms on the knees of his perfectly creased trousers and smiled. “Vincent is already settled into the office next door, so unless you have any questions, I’ll let you two take it from here.”
Vincent stepped farther into my office, and his increased physical presence caused a palpable shift in the balance of power. Ted seemed to disappear into the bright sunlight as Vincent addressed me, and we became the only two people there, the two most powerful, a team.
“I emailed you a link to the digital pictures of the fire scene and a few other items that have trickled in during the last half hour, but I’m still working on getting a copy of the life insurance policy in question. How long do you think you’ll need to get up to speed?”
Resolute, I flipped open the top folder, which was marked “Theodore Vanderbilt.”
“I’ll do a preliminary read-through now,” I told Vincent. “Why don’t we meet for lunch to discuss where to start?”
Vincent nodded his assent and added, “That should give me time to compile all the pertinent financial and police records. And get that policy out of Americus Mutual.”
From the pale wash of sunlight, Ted said, “Good, and if you two need any assistance, don’t hesitate to call me.”
Translation: I’ll be in my office enjoying my cushy management position.
Both Vincent and Ted left my office then, and I took a deep breath before delving back into the world of fraud and, apparently, death.
A gruesome case began to take shape before me.
The deceased, Theodore Vanderbilt, had owned the U-Strip-Em Auto Salvage, an automotive junkyard, and the We-Shred-Em, a metal recycling center, both located in Cranford County, Georgia. At approximately 3 AM Saturday, his 1986 Ford LTD was found engulfed in flames on Highway 403 with his body in the driver’s seat. The scene seemed to indicate an accident, but the burn patterns had raised suspicions among the fire personnel.
Overwhelmed, the Cranford County sheriff, Bart “Tiny” Harper, had requested the help of a state arson investigator. Eva Sinclair from our sister office, the Georgia Department of Fire Investigation, had been sent in. Eva was the source of most of the photographic evidence in the files, and apparently she was still in Cranford County working to determine the source of ignition of the fire. At the time of the writing of her initial report, she had not been able to rule out arson.
Cranford County Coroner Morton Ivey had removed the body under Eva’s supervision and transferred it temporarily into refrigeration at Cranford General Hospital’s morgue. When Ivey had been unable to determine the victim’s identity or the cause of death through the limited methods available to him, the body had been moved to the Georgia medical examiner’s office at the state crime lab to undergo a full autopsy. The unclear circumstances of death, along with widow Kathy Vanderbilt’s prompt phone call to Americus Mutual Insurance and her demand for the life insurance money even before the death certificate could be issued, had moved the whole investigation to DOI jurisdiction pretty damn quick.
Lovely, I thought as I turned to my laptop and found the place on the server where the rest of the fire scene photos were stored. Taking a deep breath, I forced myself to look at each one closely. The photographs began with general shots of the area—a wooded two-lane road surrounded by tall pines and a few mature oaks—and became progressively more specific in the details they captured.
In a way, it helped to start out vague and become more specific. Each shot prepared me to deal with the next, and it piqued my curiosity to learn what had actually occurred.
From what I could tell from the photographs, the condition of the burned Ford LTD was certainly suspicious. If the accident scene in the photographs were taken at face value, the fire was the result of a front-end collision with a pine tree. Supposedly, Theodore Vanderbilt had crashed his LTD into a tree, passed out, and then been consumed by flames that started in the engine compartment.
And it was a rather realistic scenario. Accidental car fires often begin in the engine compartment, where flammable fluids can combine easily with the heat of the motor and ignite. Most damage occurs there, and then the flames spread to the rear portions of the vehicle.
However, the photos of the LTD told a different story. Most of the damage seemed to occur inside the passenger compartment, so that meant the fire was likely centered there. And because the rugs and fabrics in automobiles are treated with heavy-duty flame retardants, making interior fires notoriously difficult to start, this hinted at a purposeful blaze. So even if Vanderbilt had hit the tree, passed out, and happened to drop a lit cigarette, a small ignition source, the interior wouldn’t burn. A larger flame and some sort of liquid accelerant are usually necessary to start an interior car fire.
That was a pretty major hitch in Kathy Vanderbilt’s death benefits claim.
I flipped to the next picture, wondering what else it would reveal about the claim, and discovered the first detailed shot of the burned body. It was almost hard to believe that such a thing had once been a living, breathing human. The remains looked like something from a horror movie set: fleshless, mouth open, lips burned away, the face was frozen in a permanent scream.
I closed my eyes for a moment.
But only a moment.
Then I began to think logically about what these pictures told us. We could certainly rule out a simple disappearance scam. Usually, those dumbass cons try to fake their deaths by hiding long enough for their beneficiary to receive the insurance money, and they are in for a long haul because a life insurance payout without a body can take up to seven years. And if they actually manage to remain hidden for that long, miracle of miracles, the dead arise and walk again, only now quite a bit richer.
And usually with a new name.
No, we were dealing with a body, and that opened the door to multiple possibilities. If I were wrong about the origin of the fire and it had been the result of a front-end collision, then Theodore Vanderbilt was likely rendered unconscious, and then the car had caught fire, burning or asphyxiating him before he could awaken and escape. Or he may have died of a heart attack or stroke while driving, causing the car to collide with a tree and ignite.
But if the scene had been staged and the fire set purposefully—and this seemed the more likely scenario as far as I could tell—then that could signal more disturbing events.
Although it was rare, Vanderbilt could have chosen to commit suicide by fire.
Or he could have been murdered, and the fire was used to cover up the evidence. Perhaps Kathy Vanderbilt had killed her husband in order to collect the insurance money. So we could also be looking at arson and murder.
But I am not a fire investigator or a homicide cop. I investigate insurance fraud, and though my cases sometimes take me into the realm of other crimes, my primary job in this instance was to determine if Kathy Vanderbilt’s death benefits claim was legit. If so, the insurance company had to pay up. If not, then someone was going to prison.
I finished looking at each picture of the fire scene, and when I closed the photo viewer, I leaned back and sighed. Originally, I’d taken a job at the DOI in the hopes that I’d be dealing with boring—and safe—white-collar crimes, but I was beginning to realize that even the insurance world could become grisly and uncomfortable. And the fraudsters out there were often desperate and dangerous people, no matter where they fell on the social spectrum.
Earlier, I’d been hoping for a dull fraud, a crime of numbers, not bodies. But in this case, we were dealing not only with a potential arson but with a horrible death as well.
Already, I felt the familiar pull of justice at my heart. The images of death I’d encountered were horrific, but my need to unearth the truth forcefully overcame the lingering feelings of guilt induced by my own brush with violence.
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