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"No," she said. "Is that what this is supposed to be? An insurance payment?"

"He cashed in a policy," I said. "But this is more than the cash value would have amounted to, unless my source made a mistake in the amount. And Viaticom doesn't sound like any insurance company I ever heard of."

"It doesn't, does it? You know what it sounds like? Some Silicon Valley outfit that makes software."

I said, "Maybe the insurance company has a separate unit for policy redemption."


"You sound dubious."

"Well, it doesn't look like any insurance company check that I ever saw," she said, fingering the photocopy. "They're all computer-generated these days, and usually machine-signed. This is all filled in by hand with a ballpoint pen. And it looks as though it was signed with the same pen, and by the same person."

"Viaticom," I said.

"Whatever that means. No address, just Arlington, Texas."

"Wherever that is."

"Well, I can tell you that much," she said brightly. "It's between Dallas and Fort Worth. Where the Rangers play?"

"Oh, of course."

"See? You knew all along." She grinned. "Are you going to have to fly down there? Or can you let your fingers do the walking?"

* * *

The 817 information operator had a listing for Viaticom. I'd have tried to wheedle the address out of her as well as the number, but before I could ask she shunted me to some digital recording that told, me, the, number, one, numeral, at, a, time. I can't figure out how those things work, but I know better than to try reasoning with them.

I wrote down the number and dialed it, and when a woman answered and said, "Viaticom, good morning," I had no trouble believing I was talking to somebody in Texas. It was all there in her voice-the boots, the big hair, the shirt with the pearl buttons.

"Good morning," I said. "I wonder if I could get some information on your company. Could you tell me-"

"One moment please," she said, and put me on hold before I could finish my sentence. At least I was spared the canned music. I held for a minute or two, and then a man said, "Hi, this is Gary. What can I do for you?"

"My name's Scudder," I said, "and I'd like to know something about your company."

"Well, Mr. Scudder, what would you like to know?"

"For openers," I said, "I wonder if you could tell me what it is that you do."

There was a short pause, and then he said, "Sir, nothing would make me happier, but if there's one thing I've learned it's not to give interviews over the phone. If you want to come on over here I'll be more than happy to accommodate you. You can bring your notebook and your tape recorder and I'll kick back and tell you more than you maybe want to know." He chuckled. "See, we welcome publicity, but every phone interview we've ever done's turned into an unfortunate experience for us, so we just don't do them anymore."

"I see."

"Would it be hard for you to come on over and see us? You know where we are?"

"A hell of a long ways from where I am," I said.

"And where would that be?"

"New York."

"Is that right. Well, I wouldn't have said you sounded like a Texan, but I know you reporters move around a lot. I talked to a little old gal the other day, she was born in Chicago and worked on a paper in Oregon before she found her way to the Star-Telegram. You with one of the New York papers yourself?"

"No, I'm not."

"Business paper? Not the Wall Street Journal?"

I might have tried fishing if I'd known what I was fishing for. But it seemed to me a more direct approach was called for.

"Gary," I said, "I'm not a reporter. I'm a private detective based here in New York."

The silence stretched out long enough to make me wonder if the connection was still open. I said, "Hello?"

"I didn't go anywhere. You're the one made the call. What do you want?"

I plunged right in. "A man was killed here some weeks ago," I said. "Shot to death on a park bench while he was reading the morning paper."

"I get the impression that happens a lot up there."

"Probably not as much as you might think," I said. "Of course, there are people in New York who think folks in Texas are out robbing stagecoaches five days a week."

"When we're not busy remembering the Alamo," he said. "Okay, I take your point. Myself, I haven't been in New York City since our senior trip in high school. Lord, I thought I was hip, slick, and cool, and your town made me feel like I just fell off a hay wagon." He chuckled at the memory. "Haven't been back since, and I'm one Texan who doesn't wear a string tie or carry a gun, so I sure didn't shoot that fellow. How's Viaticom come into play?"

"That's what I'm trying to find out. The name of the deceased is Byron Leopold. Approximately four months before his death he deposited a check from you in excess of fifty thousand dollars. That was virtually his only income for the year. My original assumption was that he'd cashed in an insurance policy, but the amount seemed high in relation to the policy. And your check didn't look like an insurance company check."

"Not hardly, no."

"So," I said, "I was hoping you could enlighten me."

Another long pause. The seconds ticked away, and I found myself thinking about my phone bill. You tend to be more aware of expenses when you haven't got a client to pick up the tab. I didn't mind paying to talk to Texas, but I found myself resenting the Pinteresque pauses.

I was at a pay phone, with the charges being billed to a credit card. I could have placed the call at a lower rate from my apartment, or gone across the street to my hotel room and talked for free; a few years ago the Kongs, my young hacker friends, had worked their magic to give me an unsolicited gift of free long-distance phone calls. (There'd been no graceful way to decline, but I eased my conscience by not going out of my way to take advantage of my curious perk.)

At length he said, "Mr. Scudder, I'm afraid I'm just going to have to cut this short. We've had unfortunate experiences with the press lately and I don't want to stir up more of the same. All we do is provide people with an opportunity to die with dignity and you people make the whole business of viatical transactions sound like a flock of hovering vultures."

"Whole business of what? What was the phrase you just used?"

"I've said all I intend to say."


"You have a nice day now," he said, and hung up on me.

* * *

When I met Carl Orcott a couple of years ago he had the habit of fussing with one of a half-dozen pipes in a rack on his desk, now and then bringing it to his nose and inhaling its bouquet. I'd told him he didn't have to refrain from smoking on my account, only to learn that he wasn't a smoker. The pipes were a legacy from a dead lover, their aroma a trigger for memory.

His office in Caritas, an AIDS hospice no more than a five-minute walk from Byron Leopold's apartment, was as I remembered it, except that the rack of pipes was gone. Carl looked the same, too. His face might have been a little more drawn, his hair and mustache showing more gray, but the years might have done all that themselves, unassisted by the virus.

"Viatical transactions," he said. "It's an interesting phrase."

"I don't know what it means."

"I looked up the word in the dictionary once. It means travel-related. A viaticum is a stipend given to a traveler."

I asked him to spell it and said, "That's just one letter away from the name of the firm. They call themselves Viaticom."

He nodded. "Sounds a little less like Dog Latin and a good deal more high-tech. More appealing for the investors."


"Viatical transactions are a new vehicle for investment, and firms like your Viaticom are part of a new industry. If you thumb through gay publications like The Advocate and New York Native you'll find their ads, and I suppose they advertise as well in financial publications."

"What are they selling?"

"They don't actually sell anything," he said.

"They act as middlemen in the transaction."

"What kind of transaction?"

He sat back in his chair, folded his hands. "Say you've been diagnosed," he said. "And the disease has reached the point where you can no longer work, so your income has stopped. And even with insurance your medical expenses keep eating away at your savings. Your only asset is an insurance policy that's going to pay somebody a hundred thousand dollars as soon as you're dead. And you're gay, so you don't have a wife or kids who need the money, and your lover died a year ago, and the money's going to go to your aunt in Spokane, and she's a nice old thing but you're more concerned with being able to pay the light bill and buy the cat some of the smoked oysters she's crazy about than enriching Aunt Gretchen's golden years."

"So you cash in the policy."

He shook his head. "The insurance companies are bastards," he said. "Some of them won't give you a dime more than the cash surrender value, which is nothing compared to the policy's face amount. Others nowadays will pay more to redeem a policy when it's undeniably evident that the insured doesn't have long to live, but even then it's a rotten deal. You get a much more generous offer from companies like Viaticom."

I asked him how it worked. A facilitator of viatical transactions, he explained, would bring together two interested parties, an AIDS patient whose illness had progressed medically to the point where a maximum survival time could be estimated with some degree of precision, and an investor who wanted a better return on his money than he could get from banks or government bonds, and about the same degree of security.

Typically, the investor would be sure of an annual return of around twenty to twenty-five percent on his money. It was like a zero-coupon bond in that all the money came at the end, when the insured party died and the insurance carrier paid off. Unlike a bond, of course, the term wasn't fixed. The AIDS sufferer could live longer than predicted, which would lessen the per annum return somewhat. Or, on the other hand, he could pop off before the ink was dry on the agreement, thus providing the investor with a much faster payoff on his investment.

And there was always the investor's nightmare. "The lure of the cure," Carl drawled. "Imagine betting the kids' college funds on the lifespan of some poor set designer, and then one day medical science tells you your kids'll have their doctorates long before he's done crying over his Judy Garland records." He rolled his eyes. "Except it won't happen that way, even if we get that long-awaited medical miracle. You might develop a vaccine to prevent future cases, you might come up with a magic bullet to knock out or arrest the virus, but how are you going to breathe life into a completely devastated immune system? Oh, doctors keep gradually extending the survival time, and that's all factored into the equation. But those of us who are accepted as parties to viatical transactions are past the point of no return. The kids can go to college after all. The investment's safe."