FORTUNE'S COOKIE

By L.C. Mohr

Life is a roller coaster ride and anyone who thinks he's steering is kidding himself. All he's doing is hanging on and hoping he doesn't embarrass himself too badly when it's time to get off.

Francis Bacon said that good fortune is like the Milky Way. Not the candy bar. The big white light we see in the sky that's actually made up of a lot of little stars. "And so may a man be made up of scarce discerned virtues that seem, from afar, to be nothing more than good fortune shining on his life."

Or was it Shakespeare who said that? Whoever.

My friend Jeffrey says that men are the architects of their own fortune. Sometimes we have deep discussions like that -- if we can get a seat on the train together. And although I agree with Jeff while we're sitting in a speeding train like some giant bullet being shot into the heart of civilization, when the train stops and people start to scramble and stumble all over each other -- well, it's all I can do to find my way to my office. In control? Not on your life.

People say I'm a fortunate man. I have loved and -- against all odds -- won. "Against all odds" because I was one of those eager young men that women describe as almost handsome and nearly attractive. I'm just now approaching not bad for my age.

So when the most exciting, vibrant, mesmerizing albeit married-woman-with-two-children I'd ever seen actually talked to me, kidded with me, answered my intra-office notes ... well, you see where I'm going here. Fortune fell on my head like a ripe coconut.

Cookie let me fall in love with her. No one so beautiful had ever even looked at me. When she turned those black olive-colored eyes at me ... I never had a chance. She was the prettiest woman I'd ever seen, with patent leather shiny hair and a waist that fit nicely in my hands.

We fumbled around in my office (after work of course) just enough to break a commandment but not enough to enjoy ourselves at it. And then -- lo and behold -- her husband died.

Just like that. One of those "taken suddenly" kinds of notices appeared in the local paper. And she was all mine. Had her husband lasted another month or so we might not have been so fortunate. People might have started to notice things and Cookie might have been whispered to be the unfaithful wife.

As it happened, no one knew. We'd never even told our best friends, hard as that was for me. I told Jeff almost everything. But Jeff worked in the same building with Cookie's husband. Late husband, now. So, as fortune would have it, Cookie was able to retire as the devoted and devastated widow.

And there I was. All ready to step in and console her. And with every right to do so. We were, after all, dear friends from work. A sigh of relief. Great good fortune. I became the next Mr. Cookie.

Naturally we agreed she should stop working. She really wasn't making much money as the assistant bookkeeper anyway, and her children needed her at home.

Along with Cookie I acquired two daughters. I've always thought that the most irritating thing about having children is that from then on you have them. They never go away.

Cookie's twins, Wilhemina and Jillian, were ten years old when I married their mother. A particularly demanding age, I've been told by the people who seem to know about those kinds of things.

But even during bachelorhood I'd noticed that children are difficult at any age. When they're little you have to force food into one end and wipe it off the other. As soon as they start talking they stop listening. And the simplest parts of growing up are always momentous to them. Children live in a constant state of crisis. And they thrive on it.

I, on the other hand, need my peace and quiet. So it was not without a bit of apprehension that I moved directly into Cookie's life, Cookie's house, Cookie's bed.

One morning at breakfast, I innocently suggested: "Why don't we think about buying a new house? It'd give us all a fresh start." I was imagining my own den, my own bathroom, possibly my own entrance.

The peals of laughter could have shattered glass. Billie, who walked with a limp -- not because she had to, but because she liked to -- squirted orange juice out her nose. Jillie sneered at me. She was practicing her disdainful looks this month, her mother had already told me: "It doesn't necessarily mean you've done something stupid." But I often had the feeling that the girls thought everything I did was pretty stupid.

"I don't think so, dear," Cookie said after the laughter had subsided. "We're very comfortable here."

"We've always lived here," Jillie smirked.

Dragging her right leg, Billie put her dishes into the sink. "Mommy's husbands always move in with us." She started upstairs, dragging her left leg now. Jillie sneered at me, sighed loudly and followed her.

** ** **

About 4 o'clock that afternoon, Melissa, my admin ass, buzzed me: "Mr. Bentley? There's a Mr. Pfifer from American Insurance here to see you."

"Who?" Before I could find my appointment calendar my office door opened.

A short sweaty man came in. "Bentley? Howdayado?" He held his hand out. I had to get up and lean forward to shake it. I was sorry I made the effort. The dead fish on the end of his arm left sweat on my palm. I surreptitiously wiped it on my pants.

"Mr...uh...?" I tried to place the name.

"Pfifer, like the flute, but with a P. No appointment. I figured you'd be here, though. Thought I'd take a chance that you'd see me. It's about an insurance policy belonging to ..." He sat down and reached into his rumpled suit jacket pocket. He extracted some equally rumpled papers. "Mrs. Caroline Bentley," he read off one of them.

Cookie.

"Yes?"

"Did you know her late husband, Bernard Carson?"

"No."

He leaned back and stared over my right shoulder.

"Never met the man," I repeated. "I only knew Cook... Mrs. Bentley as a co-worker. I'd never met her second husband."

He was staring silently over my left shoulder now.

I felt uncomfortably obligated to go on. "Until his funeral. But I suppose that doesn't really count..." I realized I was babbling and I tried to stop myself. "I mean he was dead already when I met him."

No response but that undirected fishy stare.

"Why are you asking me these questions?" I asked.

He shrugged. "When there's such a large insurance policy we like to be..." He hesitated. "...secure about the circumstances."

"A large insurance policy?"

He glanced down at the papers. "A mil."

"A million dollars?" To say I was stunned would have been underestimating my reaction. Cookie hadn't mentioned the fact that she was a millionaire -- or was it millionairess ... whatever.

Mr. Pfifer was staring at a spot on my tie. "You mean my wife got a million dollars when her second husband died?" I asked. "Is there some question about the cause of death?"

"No," he answered mildly. "Sorry," he shook his head five or six times. "No, no. Not that policy. That one was only worth quarter of a mil. And Carson wasn't her second husband -- he was her third. This particular policy's on you, however."

"Me?" A squeaky voice asked. I guess it was mine.

"Yeah." He stared at my Adam's apple. "She's taking out a million dollar policy on you. Didn't you know?"

** ** **

"Darling?" I tried to get Cookie's attention that night. She was stirring something steamy in a pot while the girls whooped through the kitchen. "Cookie, dearest?"

She turned from the stove and gave me a dazzling smile. "Yes, love?"

For a moment I forgot why...

Oh, yes. "I had a visitor today."

"How nice."

"A Mr. uh..." I searched around my mind. "Drummer? No, Piper ... Pfifer! That's it -- Mr. Pfifer!"

But by this time I'd lost her attention. Cookie did not have a very long attention span. She was herding the girls toward the table.

"He was from an insurance company. Something about a policy you're taking out..."

Cookie ladled the steamy something into bowls.

"...on me. For a million dollars?"

Three heads turned toward me.

"Mommy's husbands are always insured," Billie said between slurps.

"Oh? Exactly how many husbands have you had, my love?" I asked gently.

Jillie tsked and raised her eyebrows. "You're number three."

"Our daddy was the first," Billie said. "He left Mommy dissolute."

"Destitute, Dear." Cookie smiled at her proudly, then pulled me into the corner. "They were very young -- only twenty-two months old -- when their father died, and they don't remember Mr. Ferguson, whom I married about eleven months later. We were only married a year when he..." she took a deep breath. "When he was killed in that freak accident." She sighed and looked up at me. Her eyelashes fluttered shyly. "Is there a problem?"

I had become distracted for a moment by Cookie's habit of speaking in months instead of years. That made me four hundred and thirty two...I shook my head to clear the calculations.

"Of course not. I just wish you'd have mentioned it to me first, my pet." I tried to smile back. "It came as a bit of a surprise," I said, not quite sure if I meant the extra husband or the insurance policies.

"Did Mr. Pfifer tell you when I'd be getting the settlement check?" Cookie asked.

I stared at her.

"I haven't received the check on Bernard's insurance yet." She smiled fondly at the twins. "We're putting it directly into the girls' college fund. They'll be going off before you know it."

Devoted stepfather though I was, I must admit the thought absorbed me for the rest of the evening.

** ** **

The next morning I elbowed aside a few commuters and managed to get a seat next to Jeff. He looked at me, then narrowed his eyes and smiled. "I know you're still a newlywed, Bill, but you should try to get more sleep."

I attempted to smile back.

"What's wrong?"

I shook my head dismissingly. "I never realized how noisy two ten-year-old girls could be. Cookie insured me for a million dollars. They chatter until midnight and start up again at dawn." I worked at keeping a smile on my face.

Jeff's smart. He cut through to what was on my mind. "A million, huh? Doesn't surprise me. She's a smart woman. It makes good sense. Before you know it the girls'll be off to college. Do you know what tuition costs these days? And suppose you weren't around to help her?"

My smile came a little easier this time. As always, Jeff had made me feel better.

At first. "But why wouldn't I be around..." I began. But our train pulled into the station and, as usual, people began scrambling over us as though being the first one off merited some sort of prize.

"Besides," he said as we disembarked. "You know what they say: the fourth time's the charm."

"It's the third time that's the charm -- I'm her third husband," I meant to tell Jeff, but I was too busy jumping out of the way of a speeding car that was about to hit me -- or so it seemed.

Train stations are like that, but I was still a little shaken up when I got to my office. I sat behind my desk, trying to calm my trembling hands. That wasn't all that was trembling, but nobody could see my knees.

I picked up my phone -- to call Cookie. I put it down again.

I picked up my phone -- to call Jeff. I put it down again.

What would I say? "Hi, old pal. Don't get married, old pal. My wife and kids are trying to kill me..."

Is that what I thought was happening? Was Cookie trying to kill me? Why? For an insurance policy? But as of yesterday, they were still processing that policy, weren't they?

I buzzed my admin ass. "Melissa? Do you remember the name of Mr. Drummer's firm?"

"Who?"

I tsked to myself -- I was always having to jar Melissa's memory. "That insurance man who stopped in late yesterday..."

"Oh, you mean Mr. Pfifer? I think he said American Insurance."

"Can you get the number for me, please?"

"Do you want me to get him on the phone?"

"No, just give me the company's number."

After several sessions on Muzak-accompanied hold, I was told that there was no Mr. Pfifer, Piper or Drummer working for the American Insurance Company.

** ** **

When I got home that night there was a car blocking our driveway. Now, I don't have many pet peeves in life -- well, actually, I do have quite a few; but I can think of no acceptable reason for blocking another person's driveway unless that driveway is already full of vehicles. In this case, my nice empty driveway was beckoning -- just out of reach.

I flung the front door open with what Billie and Jillie would call "an attitude."

"Cookie!" I began. "Whose car..."

There was a strange man sitting on our couch. And sitting next to him was Mr. Pfifer.

I gaped.

Mr. Pfifer looked directly into my eyes. "Good evening, Mr. Bentley," he said.

I continued gaping.

"Oh, Darling," Cookie entered from the kitchen, wiping her hands on a towel. "The police are here to see you."

"The police?"

Mr. Pfifer -- or whoever he was -- stood up and offered his hand. "Lt. Pfifer." He tilted his head toward the man still sitting. "This is Sgt. Fielder."

Forgetting my previous experience, I shook his hand. It was repulsively moist.

"I thought you sold insurance..." I began.

Fielder smirked.

Pfifer lowered himself back onto the couch. "I lied," he said very matter-of-factly.

Why not? Who was I going to report him to -- the police?

"So how do I know you're not lying now?"

He pried a battered identification folder out of his wrinkled pants pocket and handed it to me.

Lieutenant Samson Pfifer, Homicide. Picture, badge, the whole bit.

"Homicide?"

"Just a few questions."

Fewer than I had, I was sure.

Cookie gave a tiny sigh. "I must admit, gentlemen, that I am getting just the tiniest bit impatient with this continuous questioning."

There'd been other questionings? Why hadn't she mentioned to me that the death of her husband was being questioned -- perhaps even under investigation? Why hadn't I noticed? After all, she and I had been far from strangers before our marriage. Why hadn't I the slightest inkling of what was going on around me?

What was going on around me?

"There seems to be some question as to exactly how Mr. Carson died." Pfifer answered my thoughts.

"He died of a heart attack," Cookie said firmly.

"Brought on when someone poisoned him," Pfifer added just as firmly.

"Poisoned?" My voice sounded weak only in comparison. "Are you saying that someone murdered Bernard Carson?"

"That'th what the D.A. is thaying," Fielder said.

Everyone stared at him for a moment.

"The D.A.?" I was stunned.

"Dithrict Attorney," Fielder said.

"I know what D.A. stands for..." I shook my head and turned back to Pfifer. "Why has the D.A. waited so long -- until now to..."

"Hasn't been all that long, Mr. Bentley. Besides, it has only recently come to our attention that Mrs. Baker Ferguson Carson Bentley seems to have a knack for picking winners."

There was something different about Mr. Pfifer. Besides the fact that he was no longer pretending to be an insurance salesman. Perhaps it was the intensity of his gaze, something he hadn't seemed capable of when he visited me in my office. Whatever it was, it made me nervous. But, then again, who wouldn't be nervous to find himself in this situation? Not that I understood the situation....

I glanced over at Cookie then back at Pfifer. "Winners?"

"Husbands who, you might say, pay off big at the finish line."

Cookie scoffed. "That's ridiculous. There was no insurance at all on my first husband. And the policy on Mr. Ferguson was bought by his company, not me."

"True," Pfifer stared at Cookie now. "But after you bought that policy on Mr. Bentley here..."

So there was a policy!

"...it seemed like too much of a coincidence. So the D.A. asked us to do a little investigating and the M.E. came up with a few questions that needed answering."

"That'th the Medical Egthaminer," Fielder said to me.

"Such as?" I asked Pfifer.

"Such as why a healthy twenty-eight-year-old man who had just passed a rigorous physical examination the previous year in order to get the insurance policy Mrs. Carson, excuse me..." He nodded toward Cookie. "...Mrs. Bentley, here, is now so conveniently collecting on..." He stopped for a moment as though lost in the convoluted maze of his own sentence.

"Why such a robust young man," he went on, "would drop dead of a heart attack? And," his voice rose a bit as though someone were trying to interrupt him, "why Mrs. Bentley would refuse to allow an autopsy on said husband until a court order was issued.

"And..." Again he stretched the word out as though forstalling a defense of Cookie. "...why Mrs. Bentley would change insurance companies for the next insurance policy on the next young," he glanced at me, "healthy husband."

I waited for another "And...." Instead, Pfifer stared at me.

My turn, I assumed.

"Twenty-eight?"

Sgt. Fielder sighed loudly. "I don't think you underthand the thignifianth of the information we've collected, Mithter Bentley."

I sighed back. "I'm sure you're right, Sergeant. All I understand right now is that you're blocking my driveway and holding up my dinner." I turned to Pfifer. "So, unless you have a specific charge to make, Lieutenant, I'll say goodnight."

Pfifer stood up and held his fishy hand out to me. I ignored it and opened the front door.

"Well, Mr. Bentley. Maybe it is all one big coincidence. Maybe you'll live to a ripe old age." He started out the door, then turned back and smiled at me. "And maybe the fourth time's the charm."

Cookie was particularly warm and loving to me that night. Afterwards I watched her sleep. Cookie was even more beautiful in her sleep. And even more innocent. I lay awake watching her for a long time.

The next morning someone pushed me onto the train tracks.

Despite the screams of commuters and the screech of brakes, I escaped with a lot of scrapes and bruises. Jeff stayed in the hospital emergency room with me while a heavy-fisted intern poured burning liquid onto my lacerated skin. After a lot of wincing and squealing, I was dismissed with one prescription to kill the germs that would gradually fade after a few days and another to kill the pain that would inevitably find its way into my open wounds. Or the other way around.

Jeff helped me down the stairs -- whatever happened to releasing patients via wheelchair? -- and into his car. That was when I asked him if I could stay at his place for a few days.

"But what about Cookie and the kids?"

"Jeff..." It all spilled out like sour milk. "She's trying to kill me. She's got a million-dollar life insurance policy on me. She's killed three husbands so far. I'm a goner!"

"What?" Jeff was looking at me with that look people reserve for raving lunatics.

"I know it sounds ridiculous, but the police warned me."

"The police?"

"Remember that insurance guy I told you about? Well, he wasn't an insurance guy. He was a cop! And he came to the house and just about said out loud, `Watch out! She's going to kill you.'" I took a shuddery deep breath. "And he was right!"

"Wow!" Jeff said softly, then leaned past me and opened the glove compartment. "You know what this means, don't you?"

He took out a gun and pointed it at me. "It means I'm going to have to shoot you. We were hoping to make it look like an accident. I guess we'll have to fake a mugging."

"A mug...?" I was having trouble talking. "But... but... the police ..."

"Yes, you're right." Jeff nodded agreeably. "The police will suspect Cookie. But she has the perfect alibi all set up." He glanced at his watch and looked annoyed for a moment. "You were supposed have been hit by a train about an hour ago, but I told her to make sure she was unimpeachably occupied until this afternoon." Then he looked back up and smiled at me. "You certainly have been hard to kill, old pal."

"But, Jeff...why?"

"For the insurance money, of course. Why do you think I made Cookie take that bookkeeping job?"

I couldn't imagine. But it seemed I didn't have to. Jeff went on explaining it all to me.

"So she could meet you, of course. Between your pension money -- thanks for opening that 401(k) plan, by the way -- and the new insurance policy, we'll pay off my condo, send the girls to a good prep school..."

I sat there listening to Jeff tell me about his investment strategies. All of which required murdering me, unfortunately.

"But..."

"I'm sorry, good buddy, but it's awfully hard to make money these days. You know how volatile the stock market can be. Besides, you lose so much of that in taxes. Did you know that you don't have to pay income tax on life insurance?"

I closed my eyes and shook my head. This was not happening. I opened my eyes. Yes, it was.

"Freethe!" A voice shouted from behind me. Jeff's car door was jerked open and a hand pulled him out and forced him onto the ground. Lt. Pfifer held a gun to his head. "Don't move," he growled. Just like in the movies.

"How'd you know?" I heard Jeff whisper.

"Your friend here called us." Pfifer pointed to me with his chin.

Jeff twisted his head around to look at me.

"Even the twins didn't know about Cookie's fourth husband," I said. "But you knew -- good buddy."

I watched Lt. Pfifer cuff and caution Jeff. You can't buy good fortune.

Not even with a million dollars.

Copyright 2000 L.C. Mohr