Jacob Mundy stepped off the porch and hurried along the sidewalk, eager to get to the office where he would be safe from unforeseen hazards capable of injuring or killing him. The sound of screeching tyres startled Jacob. His head snapped up and he peered down the street. A car going too fast cornered the intersection ahead of him on two wheels.
The car frightened Jacob. He imagined being struck by the car as it jumped the curb, smashing into him, tossing him into the air where he turned several somersaults before landing on the car with his face pressed against the windshield staring into the eyes of the grinning driver. The last sound he would ever hear before sliding off the car to the asphalt where death awaited would be the crazed driver screaming, “Gotcha!”
Jacob bunched his shoulders and increased his pace, anxious to get off the street.
At eight o’clock, as he did five days a week, Jacob turned the key in the door lock of Crown Insurance Company. The office opened for business at nine but Jacob arrived an hour early so he had time to set things in order, make coffee and arrange the snacks and cookies most of his clients had come to expect when they made a business call.
After filling the printer and the photocopier with paper and checking toner cartridges, Jacob Mundy sharpened a dozen yellow pencils. He placed them on the right side of his desk next to a yellow legal pad. One last chore remained; checking the liquid soap, paper towels, and toilet paper in the restroom. They were sufficient.
Jacob Mundy had done these chores every weekday for the thirty-seven years he had worked for Crown Insurance, in this office, in this town where he was born. Of course, the coffee pot wasn’t thirty-seven years old. No coffee pot lasts that long.
Jacob returned to his desk, sat down and waited for the nine o’clock opening. He closed his eyes and dreamed of exhilarating adventures in far-off regions of the world where few people had the courage to go.
Jacob Mundy imagined himself alone in a kayak, navigating dangerous white-water rapids of a wilderness river, narrowly avoiding the jagged rocks in the raging water waiting to shred his boat and take his life.
He dreamed of drinking tea flavoured with yak piss on the vast steppes of Mongolia with nomadic tribesmen, then fleeing just moments before they planned to skin him alive and roast his balls over a yak-dung fire.
Naked and armed with a blowgun and poison darts, his body decorated with bright red stripes from the juices of wild berries, Jacob imagined going on a raid with headhunters in the steaming Amazon, then fleeing into the jaguar and snake-infested jungle when he realized his head was the one the tribesmen intended to shrink in a coming-of-age ceremony for boys passing into manhood.
But he was incapable of doing anything even close to these fantastic dreams.
Jacob Mundy was a frightened man.
So he read Hemingway, Jack London, C.S. Forester, Louis L’Amour, and books describing the thrills, dangers, and hardships of life lived on the edge, of brave men, fictional and real, standing eyeball to eyeball in a do-or-die duel with death. He went to Antarctica with Shackleton, sailed four thousand miles across the Pacific in an open boat with Bligh, and searched for the source of the Nile with Burton and Speke.
How he longed to be like the men in the books he read.
Jacob Mundy had never been out of his home town. He got a passport once, thinking he might go someplace, do something daring, but fear kept him from leaving as surely as if he were nailed to the kitchen floor with six-inch spikes.
At eleven o’clock, a tall, spare man with an eagle’s beak of a nose came into the office. Jacob Mundy stood up. “Mr. Mitchell, how good to see you again.” Jacob, always polite, extended his hand. Mr. Mitchell ignored it.
Mr. Mitchell sat down in one of the visitor chairs in front of Jacob’s desk without being invited and gave Jacob Mundy a bleak and humourless stare. “Visiting the insurance man is like going to the dentist. You know it’s going to hurt and cost big money but it has to be done so you get it over with as quickly as possible.”
Jacob Mundy forced a smile and absorbed the insult. Never once in thirty-seven years had Jacob Mundy ginned up the courage to tell a rude and offensive client to get out of his office. It would be so easy to do if he had the courage to speak the words. Instead, he said, “May I get you a coffee? One cream and two sugars, as I remember.”
Mr. Mitchell grunted a response.
Jacob Mundy’s hands trembled as he poured the coffee. He disliked contentious meetings with unpleasant clients and did everything possible to ease tensions, not for the clients, but for himself and the disquieting fear these odious people stoked in him. He wanted to believe his clients would not harm him physically, but their anger over insurance problems frightened him nonetheless, generating in him the belief a policy holder might become violent if a claim were ever denied. Jacob Mundy made sure this never happened.
He became known as a mild and inoffensive man who never challenged anyone.
Jacob set the coffee and a plate of cookies in front of Mr. Mitchell and said, “How may I help you?”
Mr. Mitchell slurped some coffee before answering. “I’m putting in a claim for vandalism.” He picked up a cookie, examined it then put it in his mouth and chewed. “Somebody slashed my car’s roof last night.” Mr. Mitchell picked up another cookie and popped it into his mouth.
“Oh?” Jacob said.
“Car’s out front. Let’s go look. You can see what I mean,” Mr. Mitchell said. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, stood up and started for the door without waiting to see if Jacob were following.
Mr. Mitchell pointed at three long cuts in the fabric top of a bright blue Volkswagen Bug convertible. “Some little shit did this in the night.”
“Yes, I see that,” replied Jacob Mundy as he looked at the gashes. Jacob noted the fabric was shrinking, pulling away from the metal frame and some of the seams were starting to open as the threads gave way. The top was deteriorating. Replacement costs would come out of Mr. Mitchell’s pocket unless he could get Crown Insurance to pay. The slashes in the fabric would do that. Jacob understood this but didn’t confront Mr. Mitchell on the fraud.
“Let me get some pictures,” he said to a smirking Mr. Mitchell. Jacob used his cell to take several photos. They returned to the office and completed the forms for replacing the fabric top at no cost to Mr. Mitchell.
After Mr. Mitchell left, Jacob sat his desk, agonizing over his inability to call Mr. Mitchell out on the obvious fraud. Why hadn’t he said to Mr. Mitchell, “That top is old and worn out. You’re the one who vandalized it. You’re trying to scam Crown Insurance for the replacement costs. Well, that isn’t going to happen. Pay for it yourself, you lying bastard.”
But he hadn’t said those words.
Jacob Mundy wiped away the tears on his cheeks and went to lunch.
A creature of habit, Jacob went to the same café every day at the same time, sat at the same table and ordered the same thing, a tuna salad sandwich, a cup of vegetable soup, a pot of hot green tea and a glass of water. He always read a book as he ate. Today he was reading a biography of John Morton Stanley, survivor of the brutal Civil War Battle of Shiloh and famed African explorer.
Halfway through the sandwich Jacob heard a commotion at the table behind him. He listened, trying to figure out what was happening. A woman was pleading with a man to leave her alone. The man refused and the woman’s voice became agitated. The woman implored the man to go away.
Jacob put the sandwich down. He thought he detected fear in the woman’s voice. Impulsively, he stood up and approached their table. “Leave her alone,” Jacob said. “She doesn’t want you bothering her.” Jacob felt his knees quiver and his heart race. “Now go, please.” Jacob thought his voice, never deep or masculine, sounded shrill and thin.
Startled by Jacob’s unexpected appearance and demands, the man said, “Hey, ok, I was just leaving.”
After the man had left, the young woman said, “Thank you. He is such a rude and horrible man. You saved me.” She smiled at Jacob.
“I did?” He felt out of place, as if he didn’t know quite where he was.
The woman laughed. “Yes, you did.”
Jacob looked at her, bewildered by her response and by what he had done.
Gathering her things, the woman stood and said, “Thank you again,” and left.
Feeling awkward and embarrassed over his intrusion, he was unable to finished lunch. Jacob Mundy returned to his office, sat at his desk and thought about what he had done. He couldn’t believe he was capable of such outlandish behaviour. Confronting a stranger was something he had never done in his entire life. His hands trembled when he realized how daring, how brave, he had been.
Jacob fired up his laptop, opened his financial folder and studied it for a few moments. He knew he was well off, having invested substantial sums regularly for thirty years. He thought about that for several moments. All that money. Jacob Mundy closed his eyes and felt excitement surging in him.
He closed the financial folder and emailed a letter of resignation to Crown Insurance, effective immediately. Then he looked for a travel agency, found one and called.
“Khartoum,” he said in response to the woman’s question about destination. “It’s where the Blue and the White Nile meet to form the Nile River,” he added for the woman’s benefit, and maybe for his own as well. “Just one,” he replied when asked about the number of seats to book. “Yes, a one-way ticket is correct.”
After the departure date was set and the flight details worked out, Jacob emptied the wastepaper cans, refilled the printer and copy machine, cleaned the coffee pot, topped off the soap dispenser, put fresh rolls of toilet paper and paper towels in the restroom, turned off the lights, then closed and locked the office door for the last time.
Jacob Mundy never looked back.
As he walked toward his house, he thought of all the things he had to do before he left; get the necessary vaccines, find out what visas were required and so forth. Thinking of the many tasks that lay ahead, Jacob stepped off the curb without looking.
Two EMTs bent over the inert body. “He’s dead,” one of them said. They put the body in the emergency vehicle and drove away.
A man in the group of people that had gathered to gawk at the accident announced, “That was Jacob Mundy, the insurance guy,” as the crowd began to drift away.
Robert P. Bishop, a former soldier and teacher, lives in Tucson. His short fiction has appeared in The Literary Hatchet, The Umbrella Factory Magazine, CommuterLit, Lunate Fiction, Spelk, Fleas on the Dog, Corner Bar Magazine, Literally Stories, and elsewhere.