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The Death Speculators

In the thriller Buying Time written by a friend of mine, attorney and mystery writer Pamela Samuels Young, a disbarred lawyer named Waverly Sloan goes to work for a firm called Live Now, Inc. as a viatical broker. As explained in the book and on the website Investopedia, a viatical is “An arrangement in which someone with a terminal disease sells his or her life insurance policy at a discount from its face value for ready cash. The buyer cashes in the full amount of the policy when the original owner dies.” The seller usually gets 50 to 70 percent of face value on their policy, usually more than a cash surrender settlement. The site’s entry goes on to note, “If you invest in a viatical settlement, you are basically speculating on death.”

In the book, some of Sloan’s clients begin dying in accidents, not lingering, expiring in hospice or in the hospital. This means the speculators who bought these folks’ polices are making more on their investment given the people are kicking off sooner. The longer they live, money having a time value in this scenario, the less your return as the one who advanced the cash. Needless to say, in Pamela’s book, these accidents suggest some funny business is going on and soon her heroine, Assistant U.S. Attorney Angela Evans is on the case.

Viatacal-ness also figured in an episode of Elementary, season two. In this show, a modern-day Sherlock Holmes, the one and only consulting detective, is a heroin addict in recovery who has partnered with a female Dr. Joan Watson, a former surgeon in a kind of recovery herself. She’s finding her way after losing a patient on the operating table, and subsequently having her license revoked.

In “Tremors,” a mystery that’s too convoluted to synopsize in this post, an aspect of their leg work takes Holmes and Watson to a chap named James Dillon, a broker at a firm called Helping Hands Viaticals. Holmes suspects Dillon may have had a hand in bumping of a terminally ill woman with poison as it seems Dillon had done hard time. It turns out he’s a red herring, but Dillon later confronts Holmes with a gun saying he lost his job when someone in a cubicle near his heard Holmes refer to his felony conviction which he’d hidden from his employer. Though why in that scene an enraged Dillon would come up on Holmes with a gat outside a police station is a nonsensical bit of plotting, but there you have it.

But to the point, as Holmes says in the episode of the practice, “. . .they are doing a disgusting business and says with the current economy they seem to have a lot of degreed employees.” All sorts of people are in an industry that generates millions Ni surprise then that the viatical hustle or life settlement business should attract bad actors.

Bumping off someone to cash in on their life insurance is not new in realty or in detective fiction (Double Indemnity, Indemnity Only, etc). The practice grew out of the onset of the AIDS crisis in the 1980s. But if capitalism doesn’t teach us anything else, it’s a dog eat dog world where the greedy prey on each other. On the website, it’s recounted how fraud works in this mostly unregulated industry.

“American Benefits Services, was ordered to pay $129 million restitution on a corporate guilty plea where the three companies fleeced people with promises of high returns on purchases of life insurance policies from the terminally ill.” The investors were encouraged to invest in a pool where various life insurance polices would be purchased. The company took in more than $111 million but used only $6 million of that to buy policies. The balance was used to buy some swank pads in various cities, a couple of helicopters, some jet skis ‘cause who doesn’t nlike them some jet skis, and even a burrito shop in Fort Lauderdale.

Like other occupations that lend themselves to shady shenanigans, certain insurance slang is used the viatical business like “clean sheeting” and “wet ink policy.” The former refers to not disclosing a terminal illness at the time of securing a life insurance policy. Often this means the agent might be in on the scam and can be pulled off if the face value of the policy is low enough that a medical exam isn’t required. The latter has to do when a person, maybe a fit senior citizen as a shill for unscrupulous insurance agents or brokers, buys a few polices and turns around and sells them as viaticals.

There’s this famous short story by sci-fi writer Fritz Leiber called “The Dead Man,” which was adapted as an episode on television’s Night Gallery, Rod Serling’s more horror-tinged follow up to the Twilight Zone. In the story, a young man named John Fearing can duplicate any disease in his body, including the death state, then come out of it via hypnotic command. As it happens Fearing is shtupping the doc’s wife, the cat who gives him his commands, but I digress. Imagine a man or woman, let’s say one of those adventure traveler types who likes to journey to rugged parts of the world like hiking in Iran, wrasslin’ gators in the swamps or some other crazy shit like that.

The traveler meets the guru, the wise one who teaches them how to really get in touch with their body, to manifest more of its capabilities. The adventurer returns to the States to use their power, at first, running viatical scams, buying and selling off their life insurance policy and they kill off their identity and take another one. Until something happens and they change their ways. They use their power to take on Big Pharma, the true speculators of death.

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