ELAINE: Stitch-up

En garde! 

You are standing in the nave of a seventeenth century Church, its intricately carved stone surfaces dimly illuminated by candles. Your right foot is forward, knee slightly bent, and you can feel the gentle curve of the worn flagstone beneath the toes of the hand-stitched leather slipper you're wearing. Your right arm is raised, and your hand extended as if you are pointing a gun diagonally across your chest, muzzle wavering towards the roof of the west wing: with your left hand, you support your right, just as if you're holding a heavy pistol. Heavy pistol about sums it up — the longsword may be made of steel and over a metre long, but it weighs no more than a Colt Python, and it's balanced so that it feels like an extension of your fingertips. 

You are facing a man who is about to try to kill you. He's wearing a black kevlar-reinforced motorcycle jacket with lead weights velcro'd to it, plus jeans, DMs, and a protective helmet with a cluster of camera lenses studding its blank-faced shell. Like you, he's holding a longsword of fifteenth century design, its steel crossguards shielding his hands: which are, in turn, raised, like a baseball striker poised ready for the ball. But you don't see the biker jacket or DMs because like your opponent you're also wearing a full facial shield with head-up display, and it's editing him into a full suit of Milanese plate, the mediaeval equivalent of a main battle tank. 

"Let's try that again," you offer, tensing. 

"Sure." He rocks slightly on the balls of his feet, and for an instant you have the surreal sense that he's not holding a sword at all — it's a cricket bat, and he's got it the wrong way up. 

"Your mother wears army boots!"  

You're not sure that's the right thing to say to a fifteenth-century main battle tank, but he takes it in the spirit you intended — and more importantly, he spots you changing guard, lowering the point of your sword. And he goes for you immediately, nothing subtle about it, just a diagonal swing, pivoting forward so he can slice a steak off you. 

Of course, this is just what you expected when you twisted your wrist. You dip your point and grab your blade with your left hand, blocking him with a clang. He tries to grab your blade with his left hand, but you keep turning, raising the point — you're using your sword like a short stabbing spear now — and hook the tip into his armpit like a one and a half kilo can-opener while hooking his knee with your left foot. 

Unlike a modern main battle talk, the mediaeval version can fall on its arse. 

"Ouch! Damn it. Point to you, my lady." 

"That's your brachial artery right there," you comment, taking a deep breath as you watch the bright gouts of virtual blood draining from him.  

You take a step back, and your enemy does likewise as soon as he's picked himself up. Both of you let your blades droop. "How did you know about the army boots?" he asks. 

Whoops. "Lucky guess?"

"Oh. I thought maybe you knew her." There's disappointment in his voice, but the sealed helm opposite doesn't give anything away. 

"No, sorry." Your heart's still pounding from the stress of the moment — thirty seconds of combat feels like thirty minutes in the gym or three hours slaving over a hot spreadsheet — but a certain guilty curiosity takes over. "Was she a goth or a hippy?" 

"Neither: she was in the army." His foot comes forward and his sword comes up and twitches oddly and before you can shift feet it thumps you on the shoulder hard enough to let you know you've been disarmed — literally, if there was a cutting edge on these things. "Ahem, I mean, she was into the army. New Model Army, dog-on-a-string crusties from Bradford."

"I know who they are," you snap, taking two steps back and raising one hand to rub your collar bone, which is not as well padded as it ought to be and consequently smarts like crazy. "And in a minute I want you to show me what you just did there." No camisole tops at work for a few days, you remind yourself, which is kind of annoying because you can live without the extra ironing and the knowledge that Mike landed one on you. (You overheard him telling a newbie "she's got reflexes like a greased whippet on crystal meth" the other week and you were walking on air for days: it's true, but Mike's got extra reach and upper-body muscle, and all you have to do is let yourself get distracted and he'll teach you just what that mediaeval MBT can do.) "But first, let someone else use the floor."

You retire to the pews at the left of the aisle, sheathing your sword and stripping your headgear as Eric and Matthew take your place, joking about something obscure and work-related. You drop out of haptic space and without your eyewear continually repainting him in armour Mike reverts to his workaday appearance, a biker with a borg head transplant. Then he strips off the battered Nokia GameCrown to reveal a sweaty brown ponytail and mid-twenties face, and shakes his head, presumably at seeing you as yourself for the first time in an hour, rather than a mediaeval femme fatale with farthingales and a falchion. (And that's not so flattering, is it? Because you may not be overweight but let's face it, dear, people mistake you for a librarian. And while you work with books, you're not exactly involved in publishing.) "I was wondering if I could have a word of your advice, Elaine," he says as he slouches onto the unforgiving bench seat. 

"What, a technical issue?" You raise a damp eyebrow. Mike's been doing this stuff years longer than you have, since before AR and OLARP games began to show, practically since back in the stone age when you either did dress-up re-enactment or actual martial arts (and never the twain shall meet); and aside from your oiled-canine reflexes he's basically just plain better than you'll ever be. "I suppose ..." 

"It's not about that," he says, sounding uncertain. The penny drops, just as he goes on to say: "it's about the car insurance." 

You get this from time to time, although there are blessings to be counted: it's not like you're a lawyer or a doctor or something. "I don't work that end of the business," you remind him.  

"Yeah, I know that. But you know Sally was in a shunt on the M25 last week?" (Sally is Mike's wife: a bottle-blonde middle management type who tolerates his night out with the lads once a week with an air of mild weary contempt. You suppose they must see something in each other, but ...) "We got this bill for the recovery truck and repairs, and then the other driver's claiming private medical expenses, and the thing is, she swears there was another car involved, that didn't stop?" 

You've got a sinking feeling that you know what's coming, but you can't just leave Mike dangling so you restrict yourself to a non-committal "Hmm?"

Eric and Matthew are poised on the floor in front of you, almost motionless, knees and elbows occasionally flexing slightly. None of the chatter you and Mike go in for. A couple of the others are working out, warming up in the vestry, and you can hear Jo's boombox thudding out an obscure Belgian industrial stream as they grunt and groan about another day at the office: "She was driving along in the slow lane near junction nineteen, heading towards Heathrow, behind the guy she tail-ended. Doing about ninety, there weren't any trucks about but traffic was heavy. Anyway, she says a white Optare van overtook them both, pulled in front of the beemer and braked, and by the time she was on the hard shoulder there was no sign of it." 

"Hmm." You carefully put your sword down, then nudge it under the bench where nobody will trip over it. "You haven't said 'swoop and squat' yet but that's what you're thinking, isn't it?" 


"What's the damage?" 

"Well, Sally's carrying six points on her license and she had that car-park smash last year. She'll lose her no-claims discount, which'll cost us about eight hundred extra when we renew the insurance." 

"Ouch." Your bruised clavicle throbs in sympathy. Driving's an expensive pastime even before you factor in diesel at five euros a litre, speed cameras every quarter of a kilometre on all the A-roads, and insurance companies trying to rape the motorists to recoup their losses on the flood plain property slump. "Who are you with?" 


Well, that's a relief — an old-fashioned mutual society, instead of a pay-by-credit card web server owned by Nocturnal Aviation Associates Dot Com (motto: "we fly by night") out of the back of a cybercafé in Lagos. "That's good news. What's the beemer trying to dun you for?" 

"Sixteen thousand in repairs — listen, it's not a current model, Sally said she thought it was about ten years old — two thousand for roadside recovery, and, you're going to love this, nine thousand in fees for orthopaedic treatment. They're claiming whiplash injury." 

"I see. Nearly thirty grand?" You shake your head. Mike's right, that's nearly an order of magnitude over the odds for a simple tail-end shunt on a motorway at rush hour. Even at ninety kilometres per hour. And whiplash — "listen, all BMWs have been fitted with head restraints since forever, and they've had side-impact and frontal air bags for at least two decades. That kind of claim means they're talking surgery, which means time off work, so they're gearing up to hit you with a loss-of-earnings. I expect they'll try to drop another thirty grand on the bill in a month or two." 

Mike's face was sweaty to begin with: now it's turning the colour of the votive candles they'd be burning if this was still a functioning church. "But we've got a ten percent excess ..." 

"Right. So you've got to make sure the other guy doesn't get his hands on it, don't you? You're right about it sounding like a swoop and squat, and that medical claim is a classic. Medical confidentiality is a great blind for snipers, but we can poke a hole in it if there's a fraud investigation in train.  Now, Nationwide still have some human folks on the web in the Customer Retention and Abuse groups, and what you need to do is to get this escalated off the call centre ladder until a human being sees it, then you need to hammer away."

"But how do I ...?"

You start checking off points on your fingertips. "You start by getting Sally to offer them her car's black box log. Once you know exactly where she was when the incident happened — the blackbox GPS will tell you that — you tell them to serve a FOIA disclosure notice on the Highways Agency for their nearby camera footage — if they won't listen at first I'll talk you through doing that yourself. That will tell you whether the Optare was involved, in which case you can kick Abuse into opening a fraudulent claim file on the other driver. Then you can go after the medical side. If the other driver has a doctor's note, pull their BMA records and see if they're legit — I'll bet you a bottle of Chardonnay there's a reprimand on file because doctors who're willing to diagnose fictional ailments for cash rarely stop at one. Once you've got that, you can go after the vehicle with a statutory vehicle history disclosure notice — that's what the police use on you if they think you're driving a chop job — and then you can query the vehicle's book value. At which point, if you're right and it's a swoop and squat, NU will hit up their insurer for the full value of the claim and blacklist them, while indemnifying you. Your insurer should do all of this automatically if you get their Abuse team's attention, but you don't have to wait — the forms are all online, you can do it from your phone, and once you've got the ball rolling your insurer will pick it up."

Mike goes glassy-eyed halfway through your explanation, but that's okay: he's nodding like a parcel shelf ornament, which means he's got the essential message that he's anything but helpless. Civilians confronted by an alien bureaucracy always feel helpless at first, but once they realize there's a way to get what they want they usually recover. "I think I got some of that —" 

"I'll email you tomorrow." From the office, in your copious free time, you'll off-handedly throw him a FAQ: Nailing Petty Insurance Fraud 101. Mike asking you to help with Sally's fraudulent car claim is a bit like calling in an air strike to deal with a primary school bully, but he's your friend, and besides, if anyone in the office notices and makes a fuss you can point out that it's good public relations.  

"Thanks, everso." With classic English understatement, he looks more grateful than he sounds. 

While you were talking, Eric and Matthew have somehow gone from twitching slightly to Matthew lying on his back with the tip of Eric's sword touching his stomach. As you watch, Eric brings up his point in salute and backs out of the duelling space. You stand up, feeling an itchy urge to claw your way back out of your work head space, and turn to Mike: "best of three rounds?"