Some time back I rode around the Southwest with an insurance-fraud investigator named Bill Graham. If Reader's Digest
were the kind of magazine that liked to glorify the fat and profane, I might have written him up as the most unforgettable character I ever met, but as it was I just wound up with more stories than I knew what to do with.
"L'audace! Toujours l'audace!" he cried as his cobalt-blue muscle car shot through the west Texas night.
A cracker-barrel Southerner, Graham looked like every speeder's nightmare of a Dixie sheriff, complete with big badge, mouse-colored fedora and shades. His nose had been pounded to pudding, and he had a five-inch crescent-shaped scar on his forehead. The marks on his hand came from the time, he said, when he'd had to go to the hospital to have his fist removed from somebody's mouth. There was a long scar on his stomach too, with a story attached. In a restaurant south of the border, while he was looking into some tractor-trailer thefts, two hefty Mexicans approached his table and invited him to step into the street so they could give him a message. When they wouldn't go away, Graham laid down his fork, took out the knife in his belt and sliced himself slowly across the belly:
"They see the blood coming up through my shirt, they went, Whoa. If he did that to himself... What's he going to do to us?? And they ran off. I cut myself deeper than I meant to though. It required twenty stitches, internal and external, to clean that thing up."
He had an unending supply of these yarns, all told fortissimo and in baroque detail. For example, the two cops he worked with who accidentally took off a reporter's head with an M-79 grenade launcher. The insurance company that murdered its clients. The Bikini Bandit. The time a bungling arsonist, trying to scam an insurance company, burned his own hair off, then tried to bluff his way through a meeting with Graham:
"He had found him some hair ok. His wife had gotten him one of them 25-dollar K-mart wigs, looked like he'd French-kissed a light socket, and plopped that on his head and made him some eyebrows and got some false eyelashes and trimmed them up. He looked like a goddamn china doll. And to give him some semblance of body hair she had trimmed some hair off his pubic area, sprayed his arms and then dabbed this pubic material on them." Graham pulled the pipe from his mouth and spat out the car window. "When he showed up I was sitting there with a Georgia police detective. The officer took one look at him and says, 'I don't know what this insurance investigator wants, but whatever it is, you better fucking well give it to him.'"
In an earlier life, before he started freelancing as an insurance-fraud detective, Graham had worked as a cop in a coastal town in Virginia. He caught the tail-end of the freewheeling era, before the Supreme Court started mixing in. Slapping suspects around was common then, though Graham generally preferred other methods. "I had this big jar of Vaseline I kept around. I'd just toss it over and let that Vaseline do the talking, while I went away for twenty minutes and had me a Cocola." If that didn't work, there was always the Zippo treatment: "That was where the subject would find himself spread-eagled on some bars with two sets of handcuffs. This was followed by the singeing of his testicle hairs with a cigarette lighter. Invariably one pass was sufficient."
All that was long behind him though; nowadays Graham was a sort of professional human cannonball, crashing into the lives of insurance scammers both skilled and otherwise, wrecking their plans and scaring them blind. "You know Plato's iron man of the state?" he said. "That's the way I see myself." He saw himself in other ways too: he knew precisely how colorful he was and the sort of impact he made; nobody ever met him without being to some extent taken aback, and he exploited that every day. He was not, however, vain in the conventional sense:
"Did you know," he said, "that as you get older your ears get bigger and your nose gets longer? So I'm going to get even uglier."
The time I rode along with him, the case he was on was more complicated than usual. A dozen conspirators living in different places throughout the Southwest had chipped in to buy a cheap horse, papered up its value by selling it back and forth to each other, then insured it for about a million dollars and killed it. To expose a ring this far-flung was going to take, for starters, a lot of adrenaline and a lot of driving. But Graham of course was just the man for that.
Tomorrow: Riding With the Fat Man, Part Two