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Old 01-25-2006, 11:14 PM   #1
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The Next Best Thing - 1

I decided it was time to organize this a bit better, 'specially since I have some new material to post. Thanks to all again for your encouragement.
ETA: Enter standard disclaimer here.. total fiction, completely fabricated, blah blah blah, etc, etc,.
==============================================

Overflowing toilets. Electronics obliterated by lightning. Malfunctioning dishwashers. Fires caused by saltwater fish tanks. Certainly not the career she'd imagined for herself, but at least the pay was good and the work was steady. And although the repetitive nature of her five- to six-day workweek was tedious, she got to see a lot of pretty country and meet some interesting people. Each day was a different town and a different set of circumstances.

No, Rayelle Galloway, had never actually dreamed of being an insurance claims adjuster. Hell, she hadn't even known that particular employment option existed until she was in her early 20s. But approaching 35 years old and with 6 years of experience under her belt, Raye felt that she was one of the best adjusters New Hanover Claims Service had. Even if she was a woman (as at least one client a week reminded her). Fortunately, she'd outlasted all the old codgers in the office who still felt that way (or at least the ones still Neanderthal to voice such an opinion out loud) and had the full support and confidence of her boss.

Yeah, overall, Jimmy Barrister was a thoroughly modern man. He paid Raye the same salary as he did the other guys with her experience and capabilities, and with the exception of roof damages, he allowed Raye to handle whatever came up in her territory. It wasn't so much that Jimmy didn't want Raye up on a roof - they just learned together the hard way that some stereotypes die hard among the general population. The first year Raye was in the field, she spent as much time reassuring middle-aged matrons and elderly gentlemen that yes, she was indeed capable and comfortable climbing a ladder onto their roof as she did fighting off the advances of amorous roofers. Only to turn around and have to fight with their bosses, the contractors, over every penny of her repair estimates. Her insistence that her numbers were good being met time after time with the assertion that she was just an "uptight bitch" who didn't know the first thing about roofing. Raye had wanted to persevere and fight the stereotype, but after much persuasion from Jimmy she finally conceded that she could still be a great adjuster, even if she never walked another steep-pitched A-frame in her life. (That didn't keep her from carrying a folding ladder in the back of her Nissan SUV, though. What Jimmy didn't know wouldn't hurt him and besides, who was to say she might not have a need to ascend to the summit of somebody's roof one of these days to check out the lightning damage to a chimney?)

The dark cloud that settled over Raye's existence as a first-rate (female!) insurance adjuster though was the fact that it certainly wasn't the type of job that allowed for artist expression. Inventory lists, replacement estimates and status reports didn't exactly require lots of flowery words. "Just the facts, ma'am", Raye imagined Sergeant Friday telling her every time she sat down with her laptop to bang out the when, where and how of another claim. The only tasks of her daily duties that could even remotely be construed as artistic were the photos she took at each home or place of business she inspected. Unfortunately, they were just salt in the wound of what had once been her driving passion in life. Raye had once dreamed of traveling the world as a National Geographic photographer, snapping exotic people in faraway places; capturing a split second of some once-in-a-lifetime event on celluloid for all of posterity, or showcasing nature in all its thousands of facets for folks "back home" to ooh and ahh over on a Saturday afternoon, as she'd done for so many years with her Gran.

Although taking pictures of moldy Sheetrock, warped floorboards, and blackened electrical outlets was a far cry from lemurs in Madagascar, at least the 4 years of high school Photography Club and 2 additional years working for a local portrait photographer while she attended night school had somewhat paid off. With her Business Management degree alone and no experience, Jimmy probably would have never taken a chance on putting Raye out in the field. But after spending three years working for him as a secretary and two and half years begging for a chance, it had finally been her photo portfolio that had bought her the one opportunity she'd get to prove herself.

It still brought a smile to Raye's face to remember how she'd planted the black leather portfolio on Jimmy's desk that Friday morning. Sneaking down the hall, past the coffee junkies huddled in the Break Room, making sure no one else saw her enter or leave his office and returning to her desk with her heart pounding. She'd almost given up when he'd still not mentioned anything to her by 3:30 that afternoon. But then she'd been summoned to appear before The Great and Powerful Proprietor of Hanover Claims and had almost sprinted into his office. Jimmy sat there behind his massive, cluttered desk looking particularly smug as he gingerly turned one page at a time and made a great show of studying each shot. Nature shots, still lifes, portraiture, action photos, even the saccharine puppies- and kitties-in-a-basket photos that Ms. Evers, the Photography teacher, had insisted each student produce. "You will learn patience, posing, and persistence", she'd insisted. Not to mention 'pee', 'poop' and 'pandemonium' Raye always reminded herself. But Jimmy had taken notice of the clarity and composition in Raye's pictures and was either duly impressed by her talent (which would come in handy when taking damage shots) or simply worn down by her pestering (which would have no end, Jimmy feared). He'd offered to put her into training as soon as a replacement could be found to take over her secretarial duties. Raye had gone on her first 'ride-along' three weeks later with an experienced adjuster and neither she nor Jimmy had ever regretted the decision.

It was on days when she couldn't stop the Ghost of Dreams Past from reminding her that she let her dream get away, that she always argued that no, she'd put her training to use. Good use. It wasn't exactly what she'd had in mind, but it paid her bills and she could hold her head high knowing she did her best on a daily basis. Besides, she always reminded herself, all things happen for good reason.

That included the hose on a Whirlpool washing machine bursting at the beachfront home of Mr. Lionel Arrington, spilling tens of gallons of water across his Brazilian cherry hardwood floors on a beautiful, clear morning in late summer. Raye, still in her nightshirt, sat on the leather ottoman in her living room with notepad in hand, talking to the office secretary about the urgency of the claim and taking notes.
“Unified Insurance wants someone to inspect the house within 24 hours”, Jennifer was saying. “I’ve got the loss notice here… Are you ready to take down the details?”
Raye pulled to cap off her ink pen with her teeth, shifted the phone onto left shoulder and mumbled, “Uh, yeah – whatta’ you got?”
“P. Lionel Arrington, Sr., 10 Ocean Drive, Wrightsville Beach. Let’s see… I’ve got a home and cell number. You want both?”
“No, I don’t think so”, Raye reasoned out loud, “just give me the cell for now. If I can’t reach him by that, I can go on and print out the loss notice. Is it in my mailbox yet?”
“Not yet”, Jennifer replied. “I’ll be loading it up and emailing it to you as soon as I get off this call. His cell number is – darn it, I just had it! Oh, here we are… 555-5468. It’s a local number, by the way.”
Raye jotted the number down and replaced the pen’s cap. “Thanks, Jen – I’ve got it. I’ll give him a call right now & get this train rolling. Talk to you later.”
Raye disconnected from Jennifer and immediately began dialing Mr. P. Lionel Arrington’s cell phone.
So, it’s Wrightsville Beach today, she thought to herself as she counted off cell phone rings. Two, three…Guess I get to wear cargo shorts then, instead of chinos - it being the beach and all. The idea put a smile on her face as she headed to her closet, phone still on her ear. Just as she was about to give up, a smooth English baritone voice answered the call.
“Lionel Arrington here. How may I help you?”
The English accent threw Raye for a moment as she dug through her closet for the day's uniform (khaki shorts, men's undershirt, long-sleeved broadcloth button-down with the company logo on the pocket, socks and Timberland boots). She quickly recovered though and went to work.
"Is this Mr. Arrington at 10 Ocean Drive on Wrightsville Beach?"
"Yes, that's correct. Whom may I ask is inquiring?"
His polite directness made Raye smile. This is no good ole' boy you're dealing with today, she told herself. A real gentleman, this one is, and business-like, too. What a nice change that will be!
"My name is Raye Galloway", she answered, "and I work for New Hanover Claims Services. Unified Insurance has hired my company to be their eyes and ears, if you will, and examine the damage at your home. If it's convenient for you, I'm free this morning; are you available now?
"Dear lady", came the response, "considering the current state of my home, only pain of death would prevent me from seeing you this morning. May I expect you within the hour?"
"Even better," Raye promised. "I'll be there in about 35 minutes. Look for a silver Nissan Pathfinder."

Even if Raye believed in fortunetellers and had her own personal one on call that morning, she'd have never believed how a leaky washer would become the answer to her long forgotten dreams.
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