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Old 01-25-2006, 10:16 PM   #1
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The Next Best Thing - 2

Hmm, Raye thought to herself as she entered Mr. Arrington’s home for the first time. More ‘Modern Art’ than ‘Beach Cottage’ – I like the guy already.

The home was impressive, even by beach standards: three floors towering over a ground-level parking and storage area, all sitting on a well-manicured and lushly planted beachfront lot, twice the size of any visible neighbor’s. Raye noticed an exterior spiral staircase from a balcony on the third floor to a rooftop sundeck and felt just the slightest tug of jealousy. She generally didn’t envy beach dwellers - horrible traffic in the summers and hordes of sunburned tourists plodding about; the constant corrosion of your home and cars caused by the salt; yearly hurricanes and their mandatory evacuations and damages. The cost to live on the beach was astronomical anymore and Raye couldn’t personally understand spending that kind money even if she had it to spend. But on a clear sunny day, when the humidity was low and temperatures were in the mid-80’s, to be sitting up on your very own private sundeck with a frosty beverage and an endless view of the gently undulating Atlantic Ocean must be worth every single penny, Raye concluded. And hell, she thought, if I’m doing well enough for that then certainly I could afford to hire a platoon of hot, hard-bodied manservants to cater to my every whim. As if, she scolded herself. Get to work, girl and stop daydreaming. Raye removed the lanyard hanging from her rearview mirror that held her laminated photo ID, gathered her laptop and digital camera from the passenger seat of the Pathfinder and started up Mr. Arrington’s front steps.

He greeted her at the door before she’d even rung the bell, and escorted her through a tastefully decorated foyer into the main living area on the first floor – the ‘great room’. The interior of the home was no less impressive than the exterior and grounds, but they surprised Raye nonetheless. She had expected the usual ‘beach cottage’ treatment - either the soft pastels and bleached wood version or the vibrant tribute-to-the-tropics version - but Mr. Arrington (or Mrs. Arrington? Raye reminded herself to clarify that right away) had gone instead for more of a post-modern approach. Black leather couch and accompanying leather chairs in oxblood red; a stainless steel and glass occasional table, with three wide sterling bowls holding a variety of accent balls made from seagrass, leather, and grapevine. Metal and glass and lots of sharp edges; it seemed a strange choice for a beach home (at least one in southeastern North Carolina), but Raye thought it worked very nicely and didn’t seem cold at all. Of course, she decided, a lot of that had to do with the very nicely framed and matted landscape photos that covered the walls. Black and whites, of course, but not just the seashell and crashing waves stuff, either. Some real quality pieces – Raye saw three photos she knew to be from Ansel Adams; William Henry Jackson was represented, as well as Alvin L. Coburn and Man Ray. It was all Raye could do to not run from frame to frame like a child a Christmas running from stocking to tree, trying to decide which treasures to plunge into first. My God, she thought. I’ve been to museums that didn’t have the range of artists this man has in his living room!

“Miss Galloway – is something the matter?” Mr. Arrington had been speaking to her, but Raye hadn’t heard a single word since she’d laid eyes on the photographs.

Realizing she'd been in an entirely different plane of existence than the man standing right next to her, she felt the heat rising up her neck and turning her face the loveliest shade of fuschia.
"Oh! I am so sorry, Mr. Arrington!" she stammered.
"Please - call me Leo" he interjected, with an amused smile spreading across his lips.
"Certainly, Leo. I'm so sorry – I just got distracted by your awesome photo collection. It's fantastic! Why, you even have a Coburn. I mean, that's just so impressive to me." Raye continued to scan the room in amazement. She imagined she now understood something of what Howard Carter had felt when he and Lord Carnarvon first entered King Tut's tomb. It must have shown on her face, because Leo's amused smile erupted into a full-blown laugh, accompanied by what Raye felt was a beautiful smile that lit up his eyes and gave him the air of a doting grandfather. She'd only just met the man, but Raye felt the look suited him.

"So you're a fan of landscape photography, are you?" Leo gently took her by the elbow and led her to the southern wall of the great room, which held the largest concentration of framed pieces.

"Oh, yes sir," she answered, "but not just landscapes. I was in my high school’s Photography Club and worked as an apprentice at a portrait studio for a few years while attending college. I'm fascinated by all kinds of pictures. I don't mean to be rude, but are any of these originals?"

"Heavens, no" Leo replied, an impish smile now on his face, "they are very high quality copies. Although I do have an original Ansel Adams signed by the artist tucked away in my safe."

Raye was simply enthralled by vast display of creative genius she was in the presence of and could only manage to utter a breathy "Wow!" to Leo's admission. They stood together in silence for a few minutes, the gentle sound of the ocean to their left, the natural illumination of the mid-morning sun pouring its perfect light onto the photos. Shortly, though, Raye's fascination was replaced by the melancholy she always felt when she thought about the life she'd never lead. She used to dream of others looking at her pictures with the same awe and respect she'd just displayed. But, taking a deep breath, she reminded herself another source of pride was a job well done and that she had one to do. And standing in a stranger's home dreaming of what never was didn't get it done.

"Well your home so far is beautiful Leo", Raye announced, "but let's go take a look at the mess that washing machine has made, OK?"

For a moment, Raye thought she saw something in Leo's eyes - worry? Sadness? But then, just as quickly, it was gone. "Certainly", he answered without hesitation. "If you'll just follow me please."


The laundry room which housed the 'scene of the crime' (as Raye sometimes referred to the actual area of damage) had been located on the second floor of Leo's home, and was tucked between two full bathrooms - one for each of the spacious guest bedrooms. Fortunately for his exotic hardwood floors, Leo had discovered the leak within an hour or so of its occurrence and had possessed the clarity to first call a water extraction company, and then contact his insurance agent. It looked to Raye as though there was very minimal damage to the baseboards and none, if any, to the Brazilian cherry. Probably less than $2000 damage, she estimated while taking room measurements and noting them in her laptop. He's certainly a lucky fellow this time.

Leon watched her intently as she worked and seemed to take special interest when she produced the digital camera to photograph the water stains on the baseboards and the faulty drain pipe on the washing machine. It wasn’t unusual; folks almost always were very keen to "supervise" her and make sure she performed her duties properly - as if they had any idea exactly what her duties were. It had stopped bothering her years earlier and she barely took notice of it anymore.

Raye gave her opinion about the scope of damage to Leo, and told him his quick actions had prevented the water from traveling to other rooms on this floor or the one below. Just to be safe though, she felt it would be best to tour the rest of the floor and take measurements of those rooms, as well. Leo led her to each of the oceanfront bedrooms, the two baths, plus a small den on the ocean side of the home, which was flanked by a cozy office to its left and an honest-to-goodness library cum smoking lounge to the right. While the rest of the home was decorated in the similar minimalist style of the great room, the lounge oozed of the English countryside and the trappings of a country gentleman. His own little piece of Britain right here in the Wrightsville Beach, Raye thought to herself with a smile. Raye noticed a humidor laying on one of the side tables, but she didn't detect the slightest hint of cigar smoke and wondered if his wife actually let him light up in the room. Which reminded her - was there a Mrs. Arrington?

"One thing I forgot to ask, Leo – are you married? I only ask to verify if anyone else's name is on your insurance policy."

This time, there was definitely sadness in his eyes and voice when he answered. "There was a Mrs. Arrington until three years ago. Breast cancer. It was bloody Hell on her but she's no longer suffering and that's the thing, isn't it?"

"I'm so sorry." Raye said and realized she truly was. How odd - she'd only known the man for approximately two hours, yet felt a real bond with him. "But you're absolutely right about the suffering. I hope I haven't upset you."

"Oh no, no - not at all", he assured her. "We had 45 wonderful years together, raised a successful, devoted son, and had ample time to prepare for Catherine's demise. That's so much more than some people get in this world, I can't imagine letting myself feel upset. Besides", he added with a wink, "she'd certainly find a way from the everafter to get the last word in if I decided to start feeling sorry for myself!"

After asking if she needed to see the third floor and being assured she didn't, Leo insisted on walking Raye to her car. Ever the gentleman, he opened her door and waited patiently while she assembled her gear in the passenger seat and returned the lanyard with her ID back to its spot on the rearview mirror. As she started up the Pathfinder and lowered the driver's window, he gently closed the door, careful not to catch Raye's elbow. She briefly explained the remaining procedure for his claim and that once she submitted her inspection report to his insurer, she'd really not have anything else to do with his loss. Just in case he had any questions though, Raye made sure he got one of her business cards. That sly, impish smile returned to his face as he told her, "Perhaps I'll call you for another viewing party soon. We could enjoy some drinks and compare favorite photographers. Unless, of course, you feel that would be improper."

Raye answered sincerely, "That would be lovely, Leo - and not the least bit improper. You're very kind to offer. It's been a pleasure to meet you and your photo collection. Take care!"

Leo stepped back from the vehicle and waved as Raye put the SUV into gear and drove out of the circular drive, waving back. Such a nice man, she told herself as she aimed the vehicle in the direction of her office. I only hope he wasn't hitting on me because that's just nasty! The comment was soon forgotten, though, as her cell phone came to life - an affirmation that somebody, somewhere else in her territory had recently filed a claim of some kind. Once again, even with the aid of her personal fortuneteller, Raye would have been hard-pressed to realize just how serious Lionel Arrington was.
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