A Rollicking Tale of Interstellar Insurance Sales
by Gregory Hansen
Orin grimaced at the foreclosure notice on the desk in front of him, grimaced and sighed. He leaned back in the creaky desk chair and looked around the office: shelves of dusty books, stacks of obsolete sales brochures, and everywhere filing cabinets. Dented, scratched, mismatched, oppressive.
Bennett Insurance had been a thriving agency when Orin inherited it from his father, the legendary salesman Otto W. Bennett. So prosperous in fact that Orin, a mediocre salesman of two years’ experience, suddenly had the means to pursue his real passion: spaceboat racing!
He’d poured his soul (and much of Otto’s money) into building the fastest vessel in the quadrant, and was in the running for a sector championship after just one season when a huge navigational error left him out of fuel and drifting near the Boundary Zone.
A week later and safe at home once more after an astronomically improbable rescue, Orin was a changed man. He took up the flickering family torch, determined to help others avoid the fate he’d so narrowly escaped; or, that failing, to make sure their beneficiaries were well taken care of.
He arrived at work early, skipped lunch, stayed late. He spread the gospel of insurance to all he met and he always asked for referrals. He lasted about two weeks.
Then, one night at the theater, Orin found his true calling. In a flash of cathartic self-discovery he caught a stunning glimpse of his future: the stage! The next morning he enrolled in the inter-sectionally famous Grumpkin School of the Dramatic Arts.
At last Orin had found his place in the universe, his traction on the slippery roads of life. His efforts (and his gigantic tuition checks) eventually won him a minor part in the School’s major production: Messenger #2 in the Tyrantess of Tymm. His lines were short but he delivered them with such passion and verve that time seemed to all but stop when, on opening night, Orin said: “The Tyrantess awaits without, growing evermore impatient and damp!” and, later, “It will be done.”
Alas, the play was torpedoed by the critics (all of whom had an axe to grind it seemed) and the sour economy kept all but a few from the box office (and those mostly relatives of the cast.) The production was canceled after two performances.
When Orin arrived for his lessons the next morning, he found the school’s doors locked and the faculty gone, along with a substantial amount of his prepaid tuition. Heartbroken and with a negative balance in his bank account, he returned to Bennett Insurance to pick up the pieces and start over.
He found that much had changed in his absence. The salesmen had all gone, taking virtually all of the clients with them. Also gone were the underwriters, the clericals and even the janitor. In fact the only soul present to welcome him back to the shabby, empty office building was Gerta Griswold — “Grizzly Gerta” — Otto’s loyal and long-suffering secretary.
Ah, Grizzly Gerta! Orin shuddered in his desk chair at the thought of her. She’d been tough, old and furrowed as long as he could remember, a hard-nosed woman without a shred of tact or sensitivity. Her only redeeming quality as far as Orin could see was an uncanny understanding of the insurance business. Otto had loved her; Orin hated and feared her in equal measures.
In fact, Orin mused as he stared at the office ceiling with his hands clasped behind his head, perhaps the time has come to let her go. She had her uses — putting off creditors, for one — but the office needed a fresh start. He ought to replace her with someone else, someone younger, prettier, perhaps a blonde or a redhead...
Orin’s reverie was broken by the beep-beep of his intercom and the subsequent growl of Gerta’s voice. “Mr. Bennett, a Mr. Stapleford is here to see you...”
Orin felt a flash of guilt followed by panic. “Gerta!... you know I’m not in the office if strangers come by!” he hissed, shooting a fearful glance at the foreclosure notice.
“...He was referred to us and would like to discuss acquiring a line of coverage,” she finished pleasantly.
Orin froze for a few surprised moments, then sprang into action. He snatched up empty bottles and food wrappers from his desktop and stuffed them into the trash can. He opened a desk drawer to sweep a pile of papers into, but found it too full and slid the papers into the trash as well. Into the coat closet went piles of scripts, unopened mail and several dozen moldering client files. He threw on his jacket and straightened his tie, and stood behind the desk to catch his breath. Satisfied, he keyed the intercom.
“Very well Miss Griswold, show him in.”
A few seconds later the door opened and a well-dressed, middle-aged man carrying a leather valise entered the office, followed by Grizzly Gerta.
“Mr. Stapleford!” Orin greeted the man like a long-lost friend, flashing his best smile and coming round the corner of his desk to give the visitor a firm handshake. “I’m Orin Bennett. Please, sit down... can I get you a beverage?”
“Soda, thank you.”
Orin snapped his fingers at Gerta, who returned moments later with two opened bottles of Vitro. On her way out of the office she shot Orin a look that said, unmistakably, “Lose this one and I’ll tear your ears off.”
Orin settled into his chair and asked the obvious question. “What brings you here to see us today?”
“Well,” Stapleford began, fixing Orin with a pair of strangely lavender-colored eyes, “I’ve heard good things about your agency and I’m in need of some rather specialized insurance coverage.”
“You’ve come to the right place,” Orin boldly returned. “We’re authorized and appointed to represent more lines of insurance than any other agency on Varfleet.”
“Yes, of course,” Stapleford murmured with a thin smile.
“What type of coverage did you have in mind?”
“Kidnapping insurance,” Stapleford said evenly.
“Say no more!” Orin reclined into a position of wisdom and competence. “A very prudent decision. Piracy is rampant these days... in fact, we recently paid a large claim in behalf of a client who was abducted near Magtar’s Reach,” Orin lied. “He may be sweltering in the Scyrillian salt mines, but his children are now enjoying a first-rate college education!”
“I’m glad to hear that, Mr. Bennett,” Stapleford replied, nonchalantly reclining himself. “But I don’t want to insure against a potential abduction. I need a policy that will pay me if it doesn’t happen.”
Orin nodded several times in perfect understanding, then said, “Excuse me?”
“You see, a certain cousin of mine is traveling toward Varfleet this week. She’s a despicable woman” — picturing Grizzly Gerta, Orin nodded in vigorous sympathy — “and will inflict considerable damage to my interests should she arrive in a timely fashion.” Stapleford leaned forward in his chair. “I’ve arranged for her to travel with a single female companion through the Rings, an area notorious for piracy, as I’m sure you’re aware.”
“Of course!” Orin said with a conspiratorial smile.
“Odds are they will be abducted and delayed. I’m sure of it. But, if they somehow manage to slip through... Well, I must guard against the possibility, remote as it may be.”
Orin smiled easily while his mind raced. Insurance against safe passage? He’d never heard of it, didn’t think such coverage existed. “I’m not sure such coverage exists,” Orin slipped, breaking the cardinal rule of insurance sales (Never Show Any Sign of Weakness).
Stapleford made a disappointed sound and started to leave his chair. “Then I suppose I’ll have to visit Barclay & Clark...”
“No! No, no need to do that,” Orin exclaimed, hands raised in protest. Barclay & Clark had come out of nowhere to become the largest insurer on the planet, its ascension as dramatic as Bennett Insurance’s collapse. In fact, dozens of former Bennett employees now carried the Barclay & Clark logo on their business cards. “We have relationships with carriers who handle exotic and exceptional cases. I’m sure we can place such a policy as you’ve described.” Orin followed his words with a confident smile.
“Excellent,” said Stapleford, resuming his seat. “Now, as to the premium...”
“I’ll have that answer for you first thing tomorrow.”
Stapleford winced. “Not soon enough, I fear. My cousin departs Onario-4 this evening and will reach the Rings by morning. I was hoping to bind the coverage this afternoon.” He reached down and retrieved his valise, popped it open on his lap and began pulling out stacks of bills.
“I estimate my potential losses, should she arrive before Friday, at roughly one million shekels, and the odds of her safe passage at approximately one in twenty. But I am willing to pay up to five hundred thousand shekels” — he added the final two stacks to the now teetering pile on the desk — “to insure I don’t sustain such a loss. Does that seem a reasonable sum?”
Orin’s eyes popped at the money on the desktop. It sat there smugly, radiating security, the answer to all of his problems. He swallowed. “I... I’m sure the amount will suffice.”
“Splendid! If this amount exceeds the premium required, you may keep the balance.” Orin tore his eyes from the currency and smiled gratefully at Stapleford. “Perhaps you have some kind of agreement we could sign?” Stapleford suggested.
“Of course!” Orin jumped up, rummaged through a filing cabinet drawer and withdrew a rumpled form. “This should serve.” He filled in the details of their agreement and both added their signatures. Orin powered up the dusty notary machine and within a few seconds the wrinkled document bore the holographic seal of Varfleet Commercial Court, with a duplicate added to the Court’s archives.
Orin walked his new client to the door, winking at Gerta as they strode past. He followed Stapleford to the sidewalk and bid him a very sincere good day, then jauntily ran back up the front steps and into the office.
“What’s the largest commission my father ever earned?” he asked an expectant Gerta.
“About a quarter million shekels” she replied.
“Get out the record book and your eraser, my dear... you’re going to need them!” Five minutes later Orin’s elation was gone. “What are you, nuts?” said his contact at Varsys Brokerage. “Look, we’ve worked with you folks for decades, and heaven knows your dad was like a brother to me. So I won’t report this to the Insurance Commissioner. But Orin, this is about the worst I’ve ever heard!”
“So... there’s no one who’ll issue the coverage?” Orin pleaded.
“Absolutely not! Orin, kidnapping is a Sectional Felony. No carrier would risk its license by encouraging it. Stay as far as you can from this one.”
“Um, I may have already accepted an initial premium,” Orin said quietly.
“Stars, Orin, give it back! Immediately! I’m hanging up now, this conversation never happened.”
Orin slowly set the handset down and with growing nausea pondered the elusive nature of happiness. He turned the dilemma around in his mind, looked at it frontwards, backwards, upside down. He saw little reason for hope.
Except, hadn’t Stapleford said his cousin’s chances of getting through were small? One in twenty, he’d said... the Rings were teeming with pirates, and she was traveling virtually alone and unescorted. He began to feel a little better. Still, Orin knew something about beating the odds. He reached for his hat.
“Where are you going?” Greta demanded as he brushed by.
“To celebrate! Hold my calls.” Orin managed to get through the door without answering any more of her questions. He hailed a hovercab and asked to be taken to the spaceport Club. He would find Hartman and ask his opinion. Hartman was a writer and seemed to know everything. Orin found Hartman where last he’d seen him six months previously, nursing a glass of grapefruit juice at the Club’s corner table. After a few pleasantries and good-natured insults Orin ventured a question.
“Say, Hartman, when you wrote that novel about space pirates, you did a lot of research, right?”
“Were they pretty thick in the Rings?”
“Oh yeah, that was one of their favorite places. Ships leaving any of the inner planets have to wait until they’re clear of the belt before jumping, makes ’em sitting ducks. Add about a million asteroid hiding places and you’ve got yourself space pirate heaven.”
Orin brightened. “So a single, unarmed ship would be taken for sure, right?”
“Not really.” Hartman took a microscopic sip from his glass. “Things are pretty quiet out there since the Crackdown.”
“Yeah, Sector Fleet showed up a few years ago and rooted all the pirates out. It was quite a purge, filled up a couple prisons. Those poor boys are slowly rotting away behind bars now... Laser Jim, One-Eyed Bobby Murphy, the Regolith Gang, all of ’em.” Hartman heaved a sigh and moistened his lips with his juice.
“So there aren’t any pirates left in the Rings?” Orin asked in a small, trembling voice.
“Not as I’ve heard. Kind of sad, ain’t it old friend? ...Hey Orin, are you feeling okay? You look a little pale.”
Orin’s face was indeed pale, most of the blood having drained out of it. He felt the room spinning around him. “Ah, yeah, its just something I ate,” he said, and lurched to his feet. “Listen I gotta go... I’ll see you later.”
“Okay, but don’t be such a stranger!” Orin pushed through the Club’s front door and stumbled down the steps. Walking numbly across the courtyard, he pictured Stapleford’s cousin — her old, wrinkled, disease-pocked face twisted into a malicious sneer — slouching toward Varfleet to ruin his life. And not a single pirate left to stop her. By force of long dormant habit his steps took him across the spaceport campus to the privately leased pads where the racing yachts were kept.
A few moments later Orin was surprised to look up and see his spaceboat looming over him. He’d not thought of it in months and had almost forgotten it existed. He briefly considered selling it for cash, then ruefully realized that even with half a dozen such vessels to sell he’d still be filing for bankruptcy within a week.
Then, as he gazed on the boat’s slim, businesslike profile silhouetted against the setting sun, an idea occurred to him. It was a crazy, desperate idea, but he was a desperate man. He pulled his telephone from his pocket.
To be continued...
Copyright © 2004 by Gregory Hansen