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Lost & Found

by Arthur Davis

part 1 of 2

Brinkley P. Henderson marched himself through the front doors of McClane & Winthrop on Fifth Avenue, a brisk step ahead of the morning crowd and downstairs through the warren of faceless doors and faceless faces to the Lost and Found Department with the same seething head of steam that had consumed him since opening a coffee maker that had been delivered to his Park Avenue townhouse on the exclusive Upper East Side of New York City, only the day before.

“It doesn’t work,” he said, setting down the carton containing the clanking assembly. “It doesn’t turn on or make anything. There must be something wrong with it.”

The young female clerk slipped on her blue McClane & Winthrop jacket with the gold and blue chest patch of an eagle whose talons were encircling the earth, tied back her unmanageably unruly hair with a red rubber band, searched for a pencil on the counter, found one, put it in her jacket pocket, and looked up. “What can I do for you?”

“Well, for openers, you could listen to what I was saying when I was saying it.”

She took her time opening the carton. She removed the coffee brewer and examined the perforated stainless steel container designed to hold the raw coffee beans. “This has been used.”

“No. In fact, it hasn’t. You see I made the mistake of filling up the cup with coffee beans on the assumption that when I pushed the “ON” button, the thing would actually work.”

“You have the receipt?”

“It’s on top of the carton right in front of you.”

“There is no need to be abusive.”

“I’m not abusive. What I am is trying to get some service here, whereas you seem annoyed that I’m taking up your valuable time with my return.”

“Excuse me?”

“So, you can either make a real effort to accommodate a customer or call your manager over here right now. I have no patience for either sloth or indifference.”

“Sloth?” the girl asked, shaking her head as only one with little education and a superior sense of one’s self can.

How could McClane & Winthrop, a storied emporium of taste and remembrance with lavish branches in San Francisco, Palm Beach, London, Paris, and Geneva hire such a clearly unqualified person? “It means apathy, sluggishness, or laziness. You want to hear more?”

The woman thought for a moment, turned around, and walked away. Henderson was relieved to see her leave and looked around the quaint Lost and Found Department. There were two examination stalls. He was in one while the other next to him was empty.

A large metal table stood against the rear wall piled high with returned merchandise. It looked quite battered and decrepit and reminded him of the tables used in his prep-school cafeteria.

He was the only customer in the department, probably, he concluded, because of the barely recognizable tiny black and white plastic placard on the door announcing the services within. He heard no voices or movement other than the pounding of his dyspeptic personality. He may as well have been on another planet.

He glanced down at the drape of his sports jacket and the tight crease in his beige linen trousers that broke exactly an inch lower than his highly polished, handcrafted Italian loafers. There were no mirrors; it was impossible for him to tell if his hair was out of place. He examined his fingernails on both hands. He probably should have had a manicure, just to add crispness to the cut of his nails, especially since he was going to a party this evening.

When he finally realized no one was coming to replace the clerk, he slammed his hand down on the counter. “Is anybody here?” He went through the motions twice. He was about to leave when he heard sluggish footsteps, but he couldn’t figure out where they were coming from. It was as though they were approaching from all around him and from nowhere in particular.

A slight man in his early seventies shuffled into the space occupied by the defective clerk. “Good morning sir,” he said with a gentle smile then set his attention on the abandoned brewer. “Oh, the Peterson Precision Built seventy-three-ten B,” he said turning it over and removing a small plastic cover from the base of the brewer and exposing a nest of circuitry.

“See, the switch is broken. It’s the connector relay that’s defective. It’s always the connector relay switch. I don’t know why they just don’t pull this foolish piece of hardware from the shelves. I see one or two of these overpriced contraptions a month down here.”

Brinkley Henderson took his first decent breath in the last twenty-four hours. Why did he allow himself to become so distraught? And why, for God’s sake, didn’t he let his maid or even his chauffeur, a capable enough chap who was at this very moment probably being harassed by the police to move his limousine out of the No Standing zone in front of the store, deal with these kinds of mundane details?

He had purchased the brewer through the store’s catalogue, something he would never confess to his friends. The Peterson Precision Built brewer had been a present to himself. The print advertisement claimed it made the most perfect cup of coffee in the world. And since he was already enjoying the finest Jamaican coffee beans money could buy, there was no reason not to have the finest brewer too.

It was a relief and pleasure to be treated with respect, and from a clerk with some obvious expertise. “Then you can fix it?”

“Oh, no. I’m afraid that’s impossible. I can give you a refund and naturally a gift certificate for the trouble it has caused you,” he said. He put the brewer back into the carton, pulled a red slip of paper out of his pocket, and made some notes on it, then stapled it to the side of the carton and carried the brewer and box to the table stacked with all the other merchandise. When he returned to the front counter, he asked, “Would a million dollars be adequate for your trouble?”

Henderson wanted to laugh, but the withered old man was just too appealing a caricature. He couldn’t have been five and a half feet tall and a hundred and thirty pounds. He was properly dressed in a crisp, long out-of-date suit topped off by a well-worn navy-blue bow tie. His silver hair was neatly groomed. His wire-rimmed glasses that looked like they hadn’t been cleaned in the last ten years.

“A million would be fine. And please, if you will, the serial numbers should be out of sequence.”

“Yes, that sounds fair considering how poorly McClane & Winthrop has treated you.” The old man moved to the side, bent down and opened a small cabinet door and removed a gift box the size of an average, if chunky, shoe box and pushed it forward across the counter top. “I think you will find everything in order.”

Henderson returned the old man’s patient gaze but decided against opening the box in front of him. If this was this store’s idea of a joke, his lawyer would send out a scathing letter regarding the probity of human conduct. “And my refund?”

“Oh, I am sorry,” the old man said quickly filling in a gift certificate from a nearby pad of blanks. “I rounded it up to the nearest five dollars, if that’s satisfactory to you?”

Henderson examined the ornate gold and blue gift certificate. The damn eagle was everywhere. The certificate was made out for three hundred ninety-five dollars. That seemed fair enough, though he was still out one coffee brewer.

Then again, he did have a million dollars sitting in a gift box right in front of him. That should easily cover the cost of replacing the pretentious Peterson Precision Built seventy-three-ten B with a more reliable brand, Henderson thought. So what if the old man was humoring him? What of it? Why not let your guard down just for once and show some tolerance? Henderson couldn’t make up his mind how tolerant he wanted to be just now.

“Go ahead,” the old man gestured with both hands. “It’s yours.”

“The million dollars?”

“All of it.”

“You’re telling me there is a million dollars in that gift box?”

“I would have gift wrapped it for you, but I thought you would want to count it first.”

Henderson studied the ornate floral patterns. The texture of the design was laced with lilies, gardenias, roses, and tulips in pungent colors. “The gift box will do just fine.”

“It’s no trouble, you know.”

Henderson set his hands on the box in front of him and was instantly struck with the fact that it had considerable substance to it. He had been certain that it was empty, what with the ease that the old man removed it from beneath the counter. But when he moved it toward him, Henderson could feel that there was something solid inside the box besides the projections of his own suspicious contempt. “What’s inside?”

“Your million, to do with as you wish, sir.”

“My million?”

“Exactly so, Mr. Henderson.”

“How did you know my name?”

“The young woman who treated you so poorly mentioned it to me.”

“I didn’t tell her my name,” Henderson said smugly, about to expose the ruse.

“Didn’t you?”

“No. And there isn’t a million dollars in here,” he said flipping the box cover onto the counter.

“Well, I hope there’s a million in there. I counted it twice myself before we opened this morning.”

Brinkley Henderson lifted the cover of the box and fell back from the counter as though his sixty-one year old body had been jolted by a sizable electrical charge. For all of his six-foot, two hundred-forty pound bulk, he could hardly keep his balance. It was the first time he had been caught off guard since, well; it must be prep school.

Then he realized that what looked like a million dollars in rows of neatly tied packets of hundred-dollar bills that filled the gift box to the brim might be counterfeit, or cleverer, stacks of plain paper surrounded by a few real bills. “You expect me to believe there’s a million dollars in there?”

The old man winced from the accusatory tone of the question. “If you doubt me, I will take it back. I wouldn’t want you to be inconvenienced or distressed any more than you’ve already been.”

Henderson regained his composure and natural distrust. He approached the packets and counted ten stacks on top and estimated there was also the same number deep, and they were not made up of new bills. Their edges were frayed and uneven. Each inch-thick packet was bound so tightly they looked as though they were about to rupture the string that held them.

“No. That won’t be necessary.” He pulled out one of the packets and pulled back the edges and let them flash forward through his fingers. A quick count gave him one hundred hundred-dollar bills. Ten thousand dollars in each of the hundred packets.

“I hope you’re not disappointed. Some bills are rather old. After all, you did ask for them in non-sequential serial numbers which fortunately is the only way we keep them.”

Henderson pulled out a second packet and examined it, followed by a third and fourth until the counter was strewn with a dozen packets of money. He couldn’t believe his eyes. The old man was telling the truth.

My God, a million dollars. Even though he possessed many times that amount in stocks and bonds and his varied real estate holdings, nothing came close to the feel of real cash taking up the measure of your grasp. There was something almost indecent, decidedly primitive about it. A check could be made out for any amount and it was still only a piece of paper. But a hundred packets of one hundred hundred-dollar bills? That was something else. “There’s a million dollars here.”

“As I said, sir.”

Henderson placed each ten-thousand dollar packet back into the colorful floral print box and sealed it tightly with the cover. He set his hands firmly on top of the gift box. “This has to be a joke.”

The old man was growing uncomfortable with how Henderson’s continued doubting comments questioned his integrity. “Well, I don’t think you could call a million dollars a joke, sir.”

“And it’s for me?”

“For the inexcusable inconvenience you have endured.”

“And you’re the manager here?” Henderson asked in total disbelief that a man so debilitated would have such responsibility.

“At your service, sir,” the old man answered in a tone considerably less cordial than before.

Henderson looked around the small office. The entire room couldn’t have been as large as his second floor study. How could anybody work in these stifling conditions? “Well, I want to thank you for the way you have treated this entire matter.”

“It was my pleasure sir. Please come again. You will always be welcomed at McClane & Winthorp.”

“What did you say?”

“I said, please come again,” he repeated proudly.

“No, you said, please come again. You will always be welcomed at McClane & Winthorp.”

Somewhat disconcerted: “Well, I suppose I did.”

“McClane & Winthorp?”

“Ah, I see your concern,” the old man noted. “You mustn’t be too severe with me. Sometimes an old mind tends to wander.”

“Weak minds tend to wonder, sir. Not old minds. Weak minds will never prevail. They are the Achilles heel of mankind’s future.”

“You may be right. I’ve been here for so long I tend to get distracted. I hope you will forgive me. Of course it’s McClane & Winthrop, not Winthorp.”

Proceed to part 2...

Copyright © 2013 by Arthur Davis

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