The Picnic Basket – By Jonathan Ferrini

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    “Items found “hiding in plain sight”, are best “left well enough alone”.  

I raced home from work to my wilderness paradise, looking forward to a weekend of catching up on sleep, gardening, and enjoying my spacious home. My Realtor arranged an “Open House” for Saturday and Sunday, in hopes of attracting a large buyer turnout.  I’ve worked my entire career in healthcare, and, nearing retirement, rose to the position of Executive Vice President of a nationwide medical provider. I hoped this would be the weekend the home sold, and I would be freed from the grind of my prominent position, daily commute, and embrace the specter of retirement.

I never married, had no children, and relished my life of travel, treating myself to a beautiful wardrobe, and owning a gorgeous, 5000 square foot, southwestern inspired home, on a 6-acre lot. The majority of my property consisted of hills, sage brush, boulders, but home to snakes, bobcats, coyotes, and rabbits. Its located in a remote, sparsely populated section of southeast Riverside County, east of Los Angeles, but not far from the interstate freeway.

I live in a gated community with neighbors situated far enough away to provide me with privacy and quiet. We enter our neighborhood through an automatic gate, opened by a four-digit code changed every month. As the iron gate opened, I spied our gardeners, a kindly, father and son, leaving with a load of vegetation, tightly concealed under a black tarp covering the back of their pick-up truck. The common areas of our neighborhood consisted of drought tolerant gardens requiring minimal maintenance, but, on occasion, the gardeners made extra money by removing sage brush, weeds, and trees on property owners’ lots. I was happy to see they picked up a side job filling their pick-up bed. We waved to each other as they left for the day.

Our neighborhood bordered expansive, county owned, wilderness land. The terrain was treacherous, and access was so difficult, I never saw county officials enter or exit this wilderness. The HOA members joked the county owned wilderness was ideal for outlaw Marijuana grows. 

Although my home included a state-of-the-art security system, the alarm was seldom only triggered by animals or birds. It was a neighborhood I could leave the door open without fear. I was proud of my interior design of western inspired, leather and mahogany furniture. My landscaping required little, if no irrigation.

I couldn’t afford the upkeep of my home after retirement. I placed the home on the market for sale, but the real estate market was “soft”, and, I hadn’t seen a single visit from a prospect since listing it with the Realtor six months previously. The proceeds from the sale of my home were necessary for a comfortable retirement; I set my sights on retiring to Spain or Greece.

The next morning, I walked about my yard, assuring it was in tip-top condition for the open house, placing the flags and “Open House” sign in the front yard. Across the street, I noticed a wicker picnic basket placed atop a hill, partially camouflaged by sage brush,as if “hiding in plain sight”. I had the open house on my mind, and gave it no further thought.

There were no prospects to see the house all day, and I walked outside to remove the flags and open house sign for the evening. I noticed the basket was still there. I sent an email to the HOA notifying all homeowners of the basket, and prepared to settle in for the night.

The following morning, after placing the flags and open house sign, I noticed the basket was still on the hill. I checked my email but no response from the HOA. I became concerned about the basket. Could it contain abandoned puppies or kittens? I retrieved the basket, and, just as I was approaching my door, our gardener’s truck passed slowly by my home. The gardener and his son, caught a glimpse of me with the basket. I thought it odd the gardeners would be working on Sunday.

As I carried the basket, it appeared full, and fortunately, no cries or whimpers from abandoned animals, if still alive! I placed the basket on the kitchen counter. It was locked, so, I retrieved a screwdriver, hammer, and broke the lock open. I carefully opened the basket to find it full of neatly stacked, crisp, new, one hundred-dollar bills. It didn’t take me long to count the bundled stacks of cash amounting to $100,000.

I was faced with the decision to report it to the police, and be swept up in a lengthy investigation, I wanted no part of, but what bothered me the most, was the possibility of a criminal expecting to retrieve the basket from the hillside. Complicating my decision further, if I kept the money, I knew a $100,000 cash deposit into my bank account may trigger Treasury or DEA scrutiny, and, I’d face tax liability on the deposit. I decided to place the money in a safe deposit box until the owners reveal themselves, or I figure out the prudent course of action.

No prospects visited my home all day. After dinner and a movie, I settled into bed with a book. I heard a car park, and was afraid to peek out the window. I heard car doors open, muffled sounds of men speaking about a missing item, followed by the closing of car doors, and the vehicle driving off. I surmised the basket belonged to these men, and regretted bringing it into my home.

Minutes later, I received a call marked “Unknown Caller” on my cellphone. Assuming a “robocall”, I let it go to voice mail. My curiosity demanded that I listen to the voice mail. I heard some ruckus and incomprehensible talking in the background, heavy breathing, then a disconnect without a voice message. Shortly, thereafter, I received a text message from my Realtor informing me of a prospect wishing to tour my home the following evening. I texted a confirmation of the showing to my Realtor.

Marco was a distinguished looking man with an undiscernible accent. His salt and pepper hair was combed back, and he wore a bespoke, black suit, and white, silk shirt. I noticed his shoes were adorned with the distinctive “Gucci” horse bit. He was followed by three men, likely in their twenties, wearing stylish clothing, and beautiful, leather dress boots, who said nothing.

“This is a beautiful home and suits my entertainment and home business needs. It’s gated, country location, without nearby neighbors, and quick access to the interstate connecting me to Riverside, San Diego, San Bernardino, and Los Angeles counties, is ideal! Let’s sit, and I give you my offer.”

My Realtor’s face lit up and was quick to reply,

“Certainly, Sir. Allow me to take us into the dining room where we may sit.”

I offered my guests refreshments but everybody declined wanting to “get down to business”.

“My appraiser informs me the home is fairly offered at $500,000, but tells me it’s been on the market for 180 days with no showings or offers! I pay you $400,000, cash, and close immediately without contingencies!

You have twenty-four hours to accept my offer. The longer you wait, the greater the home may “depreciate”, if you “know what I mean”. Good day, ladies.”

Marco and his men stood, and walked to the door as I followed. Before letting themselves out, Marco turned to me,

“I want $100,000, cash, of your $400,000 sale proceeds. And by the way, my offer includes everything! You leave with only the clothes on your back and your vehicle.

My staff will keep you company here until escrow confirms the transfer of the property, and you hand my men the cash and the keys. It will be a quick and seamless ending for you.”

Marco and his “staff” let themselves out. I watched a black Bentley drive away.

I knew Marco wanted the $100,000 from the basket returned, and the $100,000 from my sale proceeds, in addition to my furniture, clothing, and everything else in my home, was my “punishment” for interfering with his “business”.

I returned to the Realtor who was anxious to discuss the offer,

“In my twenty years of selling homes, Melody, I’ve learned its common for cash buyers to drive hard bargains. I suggest you counter them at $490,000, testing their motivation. Even in this soft market, $400,000 is a “low ball” offer.”

My Realtor didn’t know the offering price was “take it or leave it”, and included everything in the house!

“Allow me the twenty-four hours to consider the offer, Rose, and I’ll phone you with my decision.”

“I understand Melody, but remember, don’t “look a gift horse in the mouth”!”

After the Realtor left, I thought about the Gucci shoes with the trademark horse bit, and thought how ironic the term “gift horse” was to my dilemma. Under different circumstances, I’d find Marco attractive; he was handsome, and I admired his opportunistic, “go for the throat”, negotiating prowess. If I accepted his offer, Marco’s gains amounted to $300,000; $100,000 off my asking price, $100,000 cash out of my pocket, and the $100,000 within the basket.

I trembled at rejecting the offer from a dispassionate, ruthless, negotiator like Marco. I couldn’t eat, and I resorted to alcohol to calm my nerves. I knew if I rejected Marco’s offer, I could be harmed or killed. I believed the $100,000 loss from the fair market value of my home may be a tax write off, but the $100,000 cash payment was an “out of pocket” expense with no tax deduction. $200,000 was a major portion of my retirement income; its loss, forcing a reconsideration of my retirement lifestyle. I regretted my decision to retrieve the basket.

After midnight, I was awoken to the sound of a car parking outside my home which was uncommon. Suddenly, the car’s audio speakers barked the lyrics,

“These boots are made for walking, and that’s just what they’ll do, one of these days these boots are gonna walk all over you.”

The car sped off and I contemplated the Nancy Sinatra lyrics which warned me to accept Marco’s offer. I pulled the blankets up over my head, and trembled, alone, in my large, dark home, fearing the alarm system might be triggered by assassins. I could be murdered and buried within my six-acre lot with little chance of ever being found. My gated community providing security, now felt like a prison, offering me no choice but to acquiesce to Marco’s demands.

I heard the cry of a lone coyote, possibly, warning me not to reject Marco’s offer.

I tossed and turned all night, managing only a few hours of sleep. I crawled out of bed, fearful, but managed to complete my morning routine as I prepared for work. I skipped breakfast, loaded the basket full of cash into my car, and my first stop was to be at the front door of my bank when it opened for business, eager to place the cash into my safe deposit box. Upon leaving the bank, I’d text my Realtor to accept Marco’s offer and prepare the purchase contract, including all of Marco’s terms.

As was my custom, I entered my attached garage from home, started the car, and pushed the button to open the garage door. I placed the car into reverse, pulled back into my expansive driveway, closed the garage door, placed the car into drive, and proceeded to exist my driveway. Suddenly, the HOA gardeners’ truck pulled into my driveway, boxing me in.

The kindly old gardener and his son, exited their truck, removed their caps and approached my car. I exited my car, but left the engine on in case I needed to sequester myself inside the car, and attempt an escape, blowing the car horn like an “SOS” signal.

“What’s the meaning of this? I’m not aware of any scheduled appointment? I’ll be late for work!”

The father spoke, his son’s eyes were fixed on the wicker picnic basket in the passenger seat of my car while holding a razor-sharp machete which glistened in the morning sun,

‘Ma’am, we’ve come for the picnic basket.”

“Did you receive the email I sent to the HOA?”

“We’re aware of it, but we saw you, and you saw us, after you retrieved the basket from the hillside. Please give it to us. It will solve your problem.”

“How do I know it’s your basket? Can you tell me its contents?”

“Ma’am, the basket contains one hundred thousand dollars.”

“I was visited by a very frightening man, named Marco, who claimed ownership. How do you figure into all of this?”

“Ma’am, the less you know the better, but we completed a “harvest” for Marco, and the basket includes our pay. We were to retrieve it Friday evening, but our rig broke down, and weren’t able to come for it until Sunday. We told Marco about the situation after seeing you with the basket. He’s very angry with us. I’m aware of his visit, and the threats made against you, but I pleaded with Marco not to intercede if I could retrieve the basket. I told him you’re an honest woman who attempted to find the rightful owner by notifying the HOA. Marco agreed to give us one last chance to retrieve our pay, so, please give us the basket.”

“How do I know if I give you basket, Marco will leave me alone?”

“Do you have your cellphone with you, Ma’am?”

“Yes, I do.”

The father pulled his cellphone from his shirt pocket and completed a short text message. Within seconds, my cellphone rang, showing, “Unknown Caller”. I hesitated to answer, fearful of speaking with Marco.

“Please answer the call, ma’am.”

I answered the call, and recognized Marco’s voice,

“Give them the money, and the deal is off! You should consider whether I would have permitted you to leave the property after its transfer to me, knowing, at any time, you might notify the authorities. You own a large lot with many holes to plant your corpse.”

Marco hung up. I reached into my car, retrieved the basket, and placed it on the driveway in front of me. The gardener’s son stepped forward, picked up the basket, removed the lid, and quickly counted the money, assuring himself the $100,000 was inside, and walked back to his father, joining him inside the truck. The truck rolled forward, and I feared they would run me over, but, the father leaned outside the window,

“Thank you, ma’am. You won’t be seeing us anymore.”

They drove off.

I stood next to my car, heart racing, and looked at the beautiful wilderness terrain surrounding my home, realizing my fear of Marco would never permit me to enjoy my home again.

I texted my Realtor,

“I’m rejecting Marco’s offer. Reduce the price and include the term, “Motivated Seller”. Schedule weekly open houses until the place sells! Place a lock box on the front door as I’ll be moving out immediately, and renting until the home is sold.”

I looked up at the hillside where I found the basket, and a coyote, perhaps the one from the night before, emerged from the sage brush, looking down upon me as if to say,

“It’s better to “leave well enough alone”!”


 

About the Author

Jonathan Ferrini is a published author who resides in San Diego. He received his MFA in motion picture and television production from UCLA.