The Fifty-Three Cent Mistake
By Herschel Cozine
Herschel Cozine has published extensively in the children's field. His stories and poems have appeared in many of the national children's magazines. Work by Herschel has also appeared in Alfred Hitchcock and Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazines. His on-line stories have appeared in Judas E-Zine, and HandHeld Crime and SHOTS #20. Additionally he has had many stories appear in Orchard Press Mysteries. Retired from a career in electronics, he has resumed his writing career after an extended hiatus. Herschel lives with his wife, Sue, in Santa Rosa, California, close to his children and grandchildren.
“Mister Wellesley, there is no substance whatever in your allegations. It’s impossible.” Mister Gordon lifted a manicured hand to his face and adjusted his glasses with a haughty look at the man standing across the desk from him.
“You are denying that your store had made a mistake?” Wellesley said coldly. He held a slip of paper out to the man. “See for yourself, Mister Gordon. It’s right here in black and white.”
Mister Gordon waved the paper aside as if it were a bothersome fly. He toyed with a silver pen holder on his immaculate desk, leaned back in his chair and showed his teeth in a plastic smile. “We here at Gordon’s Emporium pride ourselves on our accuracy,” he said. “Our employees are thoroughly screened, and only those who measure up to our unusually high standards are hired. We do not make mistakes.”
“Nobody’s perfect,” Wellesley argued. “Your Mister Jarvis sold me the merchandise and he made a mistake in the figures. He’s only human. It’s a small mistake, plain and simple.”
“A mistake is a mistake. Magnitude has nothing to do with it,” Mister Gordon said. “And to pass it off as ‘human’ is a misconception that has permeated our way of thinking.” He shook his head sadly. “If we believe ourselves incapable of perfection, we are destined to fail.”
“And you feel otherwise?” Wellesley said.
“Indeed,” Mister Gordon replied. “We at Gordon’s have reached that so-called unreachable state of perfection. Our motto, ‘The Perfect Establishment’ is not an idle claim. It is a fact.”
Wellesley snorted and threw the slip of paper on the desk. It slid across the highly polished surface and came to rest under Mister Gordon’s upturned nose. “And this is a fact, too,” Wellesley shouted, pointing at he paper. “Come down off your pompous pedestal and face reality. This sales slip is wrong.”
The two men eyed each other for several seconds. Mister Gordon finally looked away with a shrug, his pale blue eyes betraying annoyance. “Very well, Mister Wellesley. I am a reasonable man. What exactly is the problem?”
Wellesley’s bulky frame relaxed and he leaned against the desk. “Your clerk overcharged me for the merchandise I bought,” he said. “My purchase came to $51.25. But when your Mister Jarvis totaled it up he mistook the ‘2’ for a ‘7’.” Wellesley paused and looked at Mister Gordon. The small man nodded imperceptibly. “That’s a difference of fifty cents,” Wellesley continued. “When you figure the difference in the sales tax, the total discrepancy is fifty-three cents.” He stabbed a beefy finger at the paper. “That, Mister Gordon, is a mistake.”
Mister Gordon barely looked at the offending paper. He studied his fingernails, sighed and folded his hands on the desktop. “What you are saying, Mister Wellesley, is that there is a disagreement between what you were charged for the items and what you allege the price of the merchandise was.”
“Allege!” Wellesley spit out the word. “There is no question about it.” He balled his hands into fists and planted them on the desk. “If you would get into the twenty-first century and supply your staff with computers, you wouldn’t have this problem.”
Mister Gordon winced at the word. “Computers are for those who need them,” he said. “They are crutches. They are machines that enslave mankind by making him a robot.” He stood up, a show of anger in his eyes. “Gordon’s Emporium will never--never use those abominations.”
Wellesley blinked at the little man in disbelief. “OK,” he said. “I had no idea you felt that way. But you must accept the consequences if you insist on paper and pencil and a human. Allege indeed! I’m here to get satisfaction.”
Mister Gordon sighed again. “I don’t wish to argue with you, Mister Wellesley. There is no doubt in my mind that you have not grasped the situation.” He held up a hand as Wellesley started to protest. “Gordon’s Emporium had been in business for nineteen years, eight months and seventeen days. In that time we have never made a mistake.”
Wellesley’s mouth flew open and he spread his hands in a gesture of futility. “I don’t believe this,” he said.
Mister Gordon, still beaming proudly, paid no attention to the red-faced Wellesley. “As I said before, perfection is attainable. It’s a state of mind. The human brain is a remarkable organ, which the average person doesn’t begin to utilize. Do you know that less than five percent of the brain is ever used?”
“I don’t give a damn about your biology lesson!” Wellesley shouted, pointing to the sales slip. “What are you going to do about this?”
Mister Gordon knitted his delicate brow and placed a finger on his chin. The, with a satisfied nod, he gestured to Wellesley. “Come with me. I want you to see something.”
He led Wellesley out the back door of his office down a long, carpeted hall finished in mahogany and lined with red velvet tapestry. They stopped at a large one-way window that overlooked the main level of the department store. A TV screen hung from the ceiling by the window. Mister Gordon reached up and turned it on. The screen jumped to life, displaying a sales counter and a cash register. A middle-aged woman, dressed in a crisp gray and white uniform, was writing out an order while several customers milled about in the background.
“That is Mrs. Glover. She has worked here for over ten years.”
“So?” Wellesley said.
Mister Gordon cast an impatient glance at Wellesley. “When we recruited her she displayed all the human frailties of the average person. She made mistakes.” He rolled the word from his tongue with distaste. “After our six month training session, she was perfect. By the time she was dispatched to the sales floor she was incapable of error.”
“Training session?” Wellesley said. “What training session?”
“My own creation,” Mister Gordon said proudly, “formulated to utilize the brain to its full potential. The results are astounding.” He flipped the knob of the TV set and the scene shifted to another sales counter.
“That’s Mister Wilson. Seven years in our employ. No mistakes.” Another twist of the knob. “Mister Cox. Thirteen years.”
“No mistakes,” Wellesley said with a hint of sarcasm. Mister Gordon ignored the inflection and nodded. He turned off the set. “I think you get the idea,” he said.
Wellesley laughed without warmth. “I’m supposed to be impressed? Do I look like a fool?”
Mister Gordon didn’t answer. He led Wellesley back to the office, sat down behind his desk and crossed his legs. “The Gordon Method of Brain Utilization is a scientific breakthrough of unprecedented importance. Yet it is so simple that anyone can master it.”
Wellesley paced back and forth, the muscles in his neck straining. “Damn it,” he said. “I’m not interested in your theories. I want to know what you plan to do about my problem.”
Mister Gordon tensed. He took a monogrammed handkerchief from his breast pocket and patted his nose. Wellesley waited for the little man to reply, then reddened further and pounded his fist into his hand.
“OK. It’s a lousy fifty-three cents. But I’m fighting for a principle. You say your store...”
“Establishment,” Mister Gordon corrected.
“You say your--establishment--doesn’t make mistakes. I have documented proof to the contrary. We’ll let the small claims court decide.” He scooped up the sales slip, stuffed it in his pocket and turned for the door. “Wait until the newspapers get ahold of this.”
Mister Gordon leaped to his feet. “Just a moment, Mister Wellesley,” he said.
Wellesley stopped with his hand on the doorknob.
“I can see you are not a man to be trifled with,” Mister Gordon said. He smoothed the knot of his tie. “Now, mind you, I am admitting nothing. I am convinced that the misunderstanding is simply a matter of your lack of awareness of our advanced state here at Gordon’s. But in the interest of fair play I will agree to refund your money in exchange for the merchandise...and the sales slip.”
Wellesley grinned evilly. “No deal, Mister Gordon. There is more at stake here. I am going to expose you for the fraud you are.”
“A refund, and you may keep the merchandise.”
Mister Gordon sat down slowly, removed his glasses and placed them on the desk. “Everyone has a price.” The plastic smile returned to the small man’s lips. “Let us say one thousand dollars.”
Wellesley’s eyes flashed briefly and he let go of the doorknob. “Not enough,” he said.
Several moments passed silently. Mister Gordon picked up his glasses, laid them down again, drummed his fingers on the desk and let a quick smile cross his face. “Three thousand. Not a penny more.”
Wellesley walked to the desk, leaned over until his face was even with Mister Gordon’s and bared his teeth. “Cash. No checks.”
Mister Gordon pressed a button on the intercom. “Joseph,” he said into the machine. “A Mister Gerald Wellesley will be coming to your office shortly. Would you have three thousand dollars ready for him? In cash.”
“And Joseph,” Mister Gordon went on. “Report to me personally when the transaction is completed.”
Mister Gordon pushed back his chair, stood up and crossed the room. “Allow me to show you to my private elevator,” he said. “It will take you directly to our accounting department.”
Wellesley laughed. “I don’t understand you, Mister Gordon,” he said. “First of all you deny any error and absolutely refuse to listen to reason. Then you do a complete about face and pay me three thousand dollars in settlement for a mere fifty-three cents.”
“Ah, but Mister Wellesley,” the little man replied. “It is all in the grand scheme of things. I knew from the moment you walked through the door that this course of action would be necessary.”
Wellesley frowned, then his face softened and he laughed again. “Still playing the ‘perfect’ bit, I see,” he said.
Mister Gordon smiled ruefully, studying Wellesley like a teacher trying to instruct a backward student. “I assure you, there is no other way. The buying public is well aware of our reputation for being perfect. We cannot afford to set a precedent by adjusting a purchase. There has been no mistake on the part of Gordon’s Emporium. Simply a misunderstanding.”
“And you think you’re buying my silence?”
Mister Gordon nodded confidently. “A rather indelicate way of phrasing it, but yes, I am certain of it. You seem to be a man of honor. You won’t publicize this incident.”
“You are an arrogant man, Mister Gordon,” Wellesley said. “You honestly believe your judgment is perfect as well.”
“I have no doubt about it,” Mister Gordon replied. He crossed the hall to the elevator and punched the button. The steel door opened noiselessly.
“The elevator will deliver you to our accounting department.” He held out his hand. “Good day, Mister Wellesley.”
Wellesley shook hands with the little man triumphantly. Still smiling, he stepped into the elevator. Mister Gordon held the door open. “Incidentally, Mister Wellesley, ‘Error’ is only one letter removed from ‘terror’. Think about it.”
His face masked a satisfaction that stirred a vague feeling of uneasiness in Wellesley. Then Mister Gordon stepped back and the door of the elevator closed, leaving Wellesley alone in the cubicle.
Wellesley looked around. There were no buttons on the wall, no vents or seams in the tiny room. In one corner of the ceiling was a hole with a nozzle-like tube protruding from it. Wellesley’s uneasy feeling started to grow. He suddenly felt cold. What had Mister Gordon meant by his last remark? A slow realization formed in Wellesley’s whirling brain and he lunged for the door. At the same instant a gray acrid spray spewed out of the nozzle, slowly filling the tiny room.
Back at his desk, Mister Gordon leaned back in his chair and closed his eyes. A peaceful smile played on his lips, and he hummed tunelessly. The phone rang. He reached over, lifted the receiver and cradled it against his shoulder.
“It’s done,” Joseph’s voice said.
“Good,” Mister Gordon replied. “Now call Mister Jarvis and have him report to me immediately.”
“Send the elevator back up right away. I’ll be needing it.”
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