Sunday, September 15, 2013
Casa Costoso was built in 1923 under the direction of Addison Mizner at a cost of slightly more than $1 million. Irony being uncommon in those days, Mizner was more likely suffering from false modesty in applying the diminutive term Casa to such a spectacular estate, which consisted of a 29,000 square foot main house, three outbuildings to house guests and staff, two tennis courts, a skeet-shooting range, and a moat encircling the property that was intended to serve as a swimming pool, all of which were situated on 14 acres of prime Palm Beach land running between the Atlantic Ocean and the Intracoastal Waterway. Casa Costoso was purchased by Josephus Morgan in 1984 for just under $10 million and it had never been his intention to sell the property, but with the encouragement of his daughter and perhaps the trickery of Nick Mount, that was exactly what was going to happen.
Mount’s staff had prepared a list of the pre-approved clients who would be permitted to tour Casa Costoso that day. He was not surprised to note that he knew none of the prospective purchasers personally, given that those who tended to be stupendously, and typically temporarily, wealthy were hedge fund managers from big cities, in contrast to earlier times in Palm Beach, when old families with old money retained ownership of the most important landmarked homes through multiple generations.
His attention drawn by a sputtering noise, Mount watched with growing irritation as a battered Ford Fairlane rolled slowly and erratically into the driveway. This was certainly not the sort of vehicle that a pre-approved client would own and not the sort of scenery that a pre-approved client would appreciate as he approached Casa Costoso for the first time. Anticipating that he would encounter one of Josephus Morgan’s housekeepers as he walked up to the car, he instead found an elderly woman wearing a brightly colored, vintage Lilly Pulitzer ensemble. She turned off her engine, removed an enormous pair of sunglasses, and stepped out.
“Can I help you?” Mount asked.
“You most certainly can, young man,” the woman responded. “I read in the Shiny Sheet this morning that my beloved Casa Costoso is going to be sold by Josephus Morgan. I grew up in this house and I thought I would stop by to take one last look because who knows what the new owner is going to be like. He’ll probably be one of those New York banker types, if you know what I mean.” The woman began to giggle and added, “Well, at least St. Ed’s won’t be any more crowded during the Christmas Eve service!”
“I’m sorry, Madame, but this estate is only available for viewing by pre-approved clients of my firm,” said Mount, hoping that the woman would be in an agreeable mood and simply leave. “I have an obligation to the owner to control the flow of strangers into his home.”
“Oh, Josephus won’t mind,” she replied. “We actually dated for a few months just after his wife died. Until he found his little chippy, that is. But I would prefer to believe that we’re still on good terms. Is he here? I suppose I should say hello before I start wandering through the house reminiscing.”
The broker was becoming anxious as he realized that he might have difficulty convincing the woman to leave before his first client arrived. “I regret to inform you that Josephus, I mean Mr. Morgan, is not here and that I really don’t think I can permit you to do any wandering at all. In fact, one of my clients should be arriving very soon, so I must respectfully request that you get back in your car and leave me to do my work.”
“Nonsense, if Josephus isn’t here, I’m sure he wouldn’t mind if you simply let me into the house. I certainly won’t get lost. I mean, I lived here for a number of years until I went off to finishing school at Miss Porter’s.”
“No, it’s simply out of the question. I’m sorry. Now if you’ll just—”
“Oh the memories!” began the woman, falling into a reverie, oblivious to the broker’s instructions. “I remember when I was a little girl, there were only dirt roads on the island, but some of them ran as far as the eye could see. In certain areas, Afrocabs were available, and they would take you anywhere you wanted to go for a pittance. Have you heard of the Afrocabs? They were driven by poor—”
Mount took the woman’s arm and guided her forcefully back toward her car. “I’m sure that’s quite interesting, now if I could just ask you to—”
The old woman broke away from him and continued, reveling in her memories. “Did you know that during the Second World War, we were actually afraid that the Germans were going to attack us with their U-boats? We had to lower our shades every night so they wouldn’t spot us! I remember sitting on the sea wall over there with my daddy’s binoculars looking out at the water for those scary old submarines. I never found one, of course, but—”
“Madame, I really must ask you to leave now. My prospective clients are all very private people. If they drive up and see me talking to a stranger they might just decide to keep on going.”
“Oh, you’re no fun at all!” she replied. “Alright, but tell me, how much is Josephus going to make when he sells this house?”
“That’s certainly confidential information, and, anyway, one never knows the selling price until the deal is concluded. Now if you’ll just—”
“Blah, blah, blah. You brokers are all the same. Just tell me, what is the asking price? That’s not a secret, now is it?”
“Actually, it is.”
“Then how do your prospective clients know what to bid?”
“I can tell them the asking price. I just can’t tell you.”
“Perhaps I have the resources to buy this house,” said the woman. “Did you ever think about that?”
“With all due respect, looking at your car, I doubt it,” replied Mount.
“That’s a bit rude, isn’t it?”
“Have you looked at your car lately?”
“This isn’t about my car, is it? You just don’t want to waste your time on some old lady.”
“Madame, I do not judge people based upon their age. In addition, I do not judge people based upon the color of their skin, their religion, or their country of origin. I judge people based solely upon their net worth. Remember, Palm Beach is a town where the police will pull someone over simply for driving an inexpensive car.”
“That’s a bit crass, but I suppose that’s your business. Alright then, if it’s money you’re interested in, let’s play a little game. I’ll guess the asking price. I’ll say a number, and if I’m too low, just don’t say anything and I’ll guess again.”
“If I play your little game, will you leave?”
“Probably, but there are no guarantees. Are you ready? Here we go. $10 million?”
“$15 million? … $25 million? … $50 million? … is it even higher? Are you sure you understand the rules of this game?”
“Yes, I do.”
“$75 million? Oh my God, $100 million?”
“You’re telling me that this house is going to be sold for $100 million? Oh, my idiot father, I can’t believe he let it go for peanuts back in the day. I could have had 100 million new memories!” The elderly woman was beginning to hyperventilate.
“Okay lady, I’ve played your little game and now it’s time for you to run along. I have business to attend to here,” said Mount, his patience at an end, as he guided the woman back into the driver’s seat of her car. She started the engine and drove off abruptly, narrowly missing Oliver, who was pulling up to the house in his ancient Citroën.
“Not this one now!” thought Mount as Oliver extricated his chubby girth from his vehicle. Anticipating that he would be in the presence of a number of wealthy clients, Oliver had dressed more formally on this day, wearing a blue blazer, a glaringly gold tie set off against a blue silk shirt, khaki shorts, blue knee socks and an old pair of permanently scuffed Gucci loafers.
“Nick!” said Oliver enthusiastically, extending his right hand, “It’s so nice to see you again. When I mentioned to your secretary how much I’ve been looking forward to our little collaboration, she very kindly told me where I could find you. Tell me, when does our first client arrive?”
The broker ignored Oliver’s hand and replied, “Now you listen, Booth, they’re not ‘our’ clients, they’re ‘my’ clients, and you’ll play no role in this sale. And mark my words, I will find a way to disallow that clause that you forced into the contract. Perhaps I can prove that Josephus Morgan is incompetent. It shouldn’t be very difficult.”
“If he’s not competent, then he can’t be giving you permission to sell his house, now can he?”
“We shall see,” said Mount. “Now off with you. There is only one face to my firm and it’s not pudgy, so I’m going to ask you to leave before my first client arrives.”
“Tut, tut, my boy, it may reassure you to know that I have actually been the proprietor of a very successful antique shop on Worth Avenue,” said Oliver. “I’m sure you’ll agree that selling is selling, whether it’s a fine antique or a house. You’re going to find that my sales acumen will be quite an asset.”
“If you run an antique shop, then why were you delivering that writing table yesterday? Don’t you have a menial who can do that for you?”
“Well, um, I didn’t mean that I run an antique shop right now. I’m in a bit of a freelance phase, you might say.”
“So why were you delivering a writing table?”
“I really don’t think that this is a topic that—”
The two men were interrupted by the arrival of an armored stretch Hummer with rims modified to resemble roulette wheels, flashing neon pipes along the running boards, a four-foot wide satellite dish mounted on the roof, and three bikini-clad women dancing in a hot tub built into the trunk. As the gargantuan vehicle ground to a halt in the driveway, the palm trees vibrated from the throb of the subwoofers.
The broker consulted his schedule and said, “My first client is a Mr. Vitaly Shevchenko, but this doesn’t look like a car that a Vitaly Shevchenko, or any sane person, would drive. Or be driven in. Tell you what, Ollie, do you really want to be a part of this sale? You talk to this person, whoever he is.” He handed Oliver a manila envelope and said, “Here are the keys and the listing brochures. Do not allow this person into the house unless he offers to pay for it in cash.”
The driver and a bodyguard opened the two front doors and jumped down out of the Hummer. Both men were huge and wore perfectly tailored black suits with black shirts and white ties over their heavily muscled forms. With matching scowls, they walked over to Nick Mount and Oliver.
“Is this the place?” asked the driver.
Mount turned to Oliver with a smile and said, “Have a good meeting. I need to run off and take care of some business.”
“Bye!” said Mount with a laugh as he jogged over to his car and drove off.
“I said, is this the place?” the driver repeated, staring at Oliver.
“It depends on which place you’re looking for, now doesn’t it?” replied Oliver with a nervous laugh.
“Is this the house, my friend?” said the man in a tone that was not suggestive of an interest in friendship.
“Well, it’s A house. Which house are you looking for?”
“The house that’s for sale. Is this house for sale?”
Genre – Fiction / Humour
Rating – PG
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