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The case of the missing keys — a Zabar’s lox counter mystery

How watching a classic film noir led our hero to find an elementary solution to a vexing problem

Everything seemed normal as I left Zabar’s, where I work behind the lox counter, and proceeded to the garage to get my car for the trip home. As usual, I drove to 102nd Street to pick up my wife, Llewellyn, who’d been visiting a friend. Traffic north on the West Side Highway was bumper to bumper so I turned on the radio.

Listening to Joaguin Rodrigo’s melodic Concierto de Aranjuez made the 90-minute drive home pleasant. After pulling in the driveway, we stayed in the car for a few moments to hear the end of the concerto’s third movement, then walked down the stone path to our house.

I reached into the left side pocket of my Zabar’s jacket for my keys to open the front door, but the keys weren’t there. I searched my other jacket pockets, then my pants pockets, but no keys. I looked through all the pockets a second time; still no keys.  Fortunately Llewellyn had hers, so we got in.

Maybe they fell out of my pocket when I exited the car, I thought, so I found my flashlight and retraced my steps. But they were nowhere. Then I searched the car. Still no keys. They had to be somewhere, but where? Could I have left them at work? It was 8 p.m.; Zabar’s would be closed. I called anyway but the phone rang unanswered. I’d have to wait until the morning.

Years before, I’d left my keys in the lock of my locker and walked away without realizing it. Someone turned them in to the front desk before I knew they were gone. Surely, I thought, that’s what had happened here. I must have left them in my locker and someone would turn them in. I went to sleep that night positive I’d get good news in the morning.

The next day, I called and asked for Kenny, a manager I’ve known for many years. He looked in the lost-and-found drawer where layers of unclaimed keys reside, but mine weren’t there. He even checked my locker to make sure they weren’t hanging from the lock. They were not. I thanked him and hung up. The keys had to be someplace, but where?

It was time for the Sherlock Holmes part of me to take over “The Case of the Missing Keys.” I drew on the organizational and analytical skills I’ve honed over the last 70 years. The course of action was clear: to trace the events of the day, step by step.

My keys had been in their usual place that morning when I’d Ieft the house for work. I’d put them in the lower right pocket of my jacket. (The jacket has three pockets, one on the lower left, one on the lower right and one on the top left, a breast pocket.)

It was 3 p.m. when I had approached my locker for the first time that day. I’d removed the keys from my pocket, used the locker key to open the locker, got a new clean jacket from within and put it on after taking the old one off. I dropped the old jacket in the dirty laundry chute 10 steps away, then had coffee in the break room and returned to the lox counter. That was the last time I remembered using any key before getting home.

Since the keys weren’t sticking out of the locker, nor were they in the jacket or pants pockets I’d already searched, I concluded that they must have been in the jacket I put in the laundry.

I called the store again and, not wanting to inconvenience anyone, told Kenny I was going to drive in to search the laundry myself.  An hour later I faced the dirty laundry receptacle. It towered over me, 8 feet tall, 2 feet wide and 3 feet deep, filled with over 100 uniforms. The handyman in charge of the receptacle opened its door, removed each jacket and shook them, one by one, listening for the sound of keys rattling. But eventually, the last jacket was jiggled to no avail.

What next, Sherlock? What had I missed? It seemed like I’d covered every conceivable possibility. But obviously there was one possibility I hadn’t considered — and that was where the keys actually were. They had to be someplace. They didn’t just dissolve into thin air.

I drove home and reassessed the situation. The loss wasn’t monumental; it wasn’t like I’d lost my wallet with my driver’s license, registration and insurance ID cards. The only important key on the lost keychain was to my house. I sprung into action. I took Llewellyn’s house key to the hardware store, made two copies and bought a new chain. Now that I had dealt with the situation, it was time to let go.

I decided to watch a movie to take my mind off the keys. I turned on the TV and brought up a list of movies I’d recently recorded. Among them was a film I hadn’t seen in years — “The Third Man,” a thriller starring Orson Welles. Something about the title made me sit up and take notice. What was it? I thought and thought, and suddenly the middle word began to sparkle and bounce off the screen into my brain. It was the word “third.” Then it hit me. There was a third jacket!

Here’s what I’d forgotten: When I took the new jacket out of the locker and put it on, I had transferred my marker and pen from the old jacket to the breast pocket of the new one. The pocket in the new one had a large hole in it and the pens fell to the floor.

My locker is opposite the handyman’s work room. He’d suddenly appeared in the doorway and I’d told him about the hole and exchanged that jacket for another. The keys had to be in the pocket of the jacket with the hole that I’d given to the handyman — the third jacket.

This was exciting. I had solved the mystery! I was about to call the store when the phone rang. “Len?” said a voice.

I interrupted the caller and said, “You found my keys, right? They were in the pocket of the jacket that I returned to the handyman, right?“

“Right,” said the caller, sounding astonished. “How’d you know, Sherlock?”

“Elementary, my dear Watson! I merely followed the clues that appeared before me, which simply led to the obvious solution to ‘The Case of the Missing Keys.’ Any other questions?”

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