What would you think Houdini, a Spanish galleon and a graveyard have in common? No, I would not have got the answer, either. But I will give you a clue: gold.
Unknown to me, it began early in the year 2007. The whole process had been kept very secret. Only those who needed to know knew anything about the operation. Commander Whittaker was the man in charge of the entire procedure. The weather gods did little to cooperate, giving the day a miserable, misty drizzle. The only thing Whittaker had little or no control over had been the actual selection of the armoured truck crew. Mr Albert Sherman of the Indubitable Security Company gave his word that the men were loyal, honest and long-serving and that all had been vetted thoroughly by both him and the police.
Everything seemed to be going according to schedule. Whittaker was there personally in the lead car with a driver and an observer. A second vehicle containing six armed police escorts all wearing body armour brought up the rear. The security vehicle had a crew of four. Like clockwork, all vehicles arrived at the security station almost simultaneously. A fourth vehicle with two airport security men conducted the entourage to the airport’s south perimeter park.
The Swiss Air 767 touched down at Gatwick at precisely 15:30 hours. The hush-hush operation had been arranged to move six point three tons of pure gold from Switzerland and hand it over to the Jewish Holocaust Repatriation Confederation in Portsmouth, England. As the plane stopped in the appropriate park a crew of three trusted airport employees unloaded the plane with a front-end loading vehicle. The crates of gold were transferred directly to the awaiting security truck. Whittaker watched with eager eagle eyes while his armed men stood on guard.
In only seventeen minutes the loading and unloading operation had been completed. Whittaker stood by the security truck as the doors were closed and locked with the four men inside the vehicle. Quickly, the entourage took up position for the procession to Portsmouth. The first vehicle contained Whittaker, the second the gold and lastly the six armed police in the chase vehicle. Nothing short of an army could stop the gold reaching its official destination.
The police of two counties were on the alert, though none knew why. What could possibly go wrong?
Clearing the airport almost unnoticed, the entourage sped southwards towards the coast via the M-23 motorway to Crawley. Their intention being to reach the A-27 highway and then have clear driving all the way to Portsmouth. At the traffic circle with the Cuckfield turn-off, the security truck made a sudden and unexpected turn towards Lower Beeding in a westerly direction.
Cursing under his breath, Whittaker told his driver to make a one-eighty and put the pedal to the metal. The police follow car realised the error and shadowed the security vehicle. Obviously something was afoot. The armoured truck no longer obeyed either traffic rules or speed limits. Narrowly missing a small pick-up truck, the armoured vehicle screamed round a corner, leaving the police a minor problem with the traffic. Nonetheless, the police were only ten seconds behind the gold truck.
After some time and some very dangerous driving, the gold-bearing armoured vehicle sped down a narrow country lane and then up a farm track. Barely making the turn into the farm, the vehicle rushed into an open barn. Seconds later the barn door closed and gunfire rang out. The police screamed to a halt and took up defensive positions. This was the end of the road – the gold was going no farther. The armed stand-off lasted only two minutes, when the brave police stormed the barn and gained entry.
Whittaker leapt from behind his car and rushed into the barn with his men. At this point in time his career as a policeman took a nasty and unquestionable turn for the worst. The armoured security truck was there alright, still closed and locked. A case of The Mary Celeste on land presented itself. The crew appeared to be still in the armoured vehicle and it remained locked. The worst had yet to be discovered. Using his pass key, Whittaker opened the van. The entire crew of four and the gold were conspicuous by their absence. No untoward fingerprints were found in the armoured truck, no gold and not a single clue as to what could have happened to either the gold or the men.
Now that’s what I call really depressing, especially if you happen to be a high-ranking police officer. I could sympathize with Commander Whittaker, but at that time I knew nothing about it. I was having troubles of my own in Canada.
To say the least the past couple of years have been the worst in my entire life. Gran said I was suffering from depression and with good cause. Since I finally gave up being a detective – PI that is – life has slowly drifted into total boredom. As a sort of monotonous habit, Newf and I have supper with Gran
over in The Canadian every night – The Canadian being my hotel. It saves her cooking and saves me any clean-up. Since the disaster, Newf lives with me in my house and Gran lives at The Canadian in her own suite on the ground floor.
September the twenty-forth, my birthday, just happened to fall on a Monday and would you believe it to be my twenty-eighth? Now if that’s not depressing enough, Gran had her sixty-ninth this year and poor old Newf is two years older than me – well, almost.
As usual Gran wanted to make a song and dance about me getting one year older. This time she was throwing a party at my expense in my hotel and she invited all my staff on full pay. Worst of all, Miss Prissy-knickers Overland would be there. Man, I can’t stand much of that woman. A little of Jane Overland goes a hell of a long way.
I hate birthday parties, especially when they are mine. This one went over like a lead balloon. There were only seven hotel guests in the dining room and they paid little or no attention to our celebration. The chef even made a special birthday cake. Most embarrassing of all was when they sang “Happy Birthday” and brought the cake in looking like some glistening incendiary device. Man! it was a do rather like when the Garstons gave Gran a castle – talk about embarrassing.
The presents were near to the worst thing in my life. Little William Tan, the darling – he’s my only son. Well, his present was the best and the most welcome.
‘For you, Daddy,’ he said and handed me the small package.
He is a wonderful kid, smart like his dad, but only four and bit years old. If only Chu-Ling could see him now – Chu was his mother. When I opened it, tears came to my eyes. The little darling had picked out just what his dad needed. It was a brand new and shiny satellite radio-receiving device with headset. The whole thing was smaller than a one-dollar piece.
‘Thank you, William Tan,’ I said and kissed him.
‘This is for you, William,’ Gran said, handing me an envelope.
With suspicion I opened it and extracted the contents. ‘So what’s this for?’ I asked, holding a fancy-looking certificate in my hands.
Newf laughed as Gran explained, ‘We thought it time you joined us on this planet, William, dear. It is for four hours of psychotherapy in your own house.’
I looked at Gran and then at Newf. A volcano was slowly building up. Any minute steam would erupt from my ears. ‘So you think I’m bloody nuts,’ I said angrily. If it had not been for William Tan you can bet your bottom dollar there would have been a very violent explosion.
‘No, dear,’ Gran said. ‘But it is for your own good. The doctor will see you privately in your house at a time selected by me.’
‘I don’t need a trick cyclist.’
With that I stormed out of the dining room. Idiots, the lot of them. Bloody trick cyclist, indeed! There was nowhere to go except my house just across the green. Life is so unfair and I dearly miss Chu-Ling. I hadn’t been in the house long enough to sit down when the doorbell rang. Feeling greatly annoyed, I marched back to the front door and flung it open. Veronica stood there looking all smiles and sweetness. She was the one I once fired and then rehired. Now she manages the whole hotel for me.
‘I came over to apologize, boss.’
She sighed a deep sigh. ‘I know how you feel, and … well, Mrs Hubert will have her own way.’
‘Like that’s something I didn’t know.’
She put on a big grin and placed her hand on my shoulder. ‘Don’t let them get you down. I happen to know this particular head quack and you’ll get a laugh out of her.’
‘Oh yeah. Can I come in and make you a coffee or something?’
I shrugged and moved aside. It was obviously a put-up job or one of the others would have come running across the green.
‘I’m not in the mood to give out pay raises,’ I said and closed the door.
Veronica walked straight into the kitchen and started the coffee machine. ‘You’re a great boss,’ she said without turning round to look at me. ‘You gave me a second chance when no one else would. When I heard that Mrs Hubert was looking for a head quack, I quickly jumped in and recommended Dr Helen Edwards.’
‘Call it a return favour.’
‘So how’s that work?’
She turned to face me and leaned back against the counter. ‘Well, she helped me. She’s young, got a nice set of boobs and she does house calls.’
I chuckled. ‘You know, Veronica, you could sell refrigerators to the Inuits or dates to the Arabs.’
‘I don’t like my boss being put on,’ she said.
It’s funny how with a few simple words one of my own employees could do something neither Gran nor Newf could achieve. A simple chat in all honesty over a cup of coffee and my anger evaporated.
Dr. Helen Edwards apparently charged a mere four hundred bucks an hour and to think I used to sling doughnuts for eight dollars and fifty cents an hour.
A few days later and in the afternoon the door burst open. ‘She’s ’ere,’ Newf yelled and rushed into the living room.
I was reading the daily paper. ‘Who?’ I asked, looking over the top.
‘Your trick cyclist.’
‘Oh God! Lock the door. Better still, tell her I died yesterday.’
Newf ran off just as the doorbell rang. The unfaithful slob answered it and led the broad into the living room.
‘This ’ere’s Bill,’ he said, grinning from ear to ear.
She looked a bit like Jane Overland, except for her shape. Jane’s built like a drinking straw and dresses like an advert for motorcycle gangs. Now this one, man! She’s wearing a Harris tweed skirt and jacket with a tie of all things. But looking on the bright side, she sported a fine pair of breasts and shapely hips. She smiled and placed her briefcase on the floor.
‘In here or do you have a more private den?’ She had a very nice and soothing voice.
‘Here will do, I guess.’ There was no way I was going to shake her hand. Like who the hell needs a shrink anyway?
I was on an easy chair. She approached and sat bolt upright on a seat opposite with her shapely legs neatly crossed.
‘Close the door as you leave, young man,’ she said to Newf.
Disappointedly and with shoulders hunched, he slunk out of the room and closed the door behind him.
‘Now, I understand we are having bouts of depression,’ she said and leaned over to reach her case.
‘Oh, are we?’
‘Hostility is part of the manifestation. Tell me about your parents.’
‘They’re dead.’ I avoided her gaze and looked out of the window towards the lake. When this lot ends I intend to give Gran a good talking to.
‘I understand your hostility and doldrums commenced when your wife died.’
‘Tell me about your life. Start with your parents. Do you have any siblings?’
‘No. I had a cousin once but she was murdered.’
‘And your mother?’
‘Heavens, no. She died in a car crash.’
‘Did you love your mother?’
‘Oh, for crying out loud, do we have to go through all this Freudian crap?’
‘Not if you volunteer the information.’ She took out a pad and commenced making notes.
‘I loved my parents and we had a good relationship – that is until they died. Granny Hubert tried to muscle in on my life but I wasn’t having any of it. Who the hell needs a life governed by someone way over the other side of the generation canyon?’
‘So you feel hostility towards your grandmother?’
‘I didn’t say that. I love Gran. She’s been a wizard and a real brick. I could never have managed without her.’
‘When did you come to realize you needed her help?’
‘I don’t need her help. Stop putting words in my mouth. Gran and I got close because of … well, because we share the same interests.’
‘Food and mysteries. It was on Fiend’s Rock – Saucer’s Island – that we really got to know and trust each other. My uncle died in a boating accident – well, murdered, really. That’s how I became rich. You see, he left Gran and me loads of money and an island. Then I went and found the lost treasure and the US government gave me a 10 per cent finder’s fee.’
‘You like being a detective?’ she said.
‘No, not really, but I do like the excitement and putting a finger on the bad guys.’
‘Do you find it satisfying?’
I had to think about that one. In reality, some of the best times in my life were when Newf and I were tracking down criminals. There’s a real satisfaction when you can finally nail their little game. ‘Yeah,’ I said and smiled as I thought of some of our past escapades.
‘But you find the loss of your wife makes everything seem pointless?’
‘No. Yes. I don’t know. You are confusing me.’
‘What happened to your wife?’
‘I don’t want to talk about it – especially with you.’
‘That is part of your problem. Expressing grief is a wonderful therapy. Everyone, including you, have the need to unburden themselves. What exactly is it about your wife’s death that upsets you?’
‘Are you crazy, lady? Everything upsets me. What a bloody stupid question.’
‘Do you blame Mr East for the calamity?’
‘Heck, no. It wasn’t Newf’s fault. If anybody’s it was mine.’
‘Why do you think it was your fault?’
‘Because I should never have let her go. I was too busy to take her and Mary, that is Newf’s wife, well, she volunteered to do the driving.’
‘Had it have been you driving, do you really think you could have prevented the accident?’
‘Of course not. That bloody truck was out of control. No one could have avoided it. But I shouldn’t have let her go.’
‘What happened to Mrs East?’
‘Newf’s wife? She wasn’t injured. Chu-Ling was killed outright. Mary left Newf because she blamed herself and couldn’t face either of us.’
‘Do you think that Mr East, or Mrs Hubert, are unhurt by these events?’
‘What a bloody silly question.’
She smiled. ‘You are doing marvellously, Mr Reyner. Once you face your enemy the fear and dread will evaporate. I think that’s enough for today. Think about what has happened here, think about what we have been saying and remember that other people are hurting, too.’
‘That’s it?’ I questioned. ‘That’s all there is to it?’
‘Certainly. I can’t cure you. It is something you have to have the strength to do for yourself. You have taken the first step to recovery. Good day, Mr Reyner.’
The bossy bitch got up, collected her papers and walked out like a brazen hussy – four hundred bucks an hour she charges. Man! I’m surely in the wrong job.
Newf came running in like a dog wanting to play chase. ‘Now that that broad’s gone, I got somefing of interest to show you, Bill.’
I sighed and lounged back into the easy chair. Newf is always coming up with hare-brained ideas.
‘Well, what is it this time?’
‘Take a butcher’s at this,’ he said and threw a magazine at me.
There was nothing of interest, at least nothing of interest to me. ‘So bloody what?’
He leaned over and grabbed the mag and roughly opened it to a specific page. ‘Drop your peepers on that, Bill.’
I scanned the article. ‘So?’
‘Cor blimey, Bill. Ain’t yah got no interest in life?’
‘Sure, but how does this help?’
‘Look at it. Some geezer found a sunk ship.’
‘Big deal. There’s thousands of sunken ships in Lake Huron.’
‘Crikey. This ’un’s got gold on it. It says in the article that Drake sank it. ’e sunk loads of ’em all over the place.’
‘Run that by me again, and this time not in fast forward.’
‘Sometimes I reckon you’re real fick, Bill. It’s a treasure ship, loaded wiv tons of gold, all nicked from Souf America. This geezer Drake comes along an’ blows ’em art the water. Well, this other geezer’s gone an’ found it, gold an’ all.’
‘Well bully for him.’
‘We should do somefing like it, Bill. I could rent a ship an’ search for galleons. Just fink of the broads and the fun. You know – a life on the ocean waves an’ all that.’
I shook my head in sadness. ‘I’m not interested in broads and even if I were, they’re so much easier to catch with an open wallet. You don’t need sunken treasure ships.’
‘You ever bin diving?’
‘I assume you mean snorkelling?’
‘No, I mean diving, like Commander Crabb – air tanks and flippers.’
‘No, I haven’t.’
‘Just fink ’ow much fun it would be. You an’ me on the bottom of the ocean lookin’ for mysteries.’
‘Well … I suppose it could be fun. I don’t know anything about searching for sunken treasure, though.’ I started to read the article and after only a few minutes discovered the hang-up. ‘You clot; it says here that the Spanish government are claiming the gold because it was stolen from them by Sir Frances Drake in the sixteenth century.’
Newf beamed all over his face. ‘I know that. ’e found the ship in international water, two ’undred an’ fifty miles off the coast of Ireland.’
I shook my head in disgust. ‘You twit, what’s the point of finding someone else’s gold? We would have to find some that has no claim against it.’
‘Right. So you ’ave to find one not in international waters.’
It is hard to admit, but I think that trick cyclist broad did me some good in a strange sort of way. She made me angry – and the anger made me say what I needed to say. Poor Newf, he’s a simple soul who depends on me for almost everything. He’s like a brother ever since I rescued him from the TOD.
‘You know,’ I said slowly, ‘you are a good friend, Newf. I’m sorry I seem to put you down all the time, but … well, you sort of ask for it. Maybe we should put our heads together and find something useful to do. But I don’t know anything about Spanish galleons or international sea law.’
‘Yah know anyfink abart opening locks or safes?’
‘Of course not, I leave all that to you.’
He smiled. ‘Cuz I knows abart them fings.’
‘Right, well, ’ow would you start looking fer a murderer or mass killer?’
I shrugged. ‘Well, Gran would usually start in the library. You look for similar occurrences.’
‘Bang on the nose, Bill. So are yah gonna ’elp me?’
‘Sure, if it will make you happy.’
I think it must have been some form of conspiracy, as only a few weeks later, just after Newf received some mail, he came running into my study again. He threw himself on a chair and grinned at me like a Cheshire cat.
‘So what do you want now?’ I growled.
‘Yah know we was talkin’ abart treasure ’untin’?’
I sighed. ‘Yeah, so what?’
‘Well ’ow yah feel abart doin’ a bit?’
‘Your English stinks, Newf. Would you like to speak in English, or at least a version I can understand?’
‘Nah,’ow would yah like to take a peaceful cruise an’ look fer some lost treasure?’
‘Will anybody be carrying a gun?’
‘Is there any likelihood of the ship being hijacked, torpedoed, striking an iceberg, or exploding?’
‘Nah, don’t be daft, Bill.’
‘So what do you mean?’
‘Well, see, I ’ears about this geezer an’ ’ow needs ’elp, see. So I gives ’im a call.’
‘Well, ’e’s comin’ to see yah.’
‘Cuz I used your name, see.’
I sighed and leaned back in my chair. ‘You know, Newf, you’re as thick as two broad planks. I’m not interested in any treasure hunting.’
‘This is different, Bill. The geezer needs financial ’elp. You won’t even ’ave to leave the ’ouse. Fork over a little cash an’ reap the benefit. No guns, no dead guys, no risk. You can be your usual useless and lazy self.’
If I’d had the energy, Newf would have received a thick ear.
‘I don’t like your attitude.’
‘Yeah, I fort that shrink didn’t do yous any good. Well, if you ain’t interested in treasure ’unting, do yous mind if I ’elp the geezer?’
‘Do as you like. You are your own man.’
‘Well, ’e will be ’ere like as soon as ’e can make it.’
‘As soon as he can make it? What exactly do you mean by that?’
‘Yeah. Says ’e’s an Englishman an’ does a lot of ’istory shit. That’s ’ow ’e found this treasure, see.’
‘He’s already found it, then?’
‘Sort of. Says ’e needs financing.’
‘So what did he find?’
‘He’ll tell yah when ’e gets ’ere, okay?’
‘Alright,’ I sighed, trying to show boredom.
‘The geezer’s name is Shyla Pitt.’