THE CASE OF THE MIDNIGHT CALLER: A humorous short story about a man who uses his metal detecting hobby to solve mysteries.

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The Case of the Midnight Caller

I'm not usually up at midnight to answer the phone, but the evening's plans hadn't worked out as I hoped so when I walked through the door at twelve and heard the ring, I instinctively picked it up. Big mistake.

I'd gotten five private detecting jobs over the previous month following the Valley Press's account of the discovery of the Del Rio Cross. The money from those jobs, the annual cost of living raise from my military retirement pay, and the ten dollars from George for getting the deepest find at the Casa Verdugo Adobe, (his best was a horse shoe buried at the same depth of my silver plate - we tied at fifteen inches but I won on quality), combined to push my financial head above the water for the first time in six months. Time to celebrate.

It was the first Monday of the month and I was looking forward to the seven PM meeting of the Antelope Valley Treasure Hunter's Society. I'd dug up a beauty of a gold ring inlaid with platinum tracery that was sure to win one of the silver dimes handed out to acknowledge the month's best finds. I arrived at the Parkside school's auditorium early to set up my display board. Black velvet covered the bottom of the wood tray and the only thing on it was the ring. I had just placed the ID tag on the tray when someone brushed my arm. I turned and smiled into the greenest eyes I'd ever seen.

She was tall and slim and had auburn hair tumbling softly to her waist, like a young Lauren Bacall with gentler features. "Sorry," she said in a voice as warm as embers in a glowing fireplace.

I swallowed: "No harm done. You're new here?"

She nodded. "I just bought my first detector today. The seller knew about tonight's meeting and recommended I give it a try." She held out her hand. "I'm Jennifer Worthington."

Her hand was warmer than her voice. "A pleasure. Melvin Cogsworth." I was thinking that she would be a great person with which to celebrate my new solvency.

She twisted half way around to scan the assembling crowd, her hair swished gently as the overhead lights reflected red-gold streaks off it. I was beginning to believe in love at first sight.

"Are the members friendly to novices?" she asked.

"Best group of people you'll find anywhere. Let me introduce you to some of my friends."

I led her around the floor, introducing members as we went. The president hammered for order and the thirty attendees shuffled for seats. Somehow Jennifer and I ended up next to each other. The meeting preceded as usual with me explaining to her what was happening and why. I didn't get a silver dime for the ring. My best friend George Martin snagged it for a gold necklace with a small diamond scooped up near the pier at Santa Monica beach. She laughed at my disheartened look and offered to buy me a coffee as a consolation prize. Her personality was as comforting as the coffee we had at the Marie Callender's at 17th and K. She was driving me back to Parkview to pick up my car when the bottom fell out of the night; I asked her what type of detector she'd purchased.

"A Nova 2000 from Wal-Mart," she answered. "It was on sale for $59.99."

Buildings toppled, great chasms tore the earth, the world shriveled to a cinder... and I tumbled head-first into despair as a gulf opened between us. I'm not a detector snob, but a NOVA! I have electronic stud finders with more power. The thought of my proud Garret 2500 swinging side by side with such a lowly machine was unbearable. I felt like weeping.

She let me off and we shook hands goodbye. I climbed listlessly behind the wheel of my white Caravan and drove off. I hoped she stay with the club. Detecting's a great hobby and it would be nice to see her again. But still... a Nova?

My shoulders hung all the way home. As I opened the front door the phone rang and I was too preoccupied to hear the warning bells going off inside my head. "Melvin Cogsworth," I answered.

"Are you the private metal detectorist in the yellow pages!" a frantic man's voice pleaded. "Tell me it's not some kind of a joke!"

"It's no joke, sir. I'm really-"

"Okay. Great. I need you to get over here right away. This minute! It's an emergency. Hurry!" He blurted out an address on 30th Street west and told me his name was John Burton.

"Sir, it's almost midnight. Surely this can wait until morning."

"Morning! My God, no. We'd never make it. Please, come over right now."

I sighed. "My rate is one hundred dollars for six hour's work. Since this is night and-"

"I'll give you two hundred for a ten minute job. Now get over here!"

He slammed the receiver down so hard it made my ear ring. But for two hundred dollars I'd happily endure it. I snatched my faithful 2500 from the front closet and ran for the door.

Traffic was light and I made it across town in ten minutes. The address was a three-story house in that stretch of 30th where the lots are large and the houses custom-built. Everything was dark, except Burton's house which blazed with yellow light. I pulled into the gravel drive and barely switched the engine off when a man in his mid-forties stormed out of the front door.

"What took you so long? I said this was an emergency!" he screamed.

An angry retort jammed in my throat as I saw his face. Physical anguish had contorted his otherwise handsome features into a pain-racked grimace. I grabbed the detector. "Lead the way."

I expected him to lead me into the back yard. Instead, he dashed back into the house. "This way! Top floor."

We scrambled up thickly carpeted stairs. Blurred by my rush, I caught a glimpse of two young girls in the living room dancing from one foot to the other in short frantic steps. A chubby boy in his early teens was leaning in a corner of the second floor landing, his eyes crossed and knees squeezed together. We charged up the third flight of stairs. The house was enormous, with enough bedrooms and bathrooms for an army. On the third floor Burton hurried into a room at the end of a short hall. I followed and saw a lady I assumed to be Mrs. Burton seated on a chair with her legs crossed. Pain pinched her forehead.

The room was one of the upstairs washrooms favored in newer houses. Besides a washer and drier, it boasted a deep basin. A heap of wet laundry was piled on the floor next to it.

Burton pointed at the exposed gooseneck plumbing under the basin. "Janice was hand washing some clothes and her ring came off. She pulled the plug before she realized it and the ring went down the drain. It's a priceless heirloom that's been in my family six generations. It happened five hours ago and no one's run any water since then. It must still be in down there somewhere. We've got to find it!"

I bent low and squinted at the plumbing line under the sink, then sighed with relief; it was plastic. I unsheathed the green machine from its full-length leather case like a man drawing a sword for battle. The standard nine-inch coil came off and a four-inch scorcher took its place. "Gold or silver?"

Burton shook his head. "Solid platinum."

I nodded and decided not to fuss with notching out noise metals. There wouldn't be many pull tabs in a drain. I pushed the yellow power button and the detector came to life. Like Spock using a tricorder, I scanned the pipe from the basin to where it disappeared into the floor. Nothing. I looked up and shook my head.

Burton ran from the room. "Come on. We'll track the pipe downstairs."

All the house's plumbing was contained in a wet wall with access panels on each floor. Burton ripped the second floor's panel off and I ran the small disk along the full length of each pipe. The detector remained silent.

"One more panel," Burton exclaimed and fled downstairs.

I followed him to a wall behind the kitchen. He already had the access open. I scanned each pipe, paying special attention to goosenecks and bends. The detector head traced the last pipe, but remained quiet. Burton's shoulders sagged. "That's it then."

"Maybe not," I said. "Follow me." I'd noticed that this last panel was close to a front exterior wall. Odds were that all the pipes came together at a cleanout before emptying into the sewer.

We raced out front where I quickly spotted the top of a four-inch black plastic pipe. Burton got a trowel from the garage and we scrapped dirt from around the cleanout. It was a "Y" fitting with the lower leg heading out to the sewer and the upper for access. I'd had to pay a plumber overtime one weekend because when the drain line in my house had been laid the cleanout hadn't been set all the way into the pipe and debris had jammed in the uneven surface. I thought if the same thing had happened here, the ring might also have been trapped.

Burton scooped the last of the dirt away from the pipe and I moved in. The disc came down, and the speaker squealed. He unscrewed the cleanout cap and used the trowel to probe the dark hole. There was a metallic clink, and he withdrew the trowel. The ring dangled from its tip, glittering in spite of the sludge covering it. "Thank God," he said.

Before I could say anything, he dashed into the house. "Wait here," he threw back over his shoulder. "I'll be back in three minutes with your money... and a bonus!"

A second later I heard him cry out: "It's okay." Immediately after that, the sound of five doors being slammed echoed out to me.

I knelt down and began taking the little scorcher off the Garrett. The holding screw came out just as I heard the sound of five toilets being flushed. I smiled, understanding now why everyone had worn such desperate expressions; they'd been afraid of using the bathrooms for six hours. The smile fled as I looked with horror directly into the still-open mouth of the cleanout. I dove to the side - two seconds late.

 

The Burtons were very apologetic... once they'd stop laughing. John marched me out to the curb and hosed me and the Garrett off, then handed me three hundred dollars. I went home and had to take three steaming baths before I felt clean.

The next morning I dug up a half-completed Wendy's job application and began finishing it. There were hazards to being a Private Detectorist I hadn't counted on.

 

THE END

 


This story is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are products of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

Copyright December, 2002 by Wayne Schmidt

Cover art by S.A., borrowed from the cover of the novel The Broken Gun by Louis L'amour, and heavily modified by Wayne Schmidt.

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