THE PROBLEM OF THE TIGER-STRIPED CAT: A humorous short story about a man who uses his metal detecting hobby to solve mysteries.
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The Problem of the Tiger-Striped Cat
The crowd bustled around me, elbowing each other out of the way to get close enough for an autograph. We were in the outer hall, waiting to be summoned into the main great room. My publicist pushed forward and handed over copies of the Los Angeles and New York Times. Both featured full-page pictures of me on their covers. Underneath these papers was the latest Time magazine, proclaiming me the Man of the Year for discovering the greatest treasure cache in the last fifty years: the silver dollar Washington threw across the Potomac, Jim Bowie's original Iron Mistress knife, the missing fifty-fourth Faberge' egg and the lost crown of Eleanor of Aquitaine, Queen of England. This find had been made possible by my invention of the tetra-coil, ultra-low frequency detector that had a penetration depth of ten feet through heavily mineralized soil and could create three-dimensional images of targets. One reporter claimed it could read the date off a wheat penny buried four feet. That was an exaggeration. To do that the coin had to be in the top twelve inches of soil.
Off to my right the CEOs of the Garrett, Fisher, Minelab, Tesoro, and Whites companies were locked in a bidding war for the rights to my design. They'd reached the six-figure range and were still going strong.
I looked left and saw Morley Safer, Dan Rather, and Barbara Walters in a fist fight over who'd be the first to interview me.
A great, slow knocking filled the hall and the mob grew silent. Two great oak doors opened majestically and from within the huge room beyond, a deep voice called out: "Ladies and Gentlemen of the Congress of the United States, I present Mister Melvin Cogsworth!"
Applause exploded as I strode forward into a joint session of Congress. Senators and congressmen alike stood as I marched down the aisle, my short mane flowing backward in the breeze of my passage like Han Solo's in the closing scene of Star Wars. I stepped up to the podium and turned to face the throng. The applause crescendoed, then faded. All eyes turned to the entrance as the President of the United States and the Queen Elizabeth of England entered. They came up to the podium and the President handed me a Certificate of National Achievement. The Queen bade me kneel, tapped me on each should with a sword and announced, "Arise, Sir Cogsworth."
I did and bowed low to her, then blushed as she took my hand and kissed it... then began licking it, moved in close and started nibbling my left ear, licking my cheek...
"NO!" I jerked up to a sitting position and Claude, my pug dog, tumbled away from my face. I looked around at my familiar bedroom and sighed. I ruffled the dog's head. "Looks like we had the dream again. That's three times this month."
I headed to the bathroom, looked in the mirror and cringed. I should remember not to do that first thing in the morning. Ten minutes of shaving, washing and combing helped, but there is only so much you can do with a fifties-something face that's been weathered by thirty years of metal detecting.
Claude scuttled over and began gumming the laces to my shoes, coating them with a thick layer of drool. My friends wondered why I'd decided to get what they consider the ugliest of dogs. The secret truth is that five years earlier a girl I was madly in love with dumped me for a man named Claude. In a moment of planned spite, I'd gone to the pound and adopted the worst looking animal there and named him Claude, with the intent of kicking him regularly. On the way home the dog had snuggled his ugliness tight against my leg and gone to sleep. I automatically gave him a pat and all thoughts of abuse vanished. Now the only time I think of the original Claude is when my Claude stuffs his face into his food bowl. I smiled, wondering how similar the two Claudes' eating habits were.
A breakfast of scrambled eggs and Canadian Bacon chased away the melancholy over not being Sir Cogsworth. I lingered over the morning paper as I sipped hot cocoa. By eight it was time to get to work.
Thanks to publicity from the Del Rio Cross, Silas McPhee, and Makerpiece Mansion cases, my private detectorist career was flourishing. Averaging three calls a day, I had the luxury of picking and choosing the cases that interested me. This morning the answering machine flashed a bright red 4 at me, indicating the number of messages since I checked it yesterday afternoon.
The first and third messages were from Jennifer Worthington. I smiled. Since the Makerpiece mystery, our relationship had developed in a most satisfying direction. The second call was from a man who had dropped a valuable ring down a drain. I called and left a message stating I no longer worked plumbing-related problems. The final call intrigued me.
"Mister Cogsworth, this is Mary Samuels. Now don't laugh, but my cat, Tangerine, thinks she's a dog and likes to bury things. Last night a very important silver chain went missing and I think she's to blame. It'll be in my backyard. Do you think you could help me?"
The case sounded like something I could fit into the morning before my lunch date with Jennifer. I called Mrs. Samuels, got the address, and promised to come right over... after fondly watching Claude bury his face in his breakfast.
Mary Samuels was a tall leggy blonde with a figure that could give Jennifer a run for her money... not that I noticed. I was, after all, a professional detectorist on duty.
Her house was a one-story white stucco Spanish with a red tile roof comfortably furnished in shades of browns and tans. I'd no sooner stepped across the threshold when a large orange cat with black tiger stripes scurried over and rubbed itself against the cuffs of my dark blue slacks. I bent down and rubbed it's head. It purred loudly, pushing deeper into my palm. I pulled back a hand covered with fur. I looked down and saw that the bottoms of my slacks were similarly caked with orange. I tried brushing it off, but instead of dropping away, each attempt to get rid of the hair caused it to spread up my pant leg. Like being trapped in quick sand, I feared of being over come. Mary rescued me with a roller covered with double-faced sticky tape. "I see you've met Tangerine."
I nodded and stepped around the cat, who, with an eye on my dark slacks started toward me again. "Perhaps this would be a good time to look into your problem," I suggested.
Mary led me through the house and out into a small, concrete-block enclosed back yard with a manicured lawn bordered with rainbow-colored zinnias.
She pointed at dark circle eight feet in diameter in the far right-hand corner. "It'll be in there," she said.
I nodded, pressed the my Garrett 2500's on button, and stepped forward.
I was half way across the grass when she added: "Tangerine buries all of her things there."
I jarred to a stop and turned to her. "Things? What sorts of things?"
"Oh, don't worry. She has a litter box inside for that."
Not completely reassured, I turned back and slowly approached the circle, eyeing it suspiciously. The bright green lawn ended in a sharp edge at it's perimeter. Within, fine dark grains sparkled. Nothing grew inside. There were three gray boulders in it and the surface had been raked with a complex pattern of flowing groves. "What is it?"
"Some sort of Zen garden. My husband put it in before our divorce. I raked it early this morning before discovering that the necklace was missing. It could be anywhere in there."
I hefted the Garrett. "This detector can find it."
She cast me a sheepish look. "I just thought of something. Tangerine uses a box inside but there are other cats in the neighborhood."
I stepped away from the pit. "I'm not sure...."
"Please, Mister Cogsworth," she said taking hold of my arm with two warm hands. "That chain was a present for my mother. If you don't help me I don't know what I'll do."
Her eyes pleaded so sympathetically that no man could resist them. I sighed and rubbed my chin. Inspiration hit. "Saran Wrap. Bring me all you've got."
She hurried away, returning with a large box of the plastic wrap. I sat down on the lawn and carefully wrapped every square inch of the coil and first foot of shaft with the wrap, making sure that all the edges were tightly sealed. So protected, I stood and ventured toward the pit. The coil swung out over the black surface and the detector's speaker screamed in complaint. I waited for the auto track to set the ground balance, but the yowling wouldn't stop. I swung the coil back over the grass and the detector went silent. "What's in there?"
Mary shrugged. "Just sand, as far as I know. Ben and I were touring the banks of the American River up north in his pick-up one year. During a hike along the shore, we came to a couple of logs that had fallen over a little inlet. We tried walking across them but they were so rotten they broke lose and fell into the river. Under them was a small stone-lined circle filled with this dark sand. This was in late fall after a drought and the water level had fallen so much the grotto was dry. Ben said that most of the time river water would have filled it. There was an arc of stones reaching outward and upstream. Ben said that normally it would have looked like a little whirlpool. Anyway, he liked the dark look of the sand so he backed the truck up and we spent the morning filling the bed with it." She raised an eyebrow. "Ben was always doing crazy stuff like that."
I tuned back to the circle and sighed. "Well, it's highly mineralized and interfering with the detector."
"It's hopeless, then?"
"Not at all. You said the necklace was silver?"
"Then we have a chance."
I began punching the Garrett's yellow buttons. First, I placed it in discriminate zero mode and opened a narrow "accept" notch for silver. Then I set to sensitivity to minimum, thinking anything a cat would bury would be shallow. Finally, I manually ground balanced the detector to the quietist setting possible over the sand. Then I went to work, making sure to sweep the coil an inch higher than usual to reduce reflection noise.
The detector continued to complain, but at a tolerable level. Working my way around the perimeter, I snagged a solid bleep two feet from far side. I pulled a trowel from my leather utility belt, jabbed it into the sand, and out popped a silver chain.
Mary rushed up. "Thank God. You did it!"
Smiling, I handed over the chain. "All in a detectorist's day's work."
"Thank you very much," she said, brushing black specks off the chain as she led the way back to the house. "Is a check okay?"
"Certainly," I said and followed her. Just outside the door, I paused. Something in the back of my mind yelled for attention. A sinking feeling hit me like I'd thrown out a winning lottery ticket. I slowly turned back to the Zen garden. "Dark sand," I said half to my self. "Dark Sand." My eyes popped open wide. "Dark sand! Black sand!"
I dropped the Garrett and rushed back to the circle, falling to my knees at its edge. My fingers fumbled a powerful ceramic magnet out of my utility belt. I lowered it close to the sand and a cloud of fine particles leapt up to cover the magnet. "Good God," I breathed.
Mary came up to me and held out a check. I took it dumbly and looked up at her. "Do you know what you have here?"
Her expression soured. "Yes, a real pain. It's a hassle keeping the thing clean. Ben used to sit out here for hours meditating about God only knows what. Now he's gone and I have to waste half an hour every day keeping it raked or it makes the whole yard look like a dump. Flowers won't even grow in it. I'm planning on hiring someone to dig it out so I can cover the spot with lawn."
"It could be worth something." I started to explain. "This type of sand-"
"Mister Cogsworth, if you want it, you can have it. The crown jewels could be buried in there for all I care. It's the last thing around the place that reminds me of Ben. Take it away and you'll be doing me a favor, so please, help yourself."
I jumped up. "If you're certain?"
"Never more so."
I grinned. "Great. I'll be back in half an hour. Okay?"
"The door will be open."
I grabbed the Garrett and hurried through the house fast enough so that the tiger-striped cat only managed to coat my right cuff with a thin layer of orange hair. I couldn't care less.
Twenty minutes later I was back with a wheel barrow, a shovel, and a pick-up borrowed from my old detecting friend George Martin. Mary had opened a side gate and I began digging. Five hours later I eased the truck out of the drive, its suspension riding dangerously low from the mountain of sand in the bed.
I headed for home, driving slow to prevent any sand from blowing away. Once there I began the laborious job of trundling the sand onto my patio. When done, the cone-shaped mound measured five feet tall and six across.
I knew my back had to be aching, but I couldn't feel anything except the rapid beating of my pulse. An impatient tapping caught my attention. I turned and Jennifer stood leaning against the side gate, tapping her foot on a paving stone. She was trying to frown, but the corners of her wide mouth curved up. "We had a date."
I slapped the side of my head, a little too hard and my vision blurred. "God. That's right. I'm sorry, but look...." I waved a hand at the pile of sand.
She raised an eyebrow. "Nice. But so's lunch and I'm hungry." She strode forward and pulled at my sleeve. "Come on. I feel like Chinese."
I took her by the shoulders. "You don't understand. This is black sand."
She eyed the mound. "Sand. That's black. Right, I get it. Now about that lunch-"
I broke away and carefully scooped a small amount into her hands. "You don't understand." I pointed at the tiny mound nestled in her palm. "Black Sand."
I leaned close to whisper in her ear. "That's where you find gold. Like all detectorists, I've done my share of nugget hunting with the Garrett, usually with the local prospecting club. Watching them run sluices and various separators taught me a lot."
Her expression turned incredulous as she stared down at the sand. "In this?"
"I got it from a client who dug it out of what sounds like a natural centrifugal concentrator. For hundreds of years a river swirled sand in a hidden grotto that permitted only the heaviest of materials to settle in its bed: black sand, which is mostly iron and manganese and-"
"Gold!" Jennifer finished for me. She carefully poured the handful of sand back onto the pile. "How much? How do we get it out of there? What are you waiting for? When do we get started?"
I regarded the mound. "This isn't going to be a normal extracting job because there's so much material to deal with. Even assuming it's already been concentrated it'll be a huge job." I ran a hand over the back of my neck. "Okay, here's what we do: you run out and buy ten shallow 30-gallon metal tubs from Home Depot, all the white vinegar and salt you can find, then go to Wal-Mart and pick up at least twenty hand mixers."
Her forehead furrowed.
I waved it off. "It's for the recovery process. We'll also need twenty large iron skillets and propane burners, the type for camping." I gave her a push. "Get going. Take George's truck."
She hurried off and I dove into my garage, coming up with a pair of large number-12 and number-20 classification sifters. Armed with these, I attacked the mount.
Three hours later Jennifer returned. She fell into a lotus position next to me on the concrete slab and handed over a Jack in the Box bag. I wolfed two bacon ultimate cheese burgers and washed them down with a coke. While she'd been gone, I'd sorted the black sand into three piles: the siftings from the #12 classifier, siftings from the #20, and a large pile of everything that passed through the #20 classifier. That pile had been separated into ten bushel basket-sized piles.
I handed Jennifer a tweezers and a shallow plate and pointed to the bucket-sized mound close to a small stone crusher. "Start searching for nuggets. Dump the cleared sand into the grinder and then add it to the siftings from the #20 classifier." I pointed to a second small pile of finer sand.
She studied the amount of sand to process and gave me a sideways glance. "Are you sure this is going to be worth all this work and expense?"
I handed her a small white china bowl where three dozen golden pebbles glistened. I place a hand on her shoulder. "This is rich sand, Jennifer. The richest I've ever seen. Trust me, it's going to be worth it."
She smiled and started working through the sand in the plate I'd handed her. A moment later she yelped with excitement and I heard a faint clink as she dropped a nugget into the dish.
I set up a giant blue-bowl separator MacGivered from a half barrel and some garden hoses, dumped a load from the #20 pile into it, then ran to the truck.
I set the ten tubs up on the porch and shoveled one mound of fine siftings into each, filled them with vinegar, and duct-taped two mixers in each one. I turned the mixers on and they began swirling the slurry in a pattern I hoped would simulate conditions inside a tumbler. That done, I returned to the blue bowl and nursed it while Jennifer worked at hand-picking nuggets out of the courser material. She's already added considerably to the catch and she'd only gotten through half of the pile. The hours blurred into each other as we worked into the night.
Around midnight we collapsed on randomly-selected furniture in the living room and fell asleep, oblivious to the drone of twenty mixers.
We rose early the next morning, had a quick breakfast, and got back to work. Over night the acid had broken down the organics. We strained the vinegar into the garden and fired up the twenty propane burners to dry the cleaned sand. Once it was dry, we roasted it with salt to fracture sodium gold and attached gold from the sand then processed it through two motorized spiral panners a friend in the prospecting club had dropped off an hour earlier. Limited to working on small amounts, it took three days to finish. It paid off.
Jennifer hand-picked no less than three troy ounces of nuggets. My processing the #20 and crushed #12 classification piles yielded four ounces of dust and flakes. But the real payoff came from the ultra-fine gold powder captured from the vinegar/salt process: no less than 42 ounces for a total of 49 ounces of high-grade gold.
We funneled our treasure into two large mason jars, cleaned ourselves up and drove into Los Angeles to Morgenstern's Gold and Jewelry Exchange, the largest gold-buying franchise in southern California. The timing was fortuitous, Iraq had fired a missile at Israel two days earlier and gold prices had jumped. We walked into Morgenstern's with the two mason jars full of gold and walked out with $35,000.
One week later, Jennifer and I were working our way along a beach in Hawaii, sloshing feet through warm clear water as we swept the sand with two matching Garretts, the newly-released GTI 3000s.
I'd worked my way twenty feet off to her right when I got a solid hit in the nickel/gold zone. I dug my hand into the sun-warmed sand and found a gold engagement ring with a solitaire diamond. I looked at it a long time. The more time I spent with Jennifer, the more often it occurred to me that a permanent relationship would be be a pleasant way to spend the rest of our lives. I'm not one to believe in divine intervention, but this was too much of a hint to ignore. I smiled up toward the sky. "I get the hint."
I turned to join Jennifer, and almost ran into her. While I'd been collecting my courage, she'd tiptoed close.
"Mel," she began, a slight quiver in her voice. "It doesn't look like you're ever going to get around to asking me so I better do it for both of us." She looked up into my eyes and held out her hand palm up. A man's wedding ring lay on it, sand still clinging to it. "I just found this and am smart enough to figure out when someone's trying to tell us something. Will you marry me?"
I held out my hand with the ring I'd found and grinned. "You beat me by a second."
We embraced and said all the things two people in such situations are supposed say. Since we were already in what most people consider the ideal location for a honeymoon, we decided to get married on the island as soon as we could get a license.
We hugged one last time and broke apart. Getting married was all well and good, but there was still a lot of beach left to sweep. We keyed our detectors to life and side by side worked our way toward the setting sun.
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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