THE SECRET OF MAKERPIECE MANSION: A humorous short story about a man who uses his metal detecting hobby to solve mysteries.
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The Secret of Makerpiece Mansion
" ...you have reached the residence of Melvin Cogsworth, Private Detectorist. I am unable to answer the phone at this time. Please leave a message at the tone. Thank you."
"Mister Cogsworth," an officious woman's voice stated. "This is officer Jamison at the Lancaster Division of the Los Angeles Police Department. Your presence is required at the station on the corner of Sierra Highway and Lancaster Boulevard as soon as possible. Report to office number 121."
I stood frozen in place, cold perspiration dotting my forehead. My name is Melvin Cogsworth and I had no idea why the police wanted me.
I'd intended picking up the receiver as soon as I knew it wasn't a telemarketer, but officer Jamison's stern tone paused my hand. My eyes widened with sudden insight. I dashed to the high-boy desk where I keep my financial records and tore open the second drawer down. Crumbled and forgotten like old chewing gum wrappers were ten pink parking tickets for leaving my minivan on the road during street-sweeping days. Each was a small misdemeanor, but I feared the government had passed a new three-strikes law where three misdemeanors added up to a felony. If so, I had enough paperwork in front of me for three felonies and one extra to kill any pleas for leniency. I snatched my car keys and ran for the door.
The white Caravan's tires squealed as I braked outside the police department. I jogged up the low, wide concrete steps to the single front door and pushed through. The handle felt cold in my grip. The angular, efficient reception room was small for such a large building, and quiet... as if all other crimes had been put on hold to deal with mine. Reality seemed to pull away as I caught sight of the criminal posters and imagined that the rough-looking image at the top of the 'most wanted' section looked a lot like me. I willed my feet to carry me forward to the desk Sergeant.
"Yes?" he asked.
"Ah... Melvin Cogsworth. I was asked-"
"Room 121, he's waiting for you." The sergeant stabbed his pen toward a side door.
I nodded dumbly, pushed through it, wondering if I'd like prison food. The last door on the right had 121 stenciled on it. I swallowed, gripped the door knob to my doom, and stepped inside.
Detective Parker, who I'd helped during the Silas McPhee investigation, jumped up with a smile and began pumping my hand. "Glad you could make it! Have a seat. I've got a job for you."
I fell into a chair. "Job? What? Where?"
Parker cast me a puzzled look. "What's the matter, Mel? You look like someone on death row."
"You mean you didn't call me down here for the ten parking tickets?"
"Parking tickets? What are you talking about?"
I opened my mouth.
He waved an impatient hand. "Never mind. I've got a job for you down in Glendale. Seems there's a man named Coranski with a detecting job right up your alley. He's inherited a house that's supposed to have a fortune hidden in it and he wants your metal detecting services to help him find it. Interested?"
I started breathing. "A job? You called me here to tell me about a job?"
Parker chuckled. "What? Did you think the police were going to throw you in jail for a couple of parking tickets?"
I wiped perspiration of my forehead. "No. Of course not. Don't be silly. I, ah... why the hurry to get me here?"
"Coranski's impatient to get his hands on the money. There's an old rumor that a previous owner squirrelled away a mint in gold coins. He heard about you from one of the Del Rio Cross news articles and called here to find you" Parker handed me a slip of paper. "That's Coranski's phone number. He wants you there this afternoon."
I stood in a half-daze. "Thanks."
Parker came around his desk to open the door. "I figure I owed you something for the McPhee case." He gave the back of my shoulder a pat hard enough to get me started out the door. "Just don't start thinking that the Los Angeles Police Department is your own personal answering service."
I drove back to my place and dialed Coranski's number. The phone at the other end jerked to life before it had finished a single ring. "Yes? Who is this? What do you want?"
"Mister Coranski?" I asked.
A pause... "Maybe. Who wants to know?"
"This is Melvin Cogsworth. Detective Parker at the-"
"Cogsworth! Where the hell have you been? I told that idiot at the police department I needed to get in touch with you right away. What've you been doing, sitting on your-"
"Mister Coranski, I understand you may have a job for me."
"Look, Cogsworth, I want you down here in one quick hurry, and I mean now. My wife had a nut-case for a grandfather. Before he died back in 1908 he converted most of his money into gold coins and hid them in the family estate. The story goes that it's in a specially-built safe. No one knows where the safe is and to make matters worse the old coot filled the dump with fake metal panels to fool searches. I've torn down half the place and still haven't found it."
"I usually use my detector for finding objects in the soil. I'm not sure-"
"Don't give me that! If your gismo can find a ring in the dirt it can locate a safe behind a plaster wall. How much do you charge?"
"One hundred dollars for six hours."
"A hundred bucks! Just for waving a detector in the air? You gotta be kidding me."
My grip in the phone tightened until my knuckles turned white. "You are perfectly welcome to find someone else if you-"
"Don't get on your high horse with me, Cogsworth. I'll pay it. Just get down here today." He rattled of the address.
"May I ask how old the house is?"
"This mausoleum? Feels like it's been collecting dust for a thousand years. I think my wife said it was built in the eighteen-eighties, back when lots in Glendale were measured in acres. There's only half a block left to the property now and it's been fenced off for much of that time. Why? What difference does it make?"
My heart started to beat faster. Detectorists don't often get a chance to sweep pristine old lots. "After I complete the job, would you mind if I checked out the back yard for relics like belt buckles and-"
"Look, Cogsworth. You find me that safe and you can have all the junk you want. I'll probably burn the place down for the insurance money so what do I care?"
"Mind if I bring a friend?"
"What I mind is that you keep wasting time when you should be in your car. I don't give a damn who you bring, just get here."
He slammed the receiver down hard enough to make my ear ring. I speed-dialed Jennifer Worthington's number.
She picked up on the second ring. "Hello?"
"Jen, it's Melvin. How'd you like the chance to sweep a hundred-year old yard that's never seen a metal detector?"
"What? Yes! Of course. When-"
"Now. It's down Glendale. I'll pick you up in half an hour."
"I'll be out front."
"See you then." I clicked off.
I ran to the closet and dragged my Garrett 2500 out of it's sleeping spot, then paused. This wasn't a normal search. The standard nine-inch coil and stem length would be too awkward for sweeping walls. This job called for something unique.
I broke the detector down and placed the pieces on the living room floor, along with all the accessories collected over the years: large twelve-inch imaging coil, the small four-inch scorcher, spare cables, and a collection of pinpointers. I scratched my chin for five minutes, then ran to the garage and grabbed a roll of heavy cloth tape. Turning to leave, I spotted an electronic stud finder and snagged it as well. Back in the living room I tossed aside the detector's upper metal stem. I mounted the scorcher on the lower plastic stem and taped the stem to the bottom of Garrett's handle so the overall length was less than eighteen inches. After connecting the cable, I attached the stud finder to a ruler scavenged from the kitchen junk drawer. This assembly got taped to the coil so the stud finder was far enough off to the right so that the coil's field wouldn't pick it up. I stood back and smiled with pride at my Frankenstein creation. It was the ugliest detector I'd ever seen... but it would do the job.
I hurried to the van, threw the monster onto the middle seat and sped away. Fifteen minutes later Jennifer was sitting in the passenger's seat and we were on Highway 14 heading south toward Glendale, munching ham submarines she'd made.
Jennifer and I had hooked up the first time she attended a meeting of the Antelope Valley Treasure Hunter's Society. Over the months we'd drifted into one of those see-you-every-week-but-not-really-going-anywhere relationships that were comfortable, but fell short of satisfying. Her waist-length auburn hair and warm eyes were frequent visitors in my dreams, but in spite of these attractions I wasn't sure what I felt for her. Besides, there was the issue of her detector.
Jennifer was devoted to an off-brand detector she'd picked up on sale in the Wal-Mart on the east side of Lancaster. The detector had no discrimination circuitry and less power than the stud finder I'd tapped to my detector. I suspected that it didn't even have a transmitter, just an internal circuit that randomly bleeped to simulate a target. Challenging this theory was Jen's annoying habit of turning up as many good finds as my trusty Garrett. She regularly beat me out of the coveted silver dimes handed out at each club meeting for the best finds. Jennifer explained it as being in tune with her machine. I suspected darker forces were at work.
I pondered this as the Caravan sped south toward Glendale.
The 14 carried us south to the 210 east, and that over the hills into the valley. We off-ramped at Ocean Boulevard, drove down through the pleasant quaintness of Montrose, and down into northern Glendale. This was old town, where small streets wound in and around shady canyons. Many of the houses looked worn, but that didn't stop them from selling at prices that would make a New York realtor faint.
Typical for such high-value neighborhoods, houses crowded together with only the narrowest of driveways between them, which made spotting our goal easy.
Makerpiece Mansion, as Coranski had called it, was a three story monolith that stood like a sentinel in the middle of a private half-block of land. The only opening through a tall hedge surrounding it was a wide drive of crushed stone. We drove in, tires crunching.
The mansion itself had been white stucco countless decades ago. Now a thick patina of dust and soot made it look as gray as the weathered boulders lining the drive. We pulled in under a second story porch that extended out of the left side of the house. Climbing out, I could imagine the it must have been handsome in its youth. Today, age and exposed retrofitted wiring made it look weary. I got my modified detector and walked up to the double front door.
Three raps later the left side jerked open and two hundred pounds of ugliness glared out at me. "You Cogsworth?"
The man's arm shot out, grabbed me by the shoulder and pulled my into the house. He glared at me with little pig eyes stuck in a face as lumpy as yesterday's oatmeal. "Where the hell have you been."
"I take it you're Mister Coranski?" I asked.
"You take it right, bub. Now get to work."
I glanced around the room. Plaster and lathe had been torn away from the walls in a dozen places. A hall straight ahead and two side rooms showed similar attentions. I looked back at Coranski. "You've been busy."
He scowled. "For all the good it did me. You going to do some work today or are you waiting for an engraved invitation?"
"My rate is one hundred dollars a day."
Coranski crossed his arms over his wide chest. "What of it?"
He shook his head. "No way. You find the safe and I'll then pay you, if I think you did it fast enough."
Coranski leaned his ugliness toward me. He stood an inch taller, forty pounds heavier and had ten years working in his favor. Still, I held my ground. A detectorist has his dignity.
Jennifer's light footsteps disturbed the tense silence between us. She halted just off my left side. "Excuse me. Mister Coranski, I believe you said we could detect in your yard. Would it be too much to ask you to write a note to that effect?"
Coranski focused on Jennifer and stepped past me to leer down at her. "So, the little lady wants me to sign a note for her." He leaned close and I saw her cringe at his breath. "Tell you what, sweetie. I'll do you a favor if you'll do-"
I never moved faster in my life. I spun him around, grabbed a double fistful of his jacket, and lifting him clear of the floor, slammed him in to the wall hard enough to crack the plaster. I lowered him an inch and thrust my face into his. A voice growled out of my throat that I'd never heard before. "Don't even think it."
Anger flamed in his face, then died as he sensed the danger lurking in my eyes. His shoulders sagged. "Ah, sure. No problem. Just joking, you know."
I released my grip and he fell far enough to buckle his knees.
Coranski hurriedly fumbled five twenties out of his wallet. "One hundred dollars, wasn't it?" He held the bills out to at arm's length. I took them. "And a permission note for the, ah... your friend." He snatched a scrap of paper and scribbled permission for us the detect and remove anything we found in the yard. This he handed to Jennifer. "Okay now? Everything's all straight. I, ah... I think I'll go upstairs and search around. Never know. I might get lucky."
He hurried up a flight of stairs. As soon as he'd vanished from sight, I collapsed in a nearby chair. My hands began shaking so hard I had to grab my knees to hold them still. It didn't help. My knees started knocking. "My God," I said to myself. "He could have killed me. What made me do that?"
Jennifer's gentle features swam into view. "I think I know why," she said and leaned in to press her warm lips against mine. A sweet eternity later, she pulled away. A brilliant smile lit her face as she jerked me to my feet. "Get to work, Sherlock. You've got a safe to find. I'll be outside. You better hurry up or I'll sweep everything worth having before you finish." She turned and danced away.
In a half-daze, I hefted up my Franken-detector and switched it on. The scream of the automatic ground balance struggling to adjust to open air brought me back to earth. I stepped up to the wall baring the imprint of Coranski's body and started sweeping.
The studs drove the auto track crazy so I turned it off. The brief yowls the detector gave off when it scanned one were more easily ignored than the prolonged whine produced as it tried to null them out. Besides, by sweeping left to right, the stud finder warned me in advance of studs. Nails were annoying until I figured that a safe was going to be such a solid hit that I could lower the sensitivity to minimum and not miss it. That reduced the screeches from nails to a tolerable level.
I finished the first wall in five minutes, estimated the number of rooms, multiplied this by six for the walls, floor and ceiling in each one and shook my head. Coranski was going to get his money's worth on this job. I began sweeping the next wall.
One wall blurred into the next. The detector's buzzes and target announcements pulled me into the hypnotic plane only detectorists know. Time ceased to exist.
The house went on, room after room without end. I crossed Coranski's path when I started the second floor. "Quite a house," I offered. "You and your wife should be proud to own something this old."
"The dump belonged to my wife's family."
"Will she be coming later?"
He gave his head an unconcerned shake. "Died last month. The house and everything in it is mine now."
"I'm sorry for you loss," I said with honest feeling.
He shrugged. "Yeah. Tough break." His eyes brightened. "Find anything yet?"
I looked away. "Just eight metal plates intended to fool metal detectors. Mine disc'd them out as false leads."
"Humph," Coranski said and turned back to the wall he was demolishing.
I lifted the detector and got back to work. Rooms were beginning to blur together again when I picked up a solid hit at eye level in a room that had once been a nursery. I thought it might be another dummy plate, then I noticed the metal-type bar read in the copper zone; all of the others had been down in the iron end of the scale. Depth indicated one inch. I traced my way around to the opposite side of the wall and got the same signal. If it had simply been a plate on one wall, it would have registered four inches deeper on the far side.
I took a rock chisel and clawed at the plaster. Rotten with age, it fell away in big clumps. Before long I'd cleared a foot-wide area. Facing me was a safe made of reddish-yellow metal. "Coranski!" I yelled.
He appeared in a flash. "You found it?" He spotted the safe and shouldered me out of the way to run his fingers lovingly over it's surface. "Beautiful." His forehead furrowed. "Looks kind of strange. What is it?"
"My guess would be a copper alloy. Not as strong as steel but non-magnetic, which would have prevented easy discovery using an electromagnet. That was about the only type of detector available a hundred years ago."
"Yeah, makes sense," Coranski said, almost drooling at the safe. His look turned feral. "What are you hanging around for? Think you're going to get a piece of the action? Think again. Get out." His voice rose to a bellow. "Get out! Now!"
"You said I could do some detecting in the yard. It'll only take us a few minutes."
He pushed off from the wall and leaned over me. "I don't give a damn about any promises. I said leave and I mean it."
came hurrying into the room. "I heard yelling. Did you find it?"
Coranski threw himself back against the wall, blocking her view of the safe. "It's mine. All mine. Get out!"
Jennifer tugged my sleeve. "Come on, Mel. It's not worth it."
"Let's just go."
I let her pull me away. Down at the car, I threw the detector back onto the middle seat. Jennifer's was already there, out of its case. I squinted at that because she doted on her's more than I did mine. To leave it naked was uncharacteristic. Then I noticed the van's front doors were already open. "What-" I began.
She jumped into the passenger seat and yelled: "Get in and drive!"
Twenty year's training in the military paid off. I responded to a barked order by automatic response. Ten seconds later we were racing down the street.
Jennifer twisted around in her seat, watching the exit to Makerpiece Mansion. "Does Coranski have your address?"
"No. I can't see how-"
telephone number?" Tension put a sharp edge on her voice.
I shook my head. "He had to go through the police department to find me."
She relaxed. "That should be okay then."
After we'd worked our way back up Verdugo and into Montrose she pointed at a dark side street. "Pull in there and park."
I did as I was told. Half a block up the street I found an opening at the curb and braked into it. "What's up?"
She handed me Coranski's note. "Keep this safe."
I shrugged and folded it into a pocket. "Anything you say."
"And this." She held a yellowed envelope out to me. I opened it and inside was a single sheet of paper with a few lines of jittery handwriting.
To all my relatives,
If you're reading this, then you found the safe and the directions in it explaining were I buried the famous Makerpiece fortune in the back yard by the old well. Hiding it like this may seem like a lot of foolishness to you, but you must allow an old man his little joke. "Jokes" actually, because I'm afraid that what you'll find with this note is all that's left of our fortune. Life has been good to me and I'm afraid I indulged in it to excess. I'm very sorry to leave you with only a pittance.
William Harrison Makerpiece
I turned to Jennifer. "You mean all that Coranski's going to find when he gets that safe open-"
She grinned. "Will be directions to a hole I dug in the back yard. I found traces of brickery that I took to be an old wall. I was working my way along it when the trusty Nova gave out a scream that almost knocked me off my feet. I dug down and found that note inside this." She held up a crusted leather pouch the size of a small purse. She opened the pull strings and upended it, gold coins showered into my hands.
I starred wide-eyed as Gauden and Liberty double and single eagles spilled out between my fingers. Like children sorting Halloween candy, we lined the coins up by kind on the dashboard. There were eight Liberty double eagles, six Gauden doubles, twelve liberty eagles and four liberty half eagles. Face value: four hundred and eighty dollars. Actual value: eight thousand dollars.
I checked to make sure Coranski's authorization note was still safe in my pocket, then turned to Jennifer. "You know what this means, don't you?"
She threw her arms around me. "We struck it rich?"
My heart pounded with excitement. "Better than that. We're shoe-ins to win a silver dime at the next club meeting for the best find!"
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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