THE MYSTERY OF SILAS McPHEE: A humorous short story about a man who uses his metal detecting hobby to solve mysteries.

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The Mystery of Silas McPhee


I fidgeted on the hard cold seat as the man eyed me with an upraised eyebrow. His name badge read John Bookner in black bold-face. Hard crows-feet at the corners of his young eyes spoke of a life that had witnessed every kind of human tragedy. John Bookner managed a Wendy's Restaurant.

He'd been alternately studying me and my job application as we sat in a discrete corner of his franchise on 10th Street West, across the street from the Hancock's Fabric store where I'd purchased the leather for the custom case to hold my detector.

Bookner's eyes completed another me-application-me oscillation. "I take it you're on some sort of case, Mister Cogsworth?"

"Case? No. Why do you ask?"

He waved my application in the air. "You stated you're currently working as a private detective. I assume you want a temporary job here to serve as cover for a surveillance."

I sighed. Here we go again. "No, sir. I'm a private detectorist, not detective. I hire myself and my metal detector out to locate lost metal objects."

Bookner squinted at the application. "You're a private detective who uses a metal detector?"

I struggled to keep impatience out of my voice. "No. sir. Just a detectorist, not a detective."


Bookner ran down the application for the tenth time, then laid it aside. "Wendy's would like to oblige you but having a detective, or detectorist, on the staff might make some of the workers uneasy. I'm sure you can understand this. Besides, there's the issue of your age."


He nodded. "We like to hire the very young to get them started and the very old because they are good workers and help maintain the family-oriented image the restaurant promotes. At fifty-two, I'm sorry to say you fall well past the first and far short of the second." He stood and offered his hand. "I wish you the best of luck."

I returned the handshake and mumbled my gratitude.

"You might try McDonald's," Bookner suggested. "They're more flexible in their hiring practices." He escorted me to the door. "But I'd drop the 'detectorist' business and simply tell them that you're a detective. I think you'll find that honesty opens more doors."

So saying, he opened the door for me to leave. As I passed, he leaned forward and in voice soto asked, "Tell me the truth, who were you supposed to be watching? Really."

I cut my eyes stealthily left and right, then leaned close and whispered, "You. Now that my cover is blown, someone else will take over. Good Luck." I gave him a reassuring pat on the shoulder and left. It was petty revenge, but sweet all the same.

As I drove out of the parking lot, I could still seem him standing frozen in the doorway.


One of the delights of metal detecting is that doing it right requires so much concentration that it makes troubles fade away. After the incident at Wendy's, I needed that release. I stopped by my small house on the east side of Lancaster just long enough to snag my faithful Garrett GTI 2500, a chicken sandwich and thermos of hot cocoa. Back in my white Caravan, I skirted the east side of town as I wound my way across the board-flat, sandy terrain of the southern California high desert area known as the Antelope Valley. Thirtieth street took me north to Avenue E, which I took east to the unmarked dirt track that was 31st. Turning right, I drove slowly over the dusty road the length of a football field and turned left onto F-8. This trail ended at one of the many dry washes that carried water in rainy years from higher elevations in the north down into the eastern side of town.

Like most metal detectorists I had a passion for finding... well, anything. But unlike most, once or twice a year I enjoyed going to areas where the odds of finding something was remote. Unconcerned about how many targets I could sweep, I'd let the steady swing of the coil and hypnotic static of the detector pull my consciousness into a detached dreamstate. All concerns faded as my mind focused on the subtle fluctuations in the detector's threshold noise. After half an hour of this forgetful bliss, finding a rusty nail was exciting. Two years ago I'd uncovered a brass buckle two washes east of this one, but for the most part it was an exercise in relaxation.

I pulled on an international-orange vinyl vest with AVTHS in black lettering stenciled across the back. It stood for Antelope Valley Treasure Hunter's Society. The vest looked official and tended to keep people at a comfortable distance. Since I'd added the club's initials I noticed it worked better than ever. One family in a park took one look and even started to back away. When I asked why, the father said they thought the letters stood for Antelope Valley Toxic and Hazardous materials Search. I didn't correct them.

The air was cool, crisp and the sun warm, a typical mid-spring day. I took a quick slug of the cocoa, unsheathed the Garrett and strolled down into sandy bed of the wash. Immediately to my right, a large oblong mound of sand marked one side of the wash. The further side was more typical, shallow and almost indistinguishable from the rest of the terrain. This far outside of town radio noise was nil so I cranked the sensitivity to 12, the threshold to a barely detectable buzz, the volume on high and turned the automatic ground track off so I could hear the threshold fluctuate as soil conditions changed. Manual ground balance balanced at 11.5 with a wide range indicating that the sandy bed was very low in mineralization. I smiled and began a slow sweep.

The headphones screamed, threatening to shatter my eardrums. I staggered back and the scream abated. I shook my head to clear the ringing and cut the volume. Another swing and the headphones screamed again, this time at a tolerable level. Swing to the left: silence. Swing to the right: screaming. I held the Target Imaging key down to get a good pinpoint, wincing as the buzz grew loud enough to bring tears to my eyes. I lowered the volume another two points.

Target Imaging wouldn't locked on. The further I swung to the right, the louder the signal became until the edge of the coil bumped into the hillock of sand. On a hunch, I tilted the coil on edge so it pointed at the dune. The signal-strength bar maxed out and an overload warning blared in my ears. I backed away and regarded the mound.

It ran parallel to the wash for thirty feet, was three high, and tapered at each end. I stepped back another three feet and pointed the coil at it. The signal came over strong and clear. Another three feet back and the signal strength was still obvious. Whatever's in there, it's big, I thought to myself.

I grounded the Garrett and began scooping sand down and away from the mound. My fingertips hit something hard and flat. I dug faster, exposing a dark glassy surface perpendicular to the ground. Suddenly, sand cascaded down from above uncovering a horizontal surface of metal rusted a reddish-brown. I dug down to clear the area below the glass. More rusty metal appeared and the pitted chrome handle to a door. It was a car, covered by sand and long forgotten.

I pressed close to the side window and cupped my hands around my eyes. Little light filtered inside, but my sight slowly adjusted to the darkness and began to identify shapes. I could make out the steering wheel, a heavily-chromed old-style radio console in the center of the dash, and a bulky object laying across the seat. I squinted to see better, then threw myself away, retching violently into the sand.


Roof consols on the three police cars lined up behind my minivan beat bright blue pulses into the darkening twilight. I'd run back to my car and called the authorities on my cell phone as soon as me legs had been able to hold me up. That was twenty minutes ago and my face still felt clammy.

A uniformed officer with white hair walked out of the wash toward me. "It's a Buick Roadmaster, 1948 would be my guess. They body... " he wiped a hand across his forehead, "... is, was, a man. The license plates are gone. Normally we'd be able to track the owner by the vehicle ID number but with a model this old it may not be possible."

I nodded without looking up and felt him studying the top of my head. "You're that Melvin Cogsworth I read about two months ago."

Another nod. "I found a gold cross down in Glendale." I shrugged. "My fifteen minutes of fame."

"You may have another." We shook hands. "I'm lieutenant Parker."

He scanned to horizon. "Kind of off the beaten track. What were you doing out here?"

I stabbed my thumb at the Garrett laying in the van's bed. "Doing a little metal detecting."

Parker studied the detector as he rubbed his chin. "I don't supposed you's be willing to look at something for me. It might help."

I felt my face go white again. "Not-"

"No. The coroner already took the body away. It was murder, by the way. Something like a small pick ax crushed his scull. I want you to look at what we found in the trunk."

I struggled to my feet. "I'll be glad to help anyway I can."

We trudged back to the car, which by this time had been uncovered down the the level of the wash's bed. Rust covered most of the body, but in spots dark blue enamel was visible. "We figured it was dumped here some years ago and a flood covered it up," Parker said.

"The last big one was in eighty-one," I offered.

Parker nodded. "That's what I was thinking. Back then this area would have been remote and seem like a good place to dispose of evidence." He stepped to the car's trunk, which had been forced open by the police. "Here's what I wanted to get your opinion on."

Nestled in the bottom of the mold-stained trunk was a metal detector. I reached it to pick it up but Parker blocked me. "Sorry. Fingerprints."

"Right," I said and bent at the waist for a closer look. In style it differed little from modern detectors, but all the labels had long-since faded and were impossible to read. I straightened and rubbed the back of my neck. "I can't tell you anything specific. My guess is that it's a very early model, mid-seventies." I pointed to its small four-inch diameter coil. "The coil size suggests he was using it for prospecting nuggets. Hmmm..."


"Well, there are no good gold hunting sites close to Lancaster. It's my guess he was coming back from someplace north of Ridgecrest. That's the best place close to the Antelope Valley to look for gold."

A man in plain clothes strode over and handed Parker two plastic bags: a large one with an old backpack in it and another smaller bag with three rice-sized grains of yellow metal.

"Gold?" I asked.

"That's my guess," the plain-clothed man said and lifted the detector out of the trunk while wearing surgical gloves. He hurried away.

Parker fingered the nuggets through the plastic. "We assume the victim had found more and was killed for it."

I nodded. "Could be." I frowned. "It's odd that these three nuggets were left behind. As small as they are, they still have enough value to be worth taking, even if only as keepsakes. Unless...."

"Unless there was so much other gold that they seemed insignificant," Parker finished for me.

"Right." My eyes popped open. "I have an idea."

I pulled out my cell phone and keyed the number for the current president of the metal detecting club. After relating the specifics of what I'd found, he forwarded me to Wilson Jefferies, one of the organization's founding members. I relayed to him Parker's description of the victim, the car and what I could make out about the detector.

"No doubt about it," Jefferies croaked in an ancient voice. "That has to be old Silas McPhee. He was active 'round these parts back in the seventies. Disappeared about seventy-eight or so. He was a loner but sometimes buddied with a guy named George Bronklin. They both had the gold fever bad. It was real odd... Bronklin vanished about the same time."

I signed off and told Parker what I'd found out. he thanked me and hurried away. I trailed after him and got into my car. Before I pulled away, he came over. "You know, Mister Cogsworth, this happens to be private property."

"Oh, I didn't know. It's so deserted."

He smiled lightly. "Don't worry about it. Thanks for the help, I'll call you to let you know what happens with the case.


Three weeks later Parker called me into his office. When I arrived there was already a man and woman my age sitting with him. Parker indicated a chair and I sat. "The information you provided was both accurate and crucial to solving the case. George Bronklin was traced to San Francisco in 1980, where he purchased a house in cash and settled down to a quiet life. Further investigation disclosed he'd gotten the cash by selling a large cache of raw gold. That was back when gold jumped to eight hundred dollars an ounce for a brief period. His timing couldn't have been better."

The couple shifted uneasily in their chairs.

"Sorry," Parker offered them, then turned back to me. "Bronklin died in ninety-one after a long struggle with cancer. Under a court order, we searched his records stored with relatives and found a sealed envelope with his confession to killing Silas McPhee, which brings us to the reason for this meeting." He held up a check. "At the time of his disappearance, Mister James McPhee, Silas' son, offered a one-thousand dollar reward to anyone discovering what happened to his father. I'm pleased to say that Mister McPhee and his wife are here today and have authorized me to present you with the check."

I was sorry to profit from such unpleasant circumstances, but the idea of a thousand-dollar windfall quickly overcame any hesitation. I reached forward with trembling fingers and took hold of the check, dreaming of all I could buy with it: a new pinpointing detector, new digger, maybe even a spare detector in case the current model gave up the ghost. I went to pull back but a resistance stopped me short. Parker hadn't released his end of the check.

He smiled at me. "And I'm sure you are eager to contribute it all to the policemen's widow's fund."

"Well... that is-"

Parker's smile broadened. "I'm equally sure that your generosity is in no way influenced by the fact that since you were trespassing on private property, charges could still brought against you."

I felt my dreams of endless metal detecting accessories fade away. Parker gave the check an authoritative tug and it slipped from my fingers. The McPhees stood to shake hands around and left. Parker clapped me on the shoulder. "Don't take it too bad. At least the papers will have your name in the headlines again."

My head hung. "Just what I need, more people mistaking me for a detective instead of a detectorist."


That night the Antelope Valley Treasure Hunter's Society held it's monthly meeting. I went but didn't have the heart to set up a display tray of my month's finds. Jennifer Worthington listened to my tale of woe and her sympathetic smile made life tolerable. In spite of the the fact that she used a metal detector picked up on sale at Wal-Mart, I'd found her impossible to resist. We'd gotten into the comfortable habit of following the meetings with sojourns for a late coffee.

The meeting wound down and the president was tossing out silver dimes for the month's best finds. After the last one had been handed over, he paused for a final announcement. "I'm pleased to present an additional award this night to our favorite private detectorist: Melvin Cogsworth."

In a daze, I stood up surrounded by applause.

"This silver dime," he said and spun it over a dozen heads toward me, "is presented for the category of Largest Find. Specifically, three thousand pounds of rusted iron in the shape of a 1948 Buick Roadmaster."

As I caught the dime, everyone stood and the applause crescendoed. Jennifer planted a kiss on my cheek and suddenly the case of the Mystery of Silas McPhee became my favorite.





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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