THE ADVENTURE OF THE DEL RIO CROSS: A humorous short story about a man who uses his metal detecting hobby to solve mysteries.
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The Adventure of the Del Rio Cross
My name is Melvin Cogsworth and I hate my job.
What makes it worse is that the job was all my idea. It seemed like a good one at the time.
Early in the summer of 2002, I'd been working the sandy stream of southern California's Big Tujunga Canyon with my new Garrett GTI 2500 and finding a lot of nothing. Out of nowhere a hand began jerking my sleeve. I turned and half a dozen genetic responses triggered as my eyes focused on five-foot six-inches of blonde hair, day-glow pink bikini and long slender legs.
She pointed a slim finger at my green machine and shouted to be heard through my headphones. "Hey, mister! Is that a metal detector?"
I nodded, and the activity restored enough cognitive power for me to attempt speech, sort of. "Why, uh... yes-"
"Great," she yelled, grabbed me by the sleeve and dragged me fifty-yards down stream to where two other bikini-clad girls where bent over deep at the waist as they peered into the water.
As we ran up, one girl looked up and mouthed something at my kidnapper. I stared at them in dumb silence as the three girls huddled and soundlessly jabbered at each other.
Suddenly, pink bikini rushed back to me and jerked the phones from my head, almost ripping off my ears. She jabbed a finger at the stream. "It fell in the sand! You've got to find it!"
I'd worked enough beaches to know what had happened. My fingers blurred as I stabbed at the detector's yellow control buttons. "Silver or gold?" I asked.
"Gold," she said and cast a tense look over her bare shoulder. "And please hurry. Moose will be back soon."
I nodded, notched the detector to reject everything except gold and stepped toward the stream. Starting near the water's edge, I swept back and forth with slow, practiced strokes. Nothing. One step forward and more sweeping, still nothing. Another step and the white disc of the detector coil began slicing through the water, making gurgling noises that could be heard faintly through the headphones. The signal sounded trashy for a second, then the auto ground balance woke up and zeroed it out. Sweet silence filled my ears. I reached the middle of the stream and turned right, working down stream. Three steps later the headphones beeped the tone every detectorist loves. I checked the readouts; it was a strong signal registering gold-nickel. The Garrett's LCD display indicated the object was smaller than two-inches across and was buried three-inches. I bent low, driving my fingers deep into the sand and let the stream's cool water wash the grains out between half-closed fingers. The hand came up and opened. Centered in its palm was a slim gold band. I held it high overhead as I turned to beam a triumphant smile at the girls.
They rushed forward and the one in the pink suit quickly slipped the ring on her middle finger. Her smile blinded me, then my heart seized as she planted a wet kiss on my cheek. The other girls closed in and added their lips to the other cheek. It felt like being mobbed by sex-crazed puppies.
The girls froze, then backed away.
I slowly turned around and discovered someone had erected a brick wall behind me and dressed it in a green plaid shirt. A hasty step back gave me enough field of view to realize the wall stood on tree-truck legs in tight-fitting blue jeans and had arms piled high with twitching muscle. I looked up into black eyes glaring down at me. "Moose? I asked.
The wall's head nodded.
Pink bikini tentatively stepped forward. "Honey," she said to him as she held up her hand. "I lost your ring. This nice man found it for me. We were just thanking him."
Moose took in the detector, my graying hair, and grunted. He pulled a crumpled twenty from his pants and tucked it into my shirt pocket. "Thanks. Now get lost."
I got lost.
After setting a land speed record for covering the fifty miles due north to Lancaster and double-locking the door to my small house on the east side of town, I took my first relaxed breath. I microwaved some leftover lasagna and settled down to the day's mail. Five overdue bills later I realized I had to do something to bring in some cash.
I'd retired from the Air Force at fifty-one with half pay. It had been enough at first, but lately inflation had gotten the upper hand. Shudders ran up my back at the thought of taking orders from anyone again. I drew a hand down over tired eyes and as I did, heard the crinkle of Moose's twenty in my pocket. I took it out and stared at it. That's when the idea hit me. A smile spread across my face and I reached for the phone.
The next day the Antelope Valley Press ran the following:
Melvin Cogsworth, Private Detectorist
(Nothing metal that can be lost, that I can't find.)
In the first week I received three calls from lawyers saying they had husbands they wanted tailed for their wives. It took ten minutes in each case to explain that I was a private detectorist, not detective. They clicked off without saying goodbye.
The phone was silent the second week. Desperation took hold in the third. It was time for more aggressive advertising. Bohn's printing burned ten reams of paper into handouts. I spent all of the fourth week slipping them into mailboxes. The effort resulted in my answering machine getting jammed with calls: half wanting to know what a detectorist was and half to complain about my adding to the load of trash mail. I was beginning to have doubts about my new profession.
In the evening of the Friday beginning the fifth week, the phone rang. I put aside the Wendy's job application I'd started filling out and picked up the receiver. "Melvin Cogsworth," I answered. "Private Detector-"
"Mel, it's George."
George Martin and I met five years ago at a meeting of the Antelope Valley Treasure Hunter's Society and had since swung discs over half the state side by side. He taught a once-a-year archeology class at Antelope Valley College through the Bakersfield Extension program. George held the deluded belief his Fisher CZ-70 Pro was superior to my trusty Garrett... but other than that he passed for normal in most crowds.
"Hey, George. What's up?"
"You still working that 'private detectorist' dodge?"
"Yeah, for all the good it's done me."
"Great. How'd you like a job?"
Hope swelled in my heart, then ebbed away. George was famous for his pranks. The time he'd salted a riverbed the club was working with a two-ounce nickel slug plated with gold almost got him kicked out. "You're kidding, right?"
He chuckled. "Not this time. I'm getting paid too. There's an archaeological team working an old adobe down south in Glendale. Before they start digging they want the area swept with metal detectors. Now get this, according to the team leader this site has never been searched with detectors. It doesn't get any better than that. I heard about it through the University grapevine and got our names on the top of the list. It pays one hundred dollars each for a day's work. Interested?"
My grip almost crushed the receiver. "Interested! Of course I am! When is it? How much of what we find do we get to keep?"
Ten seconds of static hissed out of the phone. "Ah... Well, that's the rub. We don't get to keep anything. They want everything preserved for display."
Cold fingers gripped my heart. Finds are precious to detectorists. The idea of giving them up goes against our very being. Still, one hundred dollars would pay the phone bill.
I massaged the headache growing in the back of my skull. "Okay. I'm in."
"I'll pick you up at six tomorrow morning. Make sure you have extra batteries."
"I'll be ready."
I hung up and fell into a chair. Any joy at having my first paying job was soured by the fact that tomorrow night, after working the type of location detectorists dream about, I'd have nothing from the search to fondle. No coins, no belt buckles... nothing. I groaned and went to bed.
George gave me a shot in the arm and I opened my eyes. The drive down had been quiet so I'd taken the opportunity to stretch the night's sleep.
We entered a long dirt drive that curved gently to the right. Forty feet from the street an iron gate stood open, we drove through and followed the curve to the front of a one-story adobe house measuring a hundred feet long and half that wide. We eased from the car and worked kinks out of fifty-year-old joints. Ancient live oaks shaded a steep hillside fifty yards to the left. On the right, a large brown garage had its side-hinged doors thrown open wide. Inside, a dozen people crowded around a card table with a map spread across it.
A thin man wearing knee-high beige socks, khaki shorts and a pith helmet separated himself from the crowd at the table and came over to us. "Martin and Cogsworth, I presume?" he said with a faint British accent.
George shook his hand. "That's right."
"Good. Excellent. Welcome to the Casa Verdugo Adobe Historical Site. I'm the team leader, Clive Updyke. We have already laid the first grid behind the building, which used to be a trading post." He handed each of us a clipboard with large-checked graph paper and a hip bag filled with small, colored bean bags. "As you sweep an area, mark anything you find on the paper and drop a bag to mark the spot. Green is for something that looks good, yellow if you don't know what it is, and red for junk signals like soda cans. We'll assign indexing numbers to each find once you're finished."
He fixed us with a hard stare. "Dig nothing. That's our job. Understood?"
We nodded and turned back to George's silver Corolla. He unlocked the trunk and pulled out his detector: the Z fitted with a 10 & 1/2-inch spider.
I grabbed my trusty Garret GTI 2500 with a 12 & 1/2-inch imaging coil and fired up the discriminator, grimacing at the 4-inch depth loss it cost me. "The usual bet on who shoots the deepest object?"
George smiled. "I've already got plans for your ten dollars."
We slipped on headphones and headed around the building. The brush had been cleared and a grid of white string matching the grid on the clipboards divided a one hundred by seventy-foot rectangle into four-foot squares. We stepped into the grid and began sweeping. I worked north, parallel to the back of the adobe while George drifted west toward the base of a hill that marked the site's boundary.
The summer sun bore down through the half shade of the oaks and an hour later I'd begun to sweat. All the contacts had been shallow, small, and iron: nails from building repairs probably. I'd expected as much this close to the building and purposely decided to shoot it first to get the trash out of the way. I wiped my forehead and looked behind me. Two dozen red bean bags dotted the area I'd swept. Far off to my left, George's arm swung with a rhythm as constant as the pendulum of a grandfather clock. One lonely red bag marked his only find. I sighed and got back to business.
Two hours later I'd worked a third of the way out from the building. George had worked in to the middle being less slowed by trash contacts. The Garrett had snagged two solid brass hits eight inches deep in grids 23 and 32. My hopes for winning the bet rested on a hit that looked like silver in grid 16's north-west corner. The LCD display showed it resting a full 15 inches down and six inches across. I hoped it was a silver plate. A small pyramid of four green bean bags marked its position. Since then, nothing.
I stepped over a string into grid 48 and began sweeping, twisting more at the waist than swinging my arm to keep the coil parallel to the ground. Halfway across the square the headphones squealed loud enough to blow out my eardrums. Probably a shallow tin can, I thought and threw a red bag at the spot.
I shot the rest of the grid and stepped into the next, then froze.
Something wasn't right about the last hit: it had been so loud I'd ignored its pitch. Fresh perspiration popped out on my upper lip.
I turned back and took another swing over the red bag, holding the coil four inches above the ground to cut the signal. The scream was still loud enough to bring tears to my eyes.
"George!" I tried yelling, but my throat had gone dry and it came out as a croak. I forced a swallow and tried again. "George!"
He was five grids in front of me and two rows left. His head snapped up and he came loping over the strings. "What," he mouthed as he stepped beside me.
My voice had lost itself again so I pointed a shaking finger at the red bag.
He got the message and swung his coil toward it. I glanced at his readout and noticed that his sensitivity was set at max, the volume was on high, and he'd engaged the deep target audio boost. My hand shot out to stop him. Too late.
The Z's coil passed over the red bag and George's eyes bulged. I could hear the shriek irrupting from his detector through the muffling of two sets of headphones. His hands instinctively jerked up to protect his ears and the huge Fisher control box mounted on the detector's shaft smashed into his skull. George's eyes crossed and he staggered back.
I steadied him until his vision cleared. A large red welt began swelling in the middle of his forehead. "You all right?" I asked.
He shook my hand away. "I'm fine. Fine. What the hell was that?"
"I'm afraid to say. Let's sweep it again."
He nodded and we warily approached the small red bag. I keyed the volume to low and made a tentative pass. The reading flickered between the 10 and 12-inch depth markers and the size held steady on the E zone. It was big, not too deep, and the black discriminator square was nailed at the gold-cache position. My hand began shaking. George moved his Fisher into the zone. I swung my coil far to the right so its signal wouldn't flood him with noise. He made the sweep and we stared at the output: pull tab at 11 inches. No one made pull tabs that large.
It was gold, and a lot of it.
I'd learned that besides size, I could sometimes squeeze a hint of a large object's shape out of the Garrett by sweeping across it at different orientations. Some detectors do the same by giving off two tones when swept across a large nail lengthwise and one when swept perpendicular to its length.
I began sweeping back and forth as I slowly walked around the red bag, my eyes glued to the size readout. It alternated between large and small every ninety degrees. "It's shaped like an X or a cross," I said.
Our eyes locked, then we dropped the detectors and began pawing at the ground with bare fingers.
"A-hem," someone said.
George and I looked up to see Updyke glaring down at us. "Find something, gentlemen?"
We hastily tried to hide our dirt-caked fingers behind us. "No," I offered. "We were... ah... that is...."
"A beer can," George offered hopefully. "Just an old beer can."
"Right," I chirped in, trying to keep my voice from squeaking. "Nothing important."
We offered him toothy smiles that we hoped were devoid of guile. It didn't work.
"Jan? Carlos?" he called out. "I think we've found something."
Two freckle-faced college kids raced around the end of the building. They shouldered us out of the way and began stroking the dirt where the bean bag had been with small paint brushes. George and I picked up our detectors and watched. As more of the team clamored around the site, we got pushed further from the action.
Half an hour later the people grouped around Jan and Carlos let out a collective "Ah!"
We crowded our way forward.
The students had brushed a foot-wide excavation ten-inches deep. Centered on its bottom was an eight by six-inch cross, glittering golden yellow in the light filtering through the trees. Delicate filigree tracery had been cut into the cross's surface. A mother-of-pearl heart marked its center. Someone snapped a picture of it, then Jan carefully lifted it up and handed it to Updyke, who hurried back to the garage.
I felt my hands reach out to the receding cross as it disappeared around the corner. They remained up, like those of a child being pulled away from a department store Santa.
Like I said... I hate my job.
A week later I'd just finished reading the phone company's civil 'thank you' for the payment of my overdue phone bill with the money from the adobe job when a knock sounded at my front door. I opened it. George strolled in and slapped my chest with a copy of The Valley Press. "Good news, Sherlock."
I unfolded it and scanned the front page. In the lower left corner of the front page was a picture of Updyke proudly holding the cross. The caption read:
Doctor Clive Updyke of Johnson University displays what has been identified as the Del Rio Cross, a Spanish relic dating from eighteenth century Sacramento. He is currently researching it to discover how it came to be buried in the grounds of the Casa Verdugo Adobe in northern Glendale. This priceless object was found by-" my eyes went round, "-Melvin Cogsworth, a professional metal detectorist located in Lancaster, California.
George punched me in the arm. "There you go. I wouldn't be surprised if the phone started ringing right-"
The phone cried out, cutting him off. I grabbed it. "Yes!" My shoulders fell. "No ma'am. That's detectorist, not detective. I use a metal detector to... oh never mind." I hung up.
I really hate this job.
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.
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.
Copyright December, 2002 by Wayne Schmidt
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