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The Fiery Object

A Treasure Hunt

By Susan Joy ClarkPublished 3 years ago 8 min read
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“My uncle is dead,” I announced as I came into the room.

Jack, my roommate, was kneeling in front of our coffee table and staring at a series there of three Newton's cradles. He turned to look at me. “You seem awfully broken up. I see how it affected your appetite.”

His sarcasm wasn't lost on me. I was currently holding a plate piled with Taylor ham, bacon and a buttered English muffin. “Maybe I'm one of those guys who buries his grief in comfort food.”

Jack looked at me. “No, you're not grieving. In fact, you're practically smiling.”

“Okay,” I said, sitting down in an armchair. “So, I never met this uncle. Uncle Finn lived in Australia.”

“Ah,” said Jack, turning back to the Newton's cradles. “My condolences anyway.”

“He did send me some things here and there over the years,” I said. “I remember a Japanese puzzle box.”

“From Australia?” Jack turned to me with a lifted eyebrow.

“No, from Japan.”

“Andy, you said he lived in Australia.”

“Right. After he lived in Japan.” I took a big bite of English muffin with Taylor ham. “Another time, he sent me a Russian lacquered box with a fairy tale scene on the lid, domed roofs and flying horses ...”

“I suppose your uncle lived there too?”

“Right,” I said. “Before he lived in Japan.” I went on, “He sent me a traditional rod puppet from Indonesia.”

“Your uncle lived there too?”

“No, he was just passing through.”

“Ah.” Jack turned and sat cross-legged, facing me. “What did this uncle of yours do?”

“He was a photo-journalist.”

“For 'National Geographic?'”

“How'd you guess?” I said, “Anyway, I have a letter here from his personal assistant, a Mr. Maxwell Schmidt, and a sort of posthumous letter from my uncle in this little black book.” I set down my plate and pulled the little black book from its padded envelope. “To summarize, it seems my uncle has left me $20,000, but he was also the sort of man who didn't trust banks … or lawyers. I'm invited to come to his house and, uh, search for where he hid my inheritance.”

“Unorthodox,” said Jack, “but intriguing. Twenty thousand dollars is a good sum, but you're expected to fly to Australia … or Japan or … ?”

“No,” I said. “Uncle Finn spent his last days here in the States on the opposite coast. Mr. Schmidt sent me two tickets to Santa Cruz, California.”

A few days later, Jack and I were on the threshold of Uncle Finn's Santa Cruz home. “Well, your uncle liked to collect things,” said Jack, as he stepped over it.

I had expected that, that my uncle's home would be full of the things he'd collected in his travels. I didn't expect what I saw when I walked in … piles of objects on every surface and very little floor space. “We're in an episode of Hoarders,” I said. “How are we going to find $20,000 in all this mess?”

“Read me that clue your uncle gave you?” Jack said.

I opened the little black book and read, “Hidden in your uncle's lair, in an object as fiery as your hair.” The first page held his letter and this riddle while the other pages were a scrapbook of correspondence and photos between him and mom. I sighed. My uncle had always called me Red in his letters.

“That's it?” said Jack. “Just 17 syllables? It might as well be a haiku.”

“He was known for his photographs, not his poetry,” I reminded him. We stood there, just barely in the entryway for a moment, partly because we were walled in by obstacles on all sides.

“What does he mean by 'fiery,' I wonder,” said Jack. “Fiery can have more than one meaning. It can mean something spicy, something with a hot temperature, something orange …”

“My uncle had a lot of faith in my puzzle-solving ability,” I said. “It has to be in his mattress, right? That's where older generations always hid their cash. Of course, I can't see any particular reason why his bed would be fiery.”

Jack gave me a look.

“Yes, but … gross … he couldn't have meant that.” Moments later, I turned my focus to the books lying on the steps of the staircase in front of us. “Books can sometimes be secret caches or fronts for safeboxes. Maybe, I should check out these books. One of them might have 'fire' in the title or something..”

“Great. We'll split up. I'll start in the kitchen. That seems a promising place to find things that are fiery,” said Jack.

“Good luck finding the kitchen,” I said. It seems he would need the combined skills of a gymnast, spelunker and mountain climber to fight his way into another room.

I scooted up the steps one by one, looking through the pile of books on each. Eventually, I found "Archipelago of Fire" by Jules Verne and "The Girl Who Played with Fire" by Stieg Larsson. I tapped them and opened them, but they were just what they seemed … books.

Hours later, Jack appeared at the bottom of the steps, coughing and sneezing and looking even dustier than I expected.

“Any luck?” I asked.

“I found some highly decorated tins of spices from India. But … cough, cough … no, they literally hold spices … no cash. I spilled some.” Jack looked down over his shirt. “I made a bit of a jerk chicken out of myself.”

We excavated my uncle's house for days. The next day, we rented dumpsters and POD storage units and enlisted the help of Schmidt in sorting things out. The house was crowded with every item imaginable and unimaginable, the somewhat valuable and the completely worthless. We found stacks of magazines and newspapers, vintage clothing and lots of artifacts and mementos from his world travels including Polish pottery, Swedish wooden Dala horses, Japanese fans, Maasai jewelry and Ukrainian eggs.

Schmidt told me I was welcome to take anything that wasn't clearly designated for somebody else, particularly items of more sentimental than monetary value. One day, I had dug my way over to an old rolltop desk in a corner of the front room. I took a few of my uncle's personal items from this desk and put them into an old pillowcase: a cheap old Timex watch that no longer ticked, a monstrosity of a pewter ring, some letters my mother had written to him and even some childhood photos of me, one in front of my fifth birthday cake and another of me digging with plastic spade and pail at the beach. It might have been true that I wasn't exactly mourning the uncle I never met, but the more we dug, the more I was curious about the man that he was.

Moments later, Jack appeared, holding up a bright orange Nehru jacket. “Please, tell me that you aren't hoping to add this to your already questionable wardrobe,” I said.

“It's fiery, right?” he said.

“Yes, but … how?” I said.

Jack felt all along the lining of it looking for secret pockets or an unusual stuffing between the jacket and lining but didn't discover anything unusual. He left me then, and I went back to sorting through tsotchkes and souvenirs in another part of the room.

Hours later, I heard, “Ha ha! Eureka! Found it!”

I nearly jumped out of my skin and then hurried as much as I could through a narrow passage to the room beyond.

“I knew the piano looked suspicious!” said Jack.

“What did you find?” I asked

“Cash.”

Jack had lifted off the top board to the upright piano cabinet. It was an unusual piano for sure, black with intricate painted carvings that looked like abstract sunflowers or sunbursts. Jack held up a bundle of cash and then two more. “Wait a bit,” said Jack, looking down. “There's a note here.” He held up a paper and read, “I knew you'd find this, Red, but this stash is for your sister, Katherine.”

I sighed. I didn't begrudge my sister a part in my uncle's inheritance, but it was difficult not to be disappointed. “Well, take it out and bag it up anyway. I might as well be the one to bring it to her. I don't think she's coming to fight her way through this mess.”

We worked over the next several days, and gradually more and more floor and more empty surfaces appeared. We bagged and boxed up lots of items, most of it not highly valuable and nothing that seemed like a fiery object of interest until five days later.

It was then I found Jack staring at the masonry surrounding the fireplace. Stepping forward, he removed a couple of loose bricks and reached an arm in. His face turned pale, and he pulled his arm out.

“What was it?” I asked.

“I don't know, but it's not treasure.” Later, I saw him attack the area with a can of Raid and rat poison.

Later, the same day, Jack appeared in front of me, holding a statue of an idol. “It's a Huehuetéotl,” said Jack.

“A what?”

“It's a Huehuetéotl, an Aztec fire god.”

“And how do you know that?”

“I read things,” said Jack.

“That has to be it,” I said. We first tried to see if we could screw its head off. Then, we tapped him all over to listen for hollow sounds. We turned him over and inspected his bottom in the most undignified way, but we couldn't discover its secrets. Even so, we decided to bring it back with us to the hotel that night.

That evening, as Jack pored over it, muttering things about hidden compartments and doors with spring mechanisms and checking the idol's fingers and toes to see if any worked as levers, I sat beside him on the couch, looking through some of the old letters my mother had written to Uncle Finn.

“Hey, wait a moment,” said Jack. “Hand me that thing, would you?”

“What? The screwdriver?” We'd found a toolbox belonging to my uncle amidst all of his sundry possessions, and it was sitting open at Jack's feet.

“No, that thing sitting by the envelope to your letter.”

I handed Jack the pewter ring. Jack held it up to his eyes. “This ring is more than it seems. Someone has coated it over with lead, but that's not the original ring.”

“Are you sure?”

Jack nodded and then, “Ha! There's an inscription.”

“There is?”

“It's in Latin. It reads, 'Gratulor, Rubrum. Invenisti eam.' It means, 'Congratulations, Red. You have found it.'”

“And how do you know that?” I said. “And don't tell me it's because you read a book.”

“Okay, I won't,” said Jack. “I studied Latin in college.”

“Of course, you did,” I said.

“Hand me that soldering iron,” said Jack, pointing to the toolbox. “I want to melt down this lead to see what might be underneath.”

“Wait,” I said. “Is there any way to preserve the engraving? Those are my uncle's words.”

Jack pulled a stick of Trident from his pocket and pressed it into the engraving, then laid it down on its wrapper. “We can create a replica later,” he said.

He heated the soldering iron and set the ring in a metal lid from a jar of screws. Gradually, the lead liquified, and another shape became visible beneath. As the last of the lead dropped off and Jack brushed the ring to clean it more thoroughly, we were slack jawed. We were staring at a giant extraordinary opal that looked like the most intense nebula in space, with flecks of red, purple, orange and chartreuse. It was surrounded by what seemed to be diamonds and sapphires.

“Amazing,” I said.

Jack smiled. “The lead coating is an old Depression era trick to hide valuables.”

Back home, we had our fire opal ring appraised … at $20,000.

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About the Creator

Susan Joy Clark

I am a former journalist with North Jersey Media Group and an indie author of several books including Action Men with Silly Putty, a mystery comedy, And the Violin Cried, a juvenile novel, and The Journey of Digory Mole, a picture book.

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