The Case of the Golden Trail Four college chums get together to solve a missing gold mystery.

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May 19, 2018 No Comments ›› admin

FICTION
By Lynn Woolley

Editor’s note: This is the first short story I wrote as an adult. I had moved to Dallas to work for WFAA radio and was missing my old college buddies. So I created pastiches of the four of us, set them in a fictional college in a fictional town, and made them amateur sleuths. If it seems a bit juvenile, remember that college life was what I knew at the time. This story would have been from the early 70’s.

Those last few steps from the campus to the apartment were anxious ones for Morgan Stewart, and he always caught himself running toward the end of the journey. Today, he was particularly excited.

He jammed the key into the lock as if to punish it, roared inside, and scanned the living room for some sign of his best friend and roommate, Howard Thornberry.

“Howard?”

He tossed a paper onto the coffee table and began dialing the phone as Thornberry peered from the next room, wondering what was going on.

“Rex?” Howard heard Morgan say into the plastic. “Get Steve and come on up. I’ve got something to show you.”

Thornberry was capable of excitement, but he was wary enough of Morgan to wait and make sure there was reason to be excited.

“What happened?” he asked wryly. “Did you pass a test or something?”

“Funny man.” Morgan grinned a boyish grin. His eyes were rolling over an item in the college paper, which bore the unlikely name The Dawson Duckling.

Morgan Stewart, like his roommate, was a senior at Dawson College. He had enrolled there to study journalism, and clearly had an eye toward the electronic media. Morgan had a good head on his shoulders, but he made B’s in class because he didn’t study much.  Howard had entered college mainly to look for girls, and picked speech and drama as an easy major. He had not found it all that easy, and he, too, made B’s. Howard also had contributed to the fact that Morgan didn’t study much.

Stewart was at the door the second the knock sounded. “About time,” he said, as Rex Walton and Steve Larsen entered the room. “Now look, guys,” he continued. “I’ve kinda done something without your permission, and if you don’t want to do it, you don’t have to, but I thought maybe…”

Rex Walton butted in. “Get to the point, Stewart. I’ve got an exam tomorrow.” That was a typical Rex Walton statement. Rex was the only one of the foursome that had entered college really to study. He was working on a law degree, and Thornberry would swear that Rex was already eyeing the governor’s mansion. Rex made straight A’s. He finished, “Now just what have you done?”

Morgan Stewart, in his typical enthusiastic manner, was searching his mind for a way to soothe the savage Walton. Actually, Walton’s roomie, Steve Larsen, was the one who looked like a savage. Steve weighed 220, was a physical-ed major, and played offensive tackle on the football team, the Dawson Ducks. He was the quiet one of the foursome, but when he did talk, he usually had something to say.

“All right,” said Morgan Stewart. “You know I’ve been reading a lot of mystery stories lately. Well, I actually solved three Sherlock Holmes mysteries before I finished the stories. And I thought maybe we could make some money off solving mysteries.”

This was one of those rare times that Steve Larsen did have something to say. “C’mon, Morgan. Us? Solve mysteries? We can’t even solve the mystery of how to pay the rent.”

“That’s another of my points,” insisted Stewart. “Listen, guys, I’ve placed an ad in this week’s Duckling.

The Duval Street Detectives
Bring us your clues; we’ll solve your mystery.
Fee: $40.
Apply in person, 3001 Duval Street, Apt. 202 or 303.

By this time, Walton was pacing the floor with a scowl on his face that would reach the most biased of juries. “Stewart, he began, “you are out of your mind. Real mysteries don’t just show up in real life like they do in your Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie books. You don’t just sit back and solve a crime by figuring out a dying clue or a note scrawled in the dirt. And besides, I don’t have the time to spare from the law books. “ Walton was typically disgusted, and was doing a good job of conveying that emotion.

Stewart was unperturbed.

“Okay. So don’t help. Howard and I’ll do it by ourselves.”

To which Thornberry’s reply was, “Oh, brother.”

Not much was said about the ad for the next couple of days. Walton and Larsen did their best to sneak into classes late and to make themselves scarce as soon as the final bell had sounded. Still, the foursome became the butt of a few jokes. Rex, Steve, and Howard were quick to blame the idea on Morgan – but nothing bothered him. Down deep, Morgan suspected that Howard really like the idea and was hoping a client would come calling. Finally, one did.

Several days later, the long-awaited knock at the door came at last. Morgan and Howard had invited Rex and Steve up to 303 for dinner, and they had just finished eating. Morgan answered the knock.

The caller was familiar to all. Roger Whitney was a Dawson student who shared several classes with the four. Stewart asked him to come in.

“Hello everybody,” said Whitney as he looked for a chair. “Listen, I’m here in response to your ad.”

All eight eyes converged on Whitney’s face. They had just about given up hope of getting a taker for the ad. Rex and Steve had been relieved up to this point; Morgan and Howard had been disappointed.

“Hey, that’s great,” exclaimed Stewart. “What’s the situation?”

“First, let’s get the terms straight. You said in the ad you have a forty-dollar fee. What if you fail?”

Stewart answered, “If we fail, no fee. So give us the details, and we’ll let you know if we accept the case.”

Whitney said that was fair enough, and Rex and Steve agreed at least to listen to the story. So Whitney sat back and prepared to state his case.

“The story concerns my late grandfather,” he began. “Grandpa died several years ago in his early 70’s. He died quickly, of a heart attack, and his death was unexpected at the time. Grandpa was a retired oilman, and in that capacity, he traveled a lot. Sometimes, when he was overseas, he would buy jewelry, artwork, and sometimes, gold or gold coins. At that time, it was illegal for private citizens to own gold in the United States, but he always managed to get it into the country somehow. The jewelry usually went to family members; the artwork was hung. But the gold went into a special hiding place. Not even Grandma knew where.”

Thornberry interrupted. “Is that the mission? Figure out where the gold is?”

“Yes. It’s been missing for years, and no one’s been able to locate it.”

“How much gold are we talking about? Asked Walton.

“We don’t even know that. We just know it’s somewhere. You see, Grandpa loved mysteries himself. You would have loved him, Morgan. He watched detective shows on TV religiously, and every now and then, he’d tell Grandma that when he died, he’d leave a clue to the gold. She didn’t know he was serious until after he died.”

“What were the circumstances of his death?” asked Stewart.

“As I remember, my grandmother was upstairs taking a nap when she heard Grandpa call out. Grandma suffers from arthritis, and she had to descend the stairs very slowly, clinging to the rail as she came down. By the time she got to Grandpa, he was dead.”

“But he had time for a dying clue!” Exclaimed Stewart.

“Not exactly. Apparently, Grandpa had taken some time and worked out a clue months before he died. It was found in a safety deposit box during probation of the will. The clue was just a short line of prose – not even a sentence, really. My father had the original, but I phoned him to get the exact wording.”

Roger Whitney handed the four a typed sheet with the following words:

Tout: Gold hidden in trail.

“That’s all we’ve got to go on to solve a mystery that your family has been working on for years?” Walton was convinced of the impossibility of the task. “There’s no way,” he said.

Steve Larsen’s curiosity was aroused, and he volunteered to give it a try. “Aw, why not,” he said. “C’mon, Rex, let’s put our heads together and see if we can solve it.”

Before Walton could answer, Morgan Stewart took advantage of Larsen’s cooperativeness. “We accept the case,” he said. “We’ll need to ask a few questions. First of all, has a thorough search of the grounds been made?”

“Oh, sure. The entire house and grounds, even though the gold must be buried outside somewhere.”
“Why do you say that?” asked Walton.

“Because it’s under some kind of trail.” Whitney stared at the clue. “He said in the clue we’ll have to search for it. But the key word must be trail. It’s in or under some kind of trail. But we’ve dug up the back yard. And there’s nothing like a trail in the front yard.”

“Trail can also mean to lag behind or follow. Have you explored that line of thought?” asked Walton.
“I thought of it. But I haven’t figured out a way to apply it to the missing gold.”

“Who or what leaves a trail?” asked Thornberry. “Maybe it’s like the contrail from a jet airplane; it’s there, then it fades away. Or maybe the trail he’s discussing is an imaginary trail. You know – like the equator is an imaginary line.”

“That’s a thought,” said Stewart. “By the way, have you lifted all the rugs and carpeting?”

“Yes,” said Whitney. “And nothing showing.”

“What about the first word in the clue?” asked Larsen. “How does ‘tout’ fit in with the rest of it?”

“’Tout’ means to put forward or to dangle in front of. For instance, a candidate can be touted for office,” answered Whitney. “We assume the word is used to sort of dangle the gold in front of us.”

“Here, I’ll look up the word.” Thornberry pulled out an unabridged dictionary he had received as a high school graduation present. “Tout,” he said firmly, “To give a tip or solicit bets on a racehorse. To praise or publicize loudly.”

“So he’s giving us a tip,” said Larsen. “And he’s doing it loudly.”

“Wait a minute,” Walton said. “Maybe words in the line aren’t the only clue. Maybe where the note was found is a clue. Maybe he’s telling us that the gold is stashed in another safety deposit box. Has that angle been checked out?”

“Afraid so. We checked every bank in town. Grandpa did all his business with First National, and he only had that one deposit box.”

Several more ideas were put forward, and rejected in turn by Whitney as having already been tried by the family. Finally, it was law book minded Rex Walton who suggested they all sleep on it and meet again the next day during lunch. Schedules were compared and it was found that all five men had a half hour off at noon. They decided to meet near the fountain in front of the college’s administration building.

True to form, Stewart was early, Walton and Larsen were right on time, and Thornberry was five minutes late. Roger Whitney was right on time too, and he was the first to speak.

“Well, any ideas, guys?”

“I hate to tell you this, but I spent the morning in the law library, and the only mystery I was mulling over was Brown v. Board of Education. I’m afraid private detective Rex Walton doesn’t have anything to add to what we discussed last night.”

Steve Larsen nodded is regret, that he, too, had no solution. Morgan Stewart was telling Whitney that the Duval Street Detectives don’t give up in a day, when Thornberry spoke up.

“Hold it just a second, you guys. I’ve been thinking about something that maybe we might have missed last night. I’m not for sure, but didn’t the word ‘tout’ have a colon after it?”

“I think it did,” said Walton. “That would mean whatever followed was in some way related to that word, wouldn’t it?”

“That’s right,” Thornberry went on. “And I’ve been thinking that maybe ‘tout’ is a sort of instruction on how to interpret the verse. Roger, didn’t you mention that the house has two floors?”

“Yes, I said Grandma was upstairs when Grandpa died.”

“And she held onto the banister when coming down the stairs?”

“Right. Go on.”

“Okay, I think I may have something here. We didn’t see the original copy of the clue, but let’s say that possibly, the letter ‘T’ in ‘Tout’ was separated just a bit from the ‘out.’ That would make it read ‘T out’ rather than Tout’.”

“You mean there might be a space between the ‘T’ and the ‘o’?” asked Whiney.

“You’re catching on. Now, if that’s the case, your grandfather was giving you instructions on how to read the clue. There’s only one ‘T’ in the line, and you should read it with that T out.”

Stewart was excited again. “Howard, that’s it! The gold isn’t hidden in a trail; it’s in a rail – the banister.”

Walton had to agree that Thornberry must be right., “Guess you should call home, Roger, and have your family take a look for a secret compartment in the banister.”

“I’ll cut my next class to do it. And I guess I have to give you guys credit –- especially you, Thornberry. I never really thought –”

“All in a day’s work,” Stewart said as if he had solved the case singlehandedly. “And don’t forget our forty bucks.”

THE END

© 2018 by Lynn Woolley.  All rights reserved.

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