Book Is in Development
Cold mud sucked at my rubber boots causing sticky splatters to cling to the legs of my jeans. The stink of decomposing plant matter and who knew what else drifted upward. The smell filled my mouth and ran down the back of my throat. I couldn’t believe people did this for fun. Gael persuaded me to go mudlarking with the locals, something about finding buried treasure deposited in the silt of the river. My vacation wasn’t going how I’d planned.
“Rye,” she said. “It’s fun, have an open mind, you never know what you’ll find.”
Malarkey. She just wanted to keep me busy, so she could go see the sights. This digging in the mud was close to doing penance for some spiritual infraction.
Though, there was a boon to endeavor. I picked up another coin and rinsed it with the water from my canteen. A penny or shilling, or whatever they called these things. ‘1634.’ I hadn’t found a coin newer than 1750 in hours.
Farther up the shore of the Thames River were the guys and gals who were taking me out for the afternoon. They were a good sort. Friendly, told great stories, and for some unknown reason, liked to shift through the junk collecting along the foreshore.
Sixty-three found coins jingled in my pockets. Hardly enough to buy a, “right proper cuppa’ tea.” I chuckled at my butchering of the local accent.
I rinsed my hands and glanced at the afternoon sun. It dipped behind the warehouse district situated a couple of miles downriver of the Tower of London. The temperature dropped, promising frost during the night.
Nestled in the muck a few steps away, I could see a golden eagle. Its metallic wings spread as wide as my hands placed wrist-to-wrist. I tapped my boot against the ornament, breaking it free of the surrounding stones. A sharp pain bit my toe, like when you find a rock in your shoe.
A long ferrule protruded from the base as if the bird was designed to rest upon a pole. I rinsed it in the river and admired my find. Some form of twisted knotwork like I kept seeing around town was carved into the eagle’s wings. Clutched in its talons were an ‘I’ and an ‘X.’
I shoved the bird in my rucksack and kept looking for something interesting, maybe an old rifle or better yet, a sword.
The tide rose, and the incoming seawater pressed against the river’s flow. I spent another few minutes walking the shore, picking up clay pipe bowls, and a few more coins. With the sun fading, I waved to the guys farther up the shore and pointed toward the pub. I climbed the rusty ladder hung from the wharf and headed up to street level. The rest of the group followed my lead.
Nestled in the warehouse district, the Coin and Crown Tavern stood alone on the corner of two once-prosperous roadways. The surrounding blacktop dipped and rolled, teasing at a resurfaced, rutted and cobbled street. Gael and I were staying on the top floor of the two-story building, a relic long forgotten and easily overlooked. Its slate roof, covered in moss, capped a façade of brown beams with whitewashed paint in between, gave the place an inviting appearance. From inside the pub, yellow light filtered through wavy-glass windows, causing the cobblestone alley to shimmer. I was sure a tourist agent booked our rooms. No one in their right mind would visit London and stay in such an isolated location.
I held the door for the rest of the crew. “Thanks for taking me with you. I don’t know if I had fun, but it was entertaining.”
Jimmy, the guy who oversaw our motley crew, tipped his cap and patted me on the back as he walked past to the bar. “Good, good, laddie. Lots to learn and find on the foreshore.”
He stood no taller than my chin. This feat was achieved by the absence of a neck. His shoulders bulged with muscles, squeezing so tight, his head protruded from a single shelf of flesh. He’d spent a lifetime working the warehouse district, loading trucks, and possessed an easy-to-appreciate manner.
“First rounds on me.” I pulled the door closed behind me and greeted the dozen men and women shrugging off jackets and dropping their assorted collection of junk across several tables.
Cheers and thanks rippled through the crowd.
I followed Jimmy and waved down the barman. “I’ll buy the first round, set ‘em up, please.”
“You’re a good lad there, Rye. Must be a little Scot in ya’ if ya’ willin’ to fill me with good drink.” Jimmy quaffed his first pint in one long gulp and ordered another.
“My pleasure. You and your friends showed me around. It’s the least I could do.” I handed beers from the bar top to those gathered around the tables. A couple of men who were not in our group, stepped in line to snag a free drink. I greeted them and included them in the party.
Once all the drinks were delivered, I took my cola and joined them at one of the iron-legged tables. Painted faces on the table legs stared at my knees as I sat in a chair old enough my great grandfather could have used it. The place smelled of ale, sweat, and pipe smoke. Dark wood paneling covered the walls. Reclusive niches lined one wall where two or three people could sit undisturbed. Paintings and photographs hung from the walls, along with a collection of tools the workers would have used a century ago to move freight and load barges.
This relic of past centuries felt homey. As if generations of men and families spent a lifetime telling stories and haggling over business within these walls. All under the watchful eye of a publican manning the bar.
A weathered, cast-iron stove leaked smoke and flickered flame. Gael wanted me here for a reason. One I hadn’t figured out yet, but that was nothing new for my Special Bureau One partner. My job back home was to investigate strange and mystical occurrences. This was supposed to be a vacation tip, but I figured Gael had ulterior motives.
This time I wanted to figure out her ploy without help. These men and women were the same as the folk I’d met growing up in Granddad’s truck stop. Only the culture differed, but in truth, the same aspirations drove them all: food, merriment, and friends.
Jimmy wrangled multiple conversations into one manageable direction and worked around the tables so each mudlarker could show off their finds. A few displayed an errant coin, some clay pottery. I thought of the stash of coins in my pocket and wondered if I should pull them out.
The wall clock chimed six and several patrons ordered food, reminding me Gael was due to arrive. But still, I didn’t understand what she wanted from me. Was it the people, the treasures we’d found, or the building itself? I set the question aside and joined the revelers.
Jimmy came around behind me and clasped his hand on my shoulder. “When’s that lady friend of yours due to show?” His cheeks flushed red and a twinkle I’d not seen earlier shone in his eyes.
I turned in my seat to face him. “Any minute now. She’ll be here like she said.”
“Good, good. She be a fine lookin’ woman. Just what an old man like me needs to keep him in his place.”
I looked forward to seeing how Gael handled the tipsy man. They were both war vets and fought the Germans across Europe, so they should have plenty to talk about. He was a hoot when he was sober and if my hunch was right, a true Casanova after a few pints. Something told me he could debate Chaucer or Iron Lady politics with equal passion. He’d certainly given me an earful when I asked about the Falkland’s ruckus from a few years ago.
Jimmy moved around the table and I went back to watching the people as they sorted their finds. The stuff they presented was interesting, but for some unknown reason, everyone got excited about the coins. It seemed strange. A coin was a coin as far as I was concerned. Yeah, they could be valuable, but these people treasured them like Mickey Mantle or Ty Cobb baseball cards. What did it matter who was king or president at the time? I never collected coins or stamps as a boy, instead stockpiling car engines and motorcycles. My collection was long since depleted to pay my way through college.
A brass bell chimed as the door opened, bringing a rush of cold air into the room. Gael entered, pulled off her wool coat, and hung it on the wall rack by the door.
Jimmy tried to suppress a gasp, turning it into a cough. He glanced at me and back to Gael. I got the hint and rose to greet my partner.
She wasn’t in her typical chinos, blouse, and hiking boots. She looked ‘right and proper,’ as the English would say. Her dark-wool slacks and matching sweater contrasted with her shoulder-length blonde hair. Though the boots were a bit over the top. With red-leather uppers and black soles stitched with yellow thread, they looked more futuristic than historic. Especially since the cuffs of her pants were stuffed in the top of the boots.
I attempted to take the shopping bag from her. “Whatever you brought sure smells good.”
“Keep out of those.” She swatted my hand and pointed me back to my chair. “One’s for you but you’ll have to wait.”
I caught Jimmy’s eye and gave him a smile. The more I thought about it, the better I felt about trying to play match maker between the two of them, and with Gael out of the way, I could explore the city however I wanted, rather than play secret agent with her in tow.
“Jimmy, please help Professor Gale with her bag. Seems I’m not up to the task.” I pointed at her with the top of my head.
He scooted around the table and headed her off before she could take a second step into the room. “Yes, yes. Glad to help.”
She handed him the bag. “You’re so helpful. Rye should be doing this.”
Jimmy’s smile creased the width of his face. “Now, don’t be too hard on him. He’s still young and by the looks of it, not yet settled.” He took her bag and escorted her to the barman.
I retook my seat and joined the conversation at the table.
A woman with a smudge of mud on her face pushed a piece of broken tile toward me. “This one’s seventeenth century.”
I nodded as if what she said was interesting. “It’s a duck.”
“Yes.” She lifted the fragment from the table and rotated it between her fingers. “I think it’s from before the fire.”
“I don’t get it,” I said. “You all go around and pick up junk from the riverbank and show it off like treasure. I don’t see the point. I mean, I have an arrowhead collection back home but why the tile and other stuff?”
Jimmy must have heard my comment. “Rye, Rye.” He shook his head. “You don’t understand. It’s not rubbish we search for. It’s the stories.” He plopped down in the chair next to me and ran his fingers through a collection of broken pottery. “London is old. You might find something special from as far back as Roman times. We do it for the adventure.”
Adventure was something I could get on board with.
Gael came up behind me, nibbling a fry or was it a chip? “How’d your time on the river go?”
I emptied my pockets, dropping my assortment of coins, pipes, and colorful ceramics on the table top. “Found eighty-three coins, they’re all old, too.”
The chatter in the room halted and all eyes turned to me. Interested expressions lingered on my finds.
“Rye.” She held my name for a long moment before continuing. “That’s quite a collection you have there.” She picked up one of the coins and looked at its two sides. “This one’s Roman, third century.” She pulled a chair up next to me, sat, and sorted the mound into piles. “Byzantine, James the First. These are fantastic.”
The crowd pressed closer. Eager eyes scoured the coins and other junk.
Jimmy picked up one of the smaller coins. “Too bad you didn’t find any gold. I’ve never see anyone as lucky as you.”
“You should see the eagle I found. I think it’s brass, but it’s pretty.”
Gael reshuffled the items on the table. “I don’t see it. Is it still in your pocket?”
“Oh, sorry. It was so big I stuffed it in my pack.” I put the knapsack on my lap, opened the top flap, and pulled out the eagle.
“Blimey.” Jimmy took off his cap and ran fingers through his oily hair. “You done gone spawny on us. Lucky is you.” He replaced his cap and stared at the eagle.
I dropped the bird on the table. “It sounds solid. What are all those squiggly lines carved on it?” I spun it like a bottle, waiting to see where the pointy top aimed.
Gael reached out before anyone else could grab it. Her voice filled with fascination. “Where’d you find this?” She turned the object in different directions, inspecting every surface.
“Down by the river.”
She wiped some of the remaining mud from the base with her thumb nail. “You sure?”
“Of course, I’m sure. Why?” I dropped my pack on the floor. “It’s just some old thing you stick on top of a flag pole. I’m sure every school in town has one.”
Gael’s brow wrinkled as she continued to study the bird. “I know what it looks like, but I’m flabbergasted if it’s what I think.”
My work partner was never unsure of herself. In fact, Dr. Gael Gale was the most self-assured person I’d ever met. If she was perplexed, it must be important. While working for Bureau One, she and I’d faced zombies and a crazy lady who could shoot lightening out of her fingers. She had the same inquisitive look during those investigations.
The sound of chairs shuffled across the stone floor and calls for more drink were the only interruption as everybody fixated on Gael’s and my conversation.
“What do you think it is?” I asked.
Her voice cracked as her eyes darted back and forth between me and the bird. “It’s a Roman Legion Standard. Not just any Roman Legion, the Ninth, or lost legion.”
“We’ll it seems we found it. Can’t be lost anymore.”
She set the eagle back on the table and resorted the coins. All the while shaking her head and humming a soft tune. I’d heard the tune before. Something was bugging her big time if she was trying to meditate through this.
I approached my question with care. “What’s got you so upset?”
“What makes you think I’m upset?”
She stopped making the sound. “Oh, nothing. Just thinking.” A bead of sweat dripped from her brow.
Nope. I didn’t believe her. I’d never seen her sweat. She could face grown men with swords and never sweat. This was big.
She leaned back in her chair and pulled a notebook and pen from her pocket. “If it’s the Ninth Legion?” She mumbled to herself.
I tried a little levity to hopefully calm her down. “What’s that, a rock band?”
She pinched her lips between her teeth and shook her head. “Really, and where would you get the idea I said anything about a rock band?”
“You know. Like Dante’s nine circles of hell, and a legion of fans.” I waved my arms wide. “It would definitely be heavy metal. Lots of leather and big hair.”
“I worry about you sometimes.” She shook her head and kept writing in her little book.
My ploy to lighten the mood didn’t work, so I took the direct approach. “Thanks, cookie. I worry about you too.”
“I have a good idea what this is.” She closed her notebook, leaned back in her chair, and took a deep breath.
“Is it gold?” The barman approached the table carrying a wooden box.
Everyone looked at the man. His bald head shone. In fact, he didn’t have eyebrows or lashes either. The only thing beside skin on his head was the pair of reading glasses on his nose.
Gael buffed her finger against the eagle. “I believe so. Why?”
“If it is, I need to record it in the ledger.” He set down the box and removed a dark, flat rock and a bottle the size of his pinky finger.
We all watched as he rubbed the eagle against the stone and placed a drop of liquid from the bottle on the color line left by the abrasion. Next, he wiped the stone clean with his towel and pulled a couple of gold coins from the box. He rubbed each of the coins on the stone, along with another line from the eagle and compared them.
He paused, adjusted his glasses, finally setting the eagle back on the table. “It’s gold, close to twenty-two karats.”
Gasps rose from the circled mudlarkers.
Gael remained quiet. Her face went white and two beads of sweat dribbled down her forehead.
Jimmy raised his glass. “To Rye, King of the mudlarkers.”
As a single group, the crowd raised their glasses and mimicked his words. “To Rye, King of the mudlarkers.”
The electric lights dimmed, and a burst of flame whooshed from the woodstove. The hair on the back of my neck stood on end.
The eagle began to spin. It spun so fast it became a blur.
I watched, wondering how the barman had pulled off the spinning bottle trick.
Gael reached for the eagle but quickly pulled her hand away. “It bit me.” A droplet of blood stained her palm.
The eagle slowed, coming to rest with the point of the bird’s head facing me.
No one moved. No one spoke. All eyes in the room stared at me once more.
I didn’t know what to do. This was the best parlor trick I’d seen in a long time. I wondered how Gael and the barman had set it up.
The bald-headed publican gathered his box, sped back to the bar, and retrieved an oversized book from under the counter. He brought the leather-bound ledger to the table and opened it to a blank page. “You all have to wait. I need your names and addresses.”
Gael spoke to the man. “Why do you need our names?”
“I need to record everybody here. It’s a requirement of the royal charter. This object is probably a Treasure Trove.”
Her expression froze. “What royal charter?”
He wrote down Jimmy’s name and Scotland as place of birth. “King Henry the Eighth granted it to the tavern in 1533.” He moved on to the next person and listed them in his book.
“What’s the charter for?” Gael looked at the eagle then up at me. Her eyes narrowed, and concern riddled her expression.
He kept working around the table, listing names. One man came from Ireland.
“I can witness and settle contracts and make binding decision concerning the docks and warehouses.” His pen flew. I also must record anything that may become a legal issue for the crown. This eagle would probably qualify.”
I saw a man born in Wales on the list.
The barman looked at me. “And you? Rye, what’s the last name? American, I presume?”
“Raymond Zeus Ironstone. Yes, sir. Born in Oklahoma, if it matters.”
He logged my name and turned to Gael. “Name, please.”
She didn’t answer. Her fingers clutched her pen. Ink dribbled from its tip, leaving spots on the notepad.
I reached for the eagle.
“Don’t touch that.” She attempted to push my arm away.
The golden bird spread its wings and leaped the last few inches onto my wrist. It extended its claws, slipped under my jacket sleeve, and crawled up my arm. Talons grasped my flesh, piercing deep.
I did my best not to scream. Tears wet my eyes. I smacked at the animated chunk of metal. “Get this thing off me.” My voice squealed. I knew I did some crazy investigative work for Bureau One, but nobody ever said I would get attacked by a cockroach-possessed metallic bird.
The crowd’s expressions asked a myriad of questions.
Gael’s eyes peered at me, hollow and unblinking.
The eagle climbed the length of my arm. Pain burned my flesh where the bird wrapped around my neck, then remained still.
Her complexion paled, and hands trembled. “We need to leave.”
Never in my life had I seen her show fear. This was a new experience. Gael was scared, and I was terrified. My biggest worry was that the thing around my neck would tighten.
Working to control a grunt of pain, I flexed my shoulders and spoke through clenched teeth. “Now?”
“Right now.” She stood and retrieved her jacket.
I grabbed my pack and stumbled after her into the cold dark night.