Riddles- Chapters 1 & 2

Chapter 1

 Hilltop Cemetery

In the middle-of-the-night darkness, my reluctant teenage friends and I walked up the steep sidewalk until we reached the cemetery’s wall. The tilting stones struggled to restrain the hillside and the century-old caskets it held.  The rock barrier was ten feet tall, but as we climbed, it became shorter.  A pointed, wrought iron rail stood on top.  Neglected, the sections tilted back and forth with occasional missing balusters.  Honeysuckle vines twisted around the spikes and clung to the crumbling mortar.  The trumpet-shaped flowers should have blared warnings of the dangers ahead, but they folded their horns in silence.  We arrived at the first step and halted.

“We’re here,” my brother, Marshal, said.

Two brick posts, one on each side, marked the entrance.  A mason had carved a date into the cornerstone of one pillar. 

“1827,” I read aloud. 

Marshal said, “If it’s 1967 now, then they set it one-hundred-forty years ago.”

I pointed up the dozen, leaning limestone steps.

“It’s up there.”

A distant train moaned while cicadas argued.  The hair on my neck raised, and a chill quivered my body.  Pippy slipped her hand from mine.

“You go first.”

Cindy joined her sister behind we five boys.  Then, Einstein tried to sneak back, but the girls refused to allow his cowardice.

I forced my fifty-pound feet to climb each weather-worn step.  Though terrified, I feigned bravery to impress Pippy.  With an enormous effort, I reached the top and stood under the iron arch.  A cloud passed, and the moonlight fell upon the cursive letters above us, which spelled Hilltop.  The word Cemetery was missing but lay on the ground where it had fallen.  I stepped over the Civil War-era sign into the graveyard for my first time.

The others followed as I forced my heavy feet to inch forward.  Thunder groaned in the distance, and a breeze from an approaching storm raised goosebumps on my arms.

“Might rain in Mattoon,” Marshal said.

“Still a long way from here,” I replied. 

Most of the shadowy tombstones were two or three feet tall, but in the back, stood a spire taller than the others.  The gray stone glittered in the broken-clouded moonlight. A lightning bug perched on top, pulsating a lighthouse warning.

Because I focused on the granite monument, I hadn’t seen a pair of prowling tomcats stalking one another. They’d tiptoed between the stones until both crouched before me.  The feline confrontation erupted when eight legs launched, then met in a mid-air crash. 

As extended claws swiped in a furious blur, I clenched my fingers and jerked my elbows back.  I leaped airborne, hovered for a moment, then dropped.   As the cats tussled, Einstein won for first-out-of-the-gate.  He knocked Cindy down as he made his retreat and never glanced over his shoulder as he streaked away.

The cat eruption subsided as fast as it had started—a draw with the two opponents alive to fight another day. I exhaled, withdrew my fists from my armpits, and relaxed my fingers.  Once everyone recovered, we regrouped and continued our trek further into the funereal unknown.  In a few dozen paces, we reached the eight-foot-tall spire, and the epitaph read:         

     John Jenkins

     Beloved Husband and Father

     Died September 28, 1864

     43 yrs. 2 Months

“This is it,” Marshal said.

“John Jenkins’ grave,” I added.

I glanced over rows of tilting gravestones and waist-high pinnae plants. Planted years ago, the hardy perennials thrived without human care.  A few of the fist-sized blooms lingered beyond their regular season. The deep-purple flowers appeared gray in the darkness, but the pleasant fragrance broadcasted their presence.

I squinted at my watch, which read one minute until midnight.  An ash-white, full moon, crossing in the southern sky, peeped through an opening in the clouds.  A shadow from the monument pointed downhill, and the apex ended on the door of a mausoleum.   

“It’s pointing toward the tomb,” I said.

“North as Grampa Tip predicted,” Marshal added.

We walked side-by-side past the drooping crown and slouching limbs of a weeping willow.  With trepidation, we approached the small limestone building.

Atop the peak was a lightning rod attached to a thick copper wire running to the ground.  The stone door hung on four iron hinges and carved in the white gable was the word Postal.  On each end of the inscription was an engraved angel blowing a trumpet.  English ivy climbed the walls and covered most of the aging edifice.

Mounted on both sides of the entrance were two tarnished, brass plaques.  Etched in the pitted plate on the top left, were the words, Julia – Died 1841.  The sign below read, Ewan – Died 1833.  The upper right panel was blank, but stamped in the one below was, Margaret – Infant Child.

“It’s a family—mother, father, and baby,” Marshal said.

 “There are four chambers in the mausoleum, but only three contain bodies. What could it mean?” I asked.

“I don’t know.”

“Out of the way, I’m going inside,” Butch screamed as he pushed me aside. 

When he grabbed the tarnished doorknob, it turned in his hand. Butch stiffened, but he was the only teen who knew it moved.  The handle slipped from Butch’s grasp as the door swung open, and a shadowy apparition appeared.  I saw the dark phantom… after Butch fainted.  My friend had slumped onto his back as if he melted.  His eyelids were half-open, but only the whites showed.

Angel fled, and I didn’t talk to him again for weeks.  The girls shrieked, but I couldn’t hear them because I was screaming louder.  I’d have run had my feet obeyed the advice of my panicking mind. 

Pippy and Cindy had no problem running in place, arms flailing.  Marshal froze like the wooden Indian at Grandpa Tip’s tavern.

To my horror, the shadowy ghost emerged before four wide-eyed teens.  We stopped squealing and stared at the tall figure in the doorway.  With the full moonlight on him, I saw his thin face and gray, bushy eyebrows.

 A voice rumbling like a kettle drum said, “I’ve been expecting you.”

We stood in stunned silence.

 Crickets chirped,

                               Chirped,

                                                      Chirped.

An owl broke the human silence and shouted, “Who?”  But by then, I knew who.

“I know you,” I said.

Marshal added, “You’re Sparky.”

He nodded.

The pencil-thin, six-footer stepped over the still unconscious Butch and tipped his wide-brimmed hat.

The mysterious man wore a black, leather duster, a knee-length coat, smudged with white dust.  I hadn’t noticed it before, but he had squinty eyes.

“That’s right.  My nickname is Sparky.”

“What’re you doing here?” I asked.

“I live here.  Well, I should say I sleep here most nights. Soon I’ll sleep here every night.”  

He stepped to the side and pointed toward the open door.

“It’s a perfect place, quiet.”

 In the slanted light of the moon, I viewed an aisle.  On the left side was a solid stone wall.  Sparky tapped on the white partition.

“This side is full, two vaults, one on top of the other.”

I asked, “Full of what?”

“Caskets.”

I shivered, but not alone.

Sparky turned to the other side and pointed downward.

“There’s only one occupied burial chamber on this side.”

 A quilt and pillow lay above the stone slab.

“Is this where you spend the night?” I asked.

“Yep, right here.” 

Pippy gazed from a distance.

“It’s creepy.”

“I guess so, but I’m glad because no one bothers me here.”

“I know why,” Pippy remarked.

“It’s not so bad.”

He slipped his hands into the deep pockets of his oil-rubbed, cotton overcoat.  Thunder rumbled in the distance as a storm approached.  Sparky scanned the approaching clouds marching toward us.

A swooping bat from nowhere snapped a mosquito just inches from my nose.  My friends were unaware of the dive bomber, so I shivered alone.

 “This mausoleum is mine.  These people are my family.  Julia and Ewan are my grandparents, and baby Margaret is my aunt who died before I was born.”

He stepped outside and pointed at tombstones to the east.

“My great-grandparents are over there. I guess you could say it’s our neighborhood.  Someday, they’ll bury me here too.”

             Butch sat up and studied his surroundings as he struggled to get his bearings.

“Where?” Pippy asked.

“Right where I sleep, on top of Margaret.  I suppose I’m practicing for the long snooze.  It’s comfortable enough.”

She asked, “Are your parents buried nearby?”

“No, they’re in Lake Michigan.  We were on vacation when lightning struck our sailboat.”

“Were you with them?” Marshal asked.

“Yep, I was a boy then.  A sudden storm approached, and Mom and Dad sent me below as they tried to lower the sail.  The bolt split the mast and blasted them into the water. It was my first lightning strike.”

“First?” Marshal asked.

“Yeah, it’s hit me three times, so I’m a human lightning rod.  People say I attract it.”

“Geez,” I replied.

Sparky peered at the threatening sky, so I stepped back just in case.

“After my parents died, my grandparents raised me.  When they died, I made it a practice to visit their graves every day.  I could never leave them.”

“Seems you were close,” I said.

“Yes, and we still are.  I come here to talk to them.”

“Talk?”

“Grandpa is a good listener, and Grandma gives me advice.  I need them.”

Then I tilted my head forward and curled my eyebrows as I tried to decide if he was crazy.

“When they died, I inherited this mausoleum.  One day I came to visit my grandparents, and the caregiver gave me a key.”

 “But, why do you sleep here; don’t you have a home?” Pippy asked.

“Not anymore, they’re tearing it down, so I’ve got nowhere else to go.  Since I must move, I want to be close to my family.  This way, Grandma can sing me to sleep at night.  This is just right.”

Whew, this guy is crazy.

Even in the dim light, I could see my friends with tilted heads and squinting eyes reaching the same conclusion.

“My grandma thinks you’re a ghost,” Marshal interjected.

Sparky smiled.

 “Not yet.”

Butch rose and stared into the west.  Occasional lightning flashes preceded the thunderclaps by several seconds. 

Butch remarked, “Nasty weather is coming, should we leave?”

I examined the ominous clouds then turned back to my conversation. 

“You said you’ve been expecting us?”

Our treasure hunt had led my teenage friends and me to this graveyard and the mysterious tomb-dweller.  I wondered if he’d offer the solution to Dillinger’s stash of gold coins, or was this just another clue left by our murdered grandfather?

  Our search had begun a few weeks ago, but the mystery started years before— after Grandpa Tip overheard an unlawful plot.  The events that followed transformed the lives of him and his cousin.  Would they change mine too?

Chapter 2

Tip’s Good Fortune

A thirty-five-year-old homeless man knocked on the alley door of Tommy’s Billiard Hall. Tip stood straight, adjusted his shabby coat and hat, and tried to appear suitable. He hoped his stubby whiskers weren’t too noticeable by the glow of the quarter moon. Through a peephole, apprehensive eyes scanned his face and torso. When the bouncer allowed the familiar vagrant into the speakeasy, Tip sighed. In 1933 booze was hard to buy because of prohibition, but this was one place in Greencastle, Indiana where he knew it would be.

Inside, the mood was more celebratory than usual because a party was in progress.  On pushed-together tables with white linen tablecloths sat a whole birthday cake. The half-dozen men were in business attire, and the celebrating women wore gowns—unusual for this working-class, midwestern town. 

Tip staggered as he made his way toward the bar.  In time, with effort, he climbed aboard his familiar stool.   He wished to drink alone, disturb no one, and brood without being disturbed.  But it was not to be.  Since he arrived somewhat pickled, his inebriation intensified earlier than usual. 

It was after the second whiskey, his inhibitions, a fickle friend, departed.  Once he downed the third shot, the cat that held his tongue left too.  Alone to fend for himself, a potential disaster loomed.

A silver-haired gentleman in a gray, two-button suit stood to speak.  His crimson suspenders matched the handkerchief in his breast pocket.  The businessman buttoned his wool jacket, cleared his throat, then raised a glass.  Tip, through bloodshot eyes, recognized the speaker as Mr. Goldworth, the bank president, whom he despised.  Their mutual disdain, fashioned years prior, had amplified. 

“I propose a toast,” the banker announced.  “Happy birthday to my wife, Billie Jean.”

A hearty cheer preceded the sipping, followed by applause. The husband removed a box from his jacket pocket and presented it.

“A little gift for you, my dear.”

 “Oh, you shouldn’t have.”

As she ripped the tinsel paper, Tip examined the lanky spouse.  He thought her salt-and-pepper bun added to her height and didn’t do much for her long face, either.  She reminded him of a horse he once owned when times were better.

Tip muttered, “He must have married for money.”

In a flash, the decorative wrapping was off, and she dangled a gold pendant and chain before her guests. 

“Oh, a St. Christopher medal.”

She held it to her neck, and her mate stood behind her assisting with the clasp.  The couple’s flaunted wealth disgusted Tip.

She announced, “I love it.  Thank you so much, dear. You’re so kind.”

Her husband rocked back on his heels and beamed at his ostentatious wife as she expressed her admiration for the gift.  He cocked his head as he admired it.

“You look wonderful, Billie.  Gold is your color.”

The banker grinned, proud of his not-so-humorous joke, and the guests applauded.  As the town’s eminent citizens wallowed in their affluence, Tip pulled the last coin from his pocket and ordered another whiskey.  He stared into the liquor as if it were a crystal ball. 

The drunkard saw no future for himself, just endless days of an arduous existence.  Short-on-luck, but not lazy, he jumped at any work available during the depression.  But full-time workers clung to positions tighter than a tick in a dog’s ear.

He’d slaughtered hogs, bailed hay, and laid brick pavement for the government.  It was unfortunate, but there were more men than jobs—even for nasty employment.  His meager, infrequent income provided him with food and drink, and of late, less for both.  Rent money at the flophouse had run out, and the proprietor evicted him posthaste.   Homeless, he slept any dry place he could find. 

While Tip pondered his unfortunate state, one partygoer slipped beside him and slapped a hand on the bar twice to get the bartender’s attention. Tip noticed his starched cuffs.

 “Another bottle of champagne.”

The staggering socialite appeared intoxicated and braced himself.  While holding onto the counter, he swayed as if the tavern was a floating ship.  A wave rocked the saloon, and he smashed into Tip.

Though bumped hard, Tip politely steadied the unstable partier and recognized him as a cashier at the bank.  But tranquil from his liquid sedation, he ignored the intrusion.  For he too, while drinking, had sailed the rolling, liquor seas on occasions.  

“Keep your hands to yourself!”

Tip frowned at the uncalled-for comment but returned to his whiskey without a reply.  Again, he pondered an escape from his meager existence in such times.

When the next imaginary wave tilted the deck, the banker rocked and plowed into him again.  The collision spilled his drink, which, in his defense, would upset most anyone.  Now aggravated, Tip shoved the unstable patron.  The push, more forceful than necessary, was not as hard as possible.

“Get off me,” Tip ordered.

The cashier stumbled but caught a chair before falling.  Then, he zigzagged over to the bar and planted both feet on the deck. 

“Hey! I warned you before to keep your hands off me.”

Tip wanted no more trouble, so he turned to his shot glass.

“Don’t ignore me!”

Tip’s jaw twisted as an unexpected fist blasted a tooth from his gum.  Catapulted from his chair, he crashed onto the pine floorboards, resembling a turtle on its back.  There was a profound silence.  But when he regained his awareness, the elite celebrants had surrounded him.

“What a disgrace,” the bank president scolded. 

Tip blinked to improve his focus, but it didn’t help much.

The senior banker snarled, “If you can’t handle liquor, you shouldn’t drink.  Now, you’re bothering people.  I should call the cops.”

Tip could see the accusing finger, but the face was still blurry.  He rolled over and rose to his knees as the rebukes continued.

“A worthless drunk,” someone hissed.

“You’re disgusting,” another barked.

“Why do you demean yourself?  You’re a bum,” Mr. Goldworth snorted.

Tip staggered as he stood and straightened.  He rubbed his eyes, hoping to recover from the sucker punch while the elitists chastised him.  He stroked his aching jaw as the room swayed. 

“What happened?”

His assailant slurred, “I punched you.  I told you not to touch me.”

Tip studied his blood-covered hand front and back.  The scarlet fluid had oozed from his mouth when he rubbed his throbbing jawbone.  Faint, he lost his balance and steadied himself against the cashier.  When he backed away, he left a red handprint on the banker’s bright, white shirt.  When the junior officer saw the stain, he clenched his fists.

“You, idiot!  See what you’ve done!”

“Get out!  You’re ruining my party!” cried the president’s wife.

Tip blinked as he leaned forward and appraised the lady through blurry eyes. They were almost touching noses before he spoke.

“Okay, sir.  Which way to the door?”

Billie Jean swelled with indignation.

Harrumph!” the woman huffed.

Without warning, she slapped him across his throbbing jaw. 

“Billie’s not a sir!” the banker snapped.

Tip responded, “Seems not! He slaps like a girl.”

“Did you hear me?  I said, Billie, isn’t a man.  He’s my wife.”

She glared at him.                                                               

“I mean, SHE’S my wife.”

He emphasized his point with a stomp on the wooden floor. The superior, in his own mind, had spoken and awaited Tip’s response. The tavern was so quiet you could have heard a mouse burp. It was most unfortunate for my future grandfather, the cat that held his tongue had departed earlier.

Tip stared at the self-important lady, then at her husband. He patted Mr. Goldworth on the shoulder as one would to express sympathy.

 “I understand your confusion.”

The partiers bristled at his insult, and chaos ensued.  The bouncer lifted him by the arm then shoved him toward the exit.  His toes scraped across the threshold as he exited the illegal saloon.  After a short, but scenic flight, he landed with outstretched arms and slid on his belly along the alley.  His nose bounced on the dusty pavement for several yards from his spot of impact.

Tip rose, then steadied himself against the brick wall.  After regaining his stability, the homeless vagabond buttoned his stained, tweed coat, which was too big.  He misaligned the buttons, so an empty buttonhole dangled over his belt.  The well-oiled drunkard fiddled with the garment, got frustrated, and quit. 

Tip picked up his worn, shapeless hat and brushed off his floppy trousers.  Shaken, he combed his hair back with his fingers.  His mop was brown but had black streaks—a remnant of the coal bin where he’d slept last night.  He placed the fedora on his head and pulled with both hands. 

As he stumbled toward the main street, he leaned on garbage cans for balance.  Unaware of a hidden critter, he stepped on a swishing tail.  The cat shrieked, and Tip fell across a refuse barrel which knocked over two others.  Bottles and other waste spilled over the stunned vagrant.  He roused when a large raindrop smacked his face. His hat lay in the alley beside him.  Lettuce adorned the brim, and a slice of red tomato rested on top of the salad bed.  It was just the touch it needed.  Simple but elegant.

Though on his back, he saw no stars in the murky, clouded sky.  Plop! Another drop splattered his forehead.

  Best head for cover, he thought. 

When he sat upright, fish heads tumbled from his coat.  He surmised he was behind a meat market.  In his lap lay a slimy, rotting catfish.  He lifted it closer for examination.

“So, no one wants you either.”

Sniffing cats leaped from shadows.  Tip had an idea. With Herculean effort, he pushed himself to a standing position.  He held the fish by a finger in its mouth, and it dangled before him.

“First, we need to dispose of your cut-up friends,” he explained.

He up-righted the trash cans and returned the bodiless heads to the container.  After securing the lid, he picked up the long-expired catfish and stared into its lifeless eyes—eye, one was missing.

“Perhaps, my stinky friend, you won’t be a total waste.”

With the reeking thing swinging beside him, he crept from the alley.  Feral felines rushed toward the sealed garbage can, but unable to find a single morsel, they followed the smell of the departing catfish.

Tip poked his head from the darkness and saw no one.  At the curb sat a Packard automobile.  The four-passenger beauty was unlocked, and the interior of the bank president’s car still smelled new.

“Let’s give the aristocrats their comeuppance,” he whispered to his single-eyed companion.

He thought the fish smiled, but he considered it might be the alcohol tricking his brain.  He’d spent evenings conversing with things no more alive.   A debate with a hickory tree proved most memorable after a night of drinking aftershave. 

Their discussion turned into an argument, and Tip yelled, “You’re nuts.” 

The glaring pun amused his hardwood friend, and they laughed so hard, and so long, they forgot their disagreement.

But tonight, his thinking wasn’t as foggy.   Tip crept to the car, and the jokester slipped the slimy catfish under the driver’s seat before rolling down the window and latching the door.  He shuffled a crooked route across the street to the courthouse where, in the shadow of the pillars, he hid from view.  He giggled as he waited for the entertainment to begin. 

Soon, a feline marauder appeared with an upturned nose.  The gray tomcat identified the source of the aroma and leaped inside the extravagant vehicle.  He dined alone until other uninvited guests approached. 

A yellow tabby streaked from the alley followed by a bushy-tailed black-and-white.  The snickering human lost track of the feline count after the dogs arrived.  A short-legged mutt circled the automobile as he assessed the situation, and a beagle and two unidentifiable mongrels soon appeared. 

Tip smothered a giggle as he wondered if the mutts were after the cats or the fish.  Then, a long-eared hound placed his front paws on the open window and howled.  The brown-with-black-spots hunter bellowed bass tones.  An unruly choir—sopranos and tenors — joined in chaotic harmony.

The fighting toms inside the vehicle resembled tossing clothes in a runaway washing machine.  The cat screeches, heard between the almost continuous woofs and bays, attracted more canines.  After a running start, a German shepherd leaped through the open window. 

Colorful fur on four legs escaped the confined fury then pounced on a howling, freaked-out beagle.  The pup yipped as the tomcat clung to its back with needle-sharp claws.  Like a bareback rider at a rodeo, the smaller animal dismounted the steed while the dog continued its furious getaway.  Other cats leaped to escape the German shepherd.  Once outside, they slashed wet noses that dispelled the yelping canines beneath their front porches.  The felines scattered down alleys and up trees leaving a single canine on the backseat.  

The prankster slapped the concrete as he rolled and laughed.  His side ached from the laughter.  He’d about recovered when the bankers departed from Tommy’s and the president opened the car for the pretentious ladies.

“What a gentleman,” Tip whispered. 

His wife recoiled when greeted by the snarling beast which hovered over its smelly prize.  The socialites retreated to the sidewalk, and the commotion attracted a nearby cop. 

“What seems to be the problem?” the officer inquired.

The banker pointed at the vicious creature, so the policeman devised a plan.  He opened doors on both sides of the vehicle and poked the animal with a nightstick.  It snarled but soon yielded to the officer’s wooden persuader.  The German shepherd escaped down the street with remnants in its mouth. 

Tip heard the loudest complaints as the banker assessed the damages.  Scratches, rips, and smells were a sampling of the descriptions to the deputy. 

While the gentlemen picked fish parts and fur from the seats and wiped the leather with their colorful, silk handkerchiefs, the bouncer provided newspapers for the seat.   In time, the partygoers entered the vehicle, and with four open windows, the odorous Packard departed. The doorman returned to the speakeasy, and the cop headed down an alley.  With all witnesses gone, except for a nearby treed cat, the mischief-maker emerged from the shadows and studied the threatening sky.

“We’d better find shelter,” he advised the kitty.

Then he stumbled down a different path from the officer in search of a place to escape the coming shower. His most likely opportunity would be at the Ebenezer Tabernacle. He called it the Holy Roller, Hypocrite Church. When he arrived at the rear of the building, he squatted and tried to raise a locked basement window. Unable, he tried another, but when he pulled, he lost his grip and fell backward. The expected raindrops pattered his hat. He stood but slipped, so he crawled to the third sash, and this time opened it. By then, steady rain pelted the puddles, while downspouts strained to drain full gutters. He escaped the torrent by lowering himself into a Sunday school room and collapsed face-up on a child-height table.

 For a few minutes, he lay in the darkness, but when lightning flashed, he saw someone standing above him. Tip’s entire body flinched at the surprise. He expected eviction, but the person didn’t move or speak.  Tip blinked, trying to see who hovered over him.  In the next flash, a figure peered through him, not at him.  Tip shivered.  Were the goosebumps from his wet clothes or the penetrating stare?

A bolt streaked across the sky, and he concentrated on those eyes. Were they angry for his trespass, or were they kind?  It seemed both.  Who was this enigma who expressed both anger and forgiveness for a reprobate?

For an unexplainable reason, he felt both shame and hope. Could it be the booze confusing his mind?  No, something else was happening, but what?  In a moment of clarity, he decided, whatever it was, he would succumb.  Like a dog on its back exposing its weak underbelly, Tip yielded to the enticing invitation.

Outside, the heavens opened, and rain fell in sheets washing streets and alleys clean.  Grit, grime, and morsels of fish swirled into the storm sewer grates and took Tip’s troubles with them.  As he lay, almost passed out, a warmth penetrated his body, and could it be his soul too?  He was unaware then, but it was his last drunken sleep sprawled prostrate wherever he landed.

In the morning, he awoke with hunger, but not for alcohol.  His yearning, the first in forever, was for bacon and eggs.

Coffee, he smelled it brewing.  There was a thud, and he suspected someone else was in the church.  So, he slipped from the table and peered into the main room.  An old farmer in bib overalls tossed chunks of coal into a pot-belly stove, then lit a rolled-up newspaper and pitched it in too. Satisfied it ignited, he closed the iron door.  It was late September and colder than average. 

After a while, others arrived and poured themselves a cup of coffee then huddled around the heater.  They talked of crop yields and beef prices.  Someone told a joke, and one man spat his drink.  Once the room warmed, the men removed their jackets.  A distinguished gentleman in a well-tailored suit entered and spoke.  It was his nemesis, Mr. Goldworth, the bank president.

“Let’s begin, but first look around to see we’re alone.”

Tip hurried into a closet.  The hinges squeaked twice as someone peeked into the classroom then left.

“No one here,” the man reported.

Since the door was ajar, Tip tiptoed over and peered through the narrow slit.  The speaker rose to his feet, and with both hands, he strained to lift a salesman’s sample-case onto the table.  Then Mr. Goldworth removed a black, velvet bag.  He loosened a string allowing the material to drop. A foot-tall, solid-gold eagle glared at the crowd.

“Wow!” Tip whispered.  “It’s worth a fortune.”

Mr. Goldworth began, “Since everyone is present, I call this meeting of the Saint-Gaudens Society to order.”

Quiet settled as stragglers found a seat.

“As you know, four months ago, President Roosevelt issued an executive command which made it illegal for private citizens to own gold, and he ordered it surrendered. We believed his misguided efforts were unconstitutional, so we ignored his directive.  But going forward, the penalty for hoarding is stiff, so we must be cautious.”

Tip strained to listen.

“As chief officer of the bank, I’ve learned the revenue officers are planning a raid to open safe-deposit boxes in search of violators.”

A gasp, followed by murmurs, preceded the president’s motions for quiet.

“Everyone in this room has gold in their lockbox, which exceeds the limit.  If the agents find it, you’ll face a prison term.”

One man exclaimed, “I’m getting mine out of there this morning.”

Several made similar comments and stood as if to leave. 

“Wait, a minute.  I have a plan!” the banker assured.

He waved his hands in a downward motion to urge them to sit.

“We founded the Society not just to share our disdain for government intrusion but to protect the members.  We can’t surrender the gold because we didn’t claim the income on our taxes.  Don’t forget Al Capone went to prison for tax evasion.”

Several arched their eyebrows and nodded.

“Gold is too dangerous to hide at home because desperate, unemployed men would kill for those coins.”

As murmuring ensued, Tip watched the speaker use his finger as an imaginary knife across his throat. 

He continued, “It’s why we have the gold in safe-deposit boxes.  No one, including bank employees, can access it because it takes two keys—the cashier’s and the customer’s key.”

“How will revenue officers unlock them?” asked a member.

The president responded, “They’ll force the owners to open the box and arrest them if it has over a hundred dollars’ worth of gold in it.  If the holders don’t show, a locksmith will break the lock and replace it with a new one.”

“Well, what keeps criminals from breaking into the bank boxes?” someone shouted.

“They can,” replied the banker.  “But it takes too long.  Thieves prefer to get the cash and make a quick getaway.  They’re aware most of the contents are just papers such as wills and life insurance policies.”

“So, what’s your idea?” a participant asked.

“As you know, two of our members are officers at the bank,” he commented.

The speaker pointed at businessmen seated in the front row. Tip recognized one as the drunk who sucker-punched him last night. 

The banker continued, “Only we bankers can enter the vault.  In there, we keep the large bills in a free-standing safe.” 

The tellers nodded.

“Next to it, we stack bags of coins. We receive them from the mint marked as pennies, nickels, dimes and quarters.  We open them as needed.”

“Get to the point!” someone interjected.

The banker leaned on the table.

 “Revenue officers won’t check the penny sacks, so we’ll hide the coins there.”

He smiled at the speechless crowd.

“If we’re robbed, a thief won’t steal pennies, so it’s safe.”

 Mr. Goldworth raised straight and pulled his suspenders forward with his thumbs. 

Someone exclaimed, “Brilliant!”

Others nodded and chuckled while the banker clipped the end from a cigar and lit it.  He allowed the chatter to continue for a while before he continued.

“By the end of the week, each of you come to the bank, one at a time to not raise suspicion, and gain access to your box.  Remove the gold and bring it to my office.  I’ll verify the amount and place it in a penny bag.  Once full, a teller will sew it shut.”

 His cigar went out, so he lit it again while everyone waited.  After a few puffs, he continued.

“We’ll hide our eagle in plain sight where they’ll never suspect it’s gold.  You’ll see it each time you enter the bank.”

After a brief discussion and a vote of approval, the members departed.  The farmer in the bib overalls dumped the coffee pot, rinsed it, and exited.

Once alone, Tip sat on the low children’s table to rest his legs.  His knees ached—oh yes, the bouncer tossed him out of Tommy’s last night.

 That’ll hurt awhile, he thought.

 When he checked his other joints, they seemed uninjured.  His fingers massaged the back of his neck while he pondered the things he’d heard.  While preparing to stand, he looked up and saw a portrait on the wall.  The eyes reminded him of his mother’s—God rest her soul.   Even when he misbehaved, her loving gaze always expressed her unconditional love and hope for his redemption.  

Through the foggy hangover, the events of the night emerged and clarified.  He remembered lightning dispelling the darkness, the down-to-the-bone warming, and the person standing over him.

“Oh, it was just a picture.”

But was it?  How could he dispel with logic the earlier feelings?  It was too much to understand all at once.  He would ponder the experience at depth, later.

He removed the portrait from the frame, rolled it, and slipped it into his coat.  Tip crept through the basement then up the back stairs.  The former drunk tiptoed up the steps and scanned the alley before darting into the morning chill. 

He couldn’t wait to tell his cousin about the Saint-Gauden’s Society and their secret stash of gold.  John Dillinger would find this information most valuable.

Published by Ronald Milburn

I'm a retired Christian minister who is the full-time caregiver for my 89 year old mother who has dementia. Prior to receiving my religious training, I obtained a bachelor degree in psychology with a minor in chemistry.

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