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“Keep it steady, move slowly, or we’ll never find a thing.” Blake watched his son wave the metal detector around like a sword and sighed. Whenever Ricky did anything, he did it fast. The boy did not walk, he ran. He did not eat his dinner, he wolfed it down. Life was not a stroll for Blake’s exuberant ten-year-old, it was a mad, arm-flailing sprint.
“I’m trying, Dad, but it’s not doing nothing.”
“Anything. It’s not doing anything.”
Ricky swatted a greasy strand of brown hair out of his eyes and huffed. “Help me.”
“Okay, okay.” Blake trudged across the field. It wasn’t Ricky’s fault he was having so much trouble; the thing was old and heavy, as much a relic as anything they hoped to find buried. “There you go,” he said, helping to guide the wand. “Just like that, back and forth. Now you’re getting it.”
They quickly covered an area about the size of a tennis court—and got nothing. The wand beeped rhythmically the entire time, but never got excited. Blake remembered combing the seaside with his own father and finding loose change galore. He wanted Ricky to feel that same rush of adrenaline upon hearing a metal detector screech. But it had all been one great disappointment. Ricky was clearly growing bored with what he likely considered a waste of a Saturday afternoon.
It was difficult for a father to entertain his son in the 21st Century. Television and toy companies were the ones in charge, not the parents. Ricky would rather spend his days with grumpy birds on his iPad than in a field looking for buried treasure with his dad. Kids weren’t excited by the thrill of adventure anymore, they wanted instant gratification; and if they could get it while sitting on the sofa, all the better. Blake wouldn’t mind so much, but he wanted his son to grow up into a relaxed, content adult; not another stressed-out consumer, forever reaching for the next rung on the endless ladder of modern affluence. Blake wanted to teach Ricky the things that were actually important.
Ricky let the metal detector sag to the ground. “Can we go inside now? It’s getting cold.”
“I suppose we should. I didn’t bring your coat. Didn’t think we’d need it.” Blake placed his hands on his hips. “Okay, let’s head back, then.”
With a hop, skip, and a jump, Ricky started down the sloping field towards home. The mid-century cottage was two miles away from anything else with plumbing. The added solitude had saved Blake’s life. Buying the quaint cottage, with its cobbled stone walls, original fireplaces, and thatched roof, had been a desperate gamble to escape the endless cycle of stress that plagued him. Getting away from the city and grabbing six acres all his own had returned to Blake his freedom, which had previously been eaten up by credit card bills, mortgage statements, noisy neighbours, gas-spewing traffic, cold-callers and, of course—the straw that broke the camel’s back—crazed fans finding his address.
Being the nation’s most treasured mystery writer since Agatha Christie wasn’t all it had cracked up to be. The money was great and the work was soul-enriching, but the whining editors, greedy publishers, and spiteful critics made life a constant cycle of negativity. Blake was truly blessed for what he did, but that blessing was also a curse. His job and his life had become one. The phone calls, emails, and social media postings never ceased. The publication of his next novel, immediately followed by another, was all anybody cared about. New York Times Bestseller or not, Blake had needs beyond writing books and making money.
So, three years ago, he’d used the advance money for two of his upcoming releases and purchased the run-down, yet beautiful Poe’s Place cottage. The property was surrounded by an undulating field, while a long, gravelly driveway set it well back from the seldom used B-road that led there. The fresh air brought Blake’s heels back down to earth and reminded him to concentrate on taking one breath at a time.
“Dad, why do foxes always poop in our field?”
“Where do you suggest they go?”
“In the hedges, or something. Not right where I can step in it.”
“I think they do it to mark their territory.”
Ricky fiddled with the metal detector’s strap over his shoulder and gave his father a quizzical look. “Mark their territory for who?”
“Other foxes. If a strange fox comes along and sees droppings, they know to stay clear. It’s how a fox lets other animals know whose turf it is.”
“But this is our turf. You bought the field and now a fox is shitting in it.”
Blake pointed at his son. “Language! Your mother hears you swearing, she’ll hit the roof.”
“I’m ten, not two.”
“You’re still a new-born as far as she’s concerned, so watch your mouth. Anyway, I kind of like having a fox around the place. Reminds me I’m in the country. Besides, he might have been here before us. Maybe he thinks we’re the intruders.”
“The country is boring.” Ricky kicked a stone embedded in the dirt and sent it spinning into the air. They both watched it roll down the hill.
“You’re lucky to grow up in a place like this.” Blake tried to sound enthusiastic. “Better than I had as a boy. I know the country is quiet, but believe me, things are worse in the city.”
“They just are. Everything is too busy. Everywhere is cracked, broken, and dirty.”
“The country is dirty.”
Blake sighed. “No…no, it’s not. It’s clean, and nothing ever breaks in the country. Nature heals itself. A tree falls down, another grows in its place. Take our cottage, for instance. When we moved in it was broken down and smelt bad, remember? Because nobody had lived in it for so long, weeds had taken root and there were rats and mice. The oak trees along the driveway were all overgrown and it was hard to even see the place from the road, remember?”
“There were spiders everywhere,” said Ricky, nodding.
“Yeah, spiders, too. Nature saw nobody was living in Poe’s Place, so it moved in. Nature makes the best of things; it always copes. In the city, things just fall apart. When you’re older you’ll see that.”
“Maybe, but I still hate all the fox shit.”
“The city has dog shit, and that stinks a whole lot worse. And mind your language.”
“Sorry. Hey, when we get back can we have pizza?”
“The pizza place doesn’t deliver here. I’d have to go out.”
Blake sighed. “Okay, let me thi—”
Blake looked at his son, who was standing like he had a live grenade in his hand. “Ricky, you’ve got something.”
“What do I do, what do I do?”
Blake laughed. He pulled the trowel he had strapped to his belt and held it up. “You dig, silly. Here, take this.”
Ricky grabbed the trowel from his father and knelt beside the imaginary X spot. The noisy detector swung around his neck like a musician’s guitar.
“Here, give that to me.” Blake took the metal detector and clicked it off.
Ricky struck the dirt with the trowel and split open the mud. Luckily it had rained that morning and the ground was yielding. Liz wouldn’t be pleased about the grass stains working their way into Ricky’s jeans. She was forever shouting at their cocker spaniel, Bailey, for running mud into the kitchen.
It wasn’t long before Ricky was puffing with exertion. He’d dug a hole a foot wide and had gone down by about the same. It was wonderful to see him so excited. Blake just hoped it didn’t end in disappointment—like the manhole cover he’d unearthed one day when he was about the same age. Blake had dug for more than forty minutes to get at the shiny chunk of metal, before eventually realising it was nothing fantastical or ancient, but simply a chunk of iron from an old sewer grate.
“We should’ve brought a shovel,” said Ricky. “What if it’s huge? It’ll take all day if it’s a Roman shield or something.”
Blake dropped down beside Ricky. “Let me take over,” he said. “We’ll take it in turns.”
And so they did. For twenty minutes they took turns, digging until their forearms burned. At one stage, Blake double-checked with the metal detector to ensure something was definitely there. The speaker whined deliriously to let them know that indeed there was.
Five minutes later Blake hit the edge of something with the trowel. It made a clinking sound.
“Did you hear that?” yelled Ricky.
“Yeah, I heard it. Here, you do the last part. It was your find.”
Ricky beamed and took the trowel. “Thanks, Dad.” He dug furiously, his vigour renewed. The soil gave way and the buried object started to reveal itself. Whatever it was, it was covered in some kind of sackcloth. Ricky grabbed an exposed corner and started pulling it up.
Blake wondered if they should be more delicate. What if they really had found something valuable? The last thing they wanted was to smash it into pieces by being heavy-handed. However, it was too late to say anything because Ricky was already tumbling backwards with the muddy sack clutched securely in his hands.
“I got it,” he yelled. “I got it!”
Blake grinned. “Yeah, you got it, son. Let’s take a look.”
Ricky lay the sack on the ground carefully, brushing its surface and delicately removing any dirt and debris. “What do you think it is, Dad?”
“Only one way to find out. Open it.”
Ricky reached inside the sack.
Blake suddenly felt a wave of nausea, like he needed to eat. It quickly passed as a light breeze grazed the back of his neck.
Ricky slid out a black hunk of what looked like aged wood. He examined the item in his hands, turning it over carefully. “It’s…a picture frame.”
Blake frowned. The solid wood was stained so dark that it was almost black and the edges were finely carved with intricate patterns. An iron stud held a rudimentary stand in place at the back, which must’ve been what’d set off the metal detector. “It looks old,” was all Blake could think to say.
“Maybe it’s an antick,” said Ricky.
Blake chuckled. “We’ll have to get it valued. Ha! Perhaps you’ll have enough money to buy your own PlayStation this Christmas. I can use the money I save to buy myself a new writing desk.”
Ricky pulled a face. “No way! You promised me a PlayStation and you can’t get out of it. Anyway, I don’t want to sell this.”
Blake folded his arms to shield himself against the cold. “What do you want with a dirty old picture frame?”
“I dunno. We found it together, buried all the way in the ground. I want to keep it.”
“Okay, we’ll get it all cleaned up, then.”
Ricky leapt to his feet, grinning from ear to ear and clutching the frame tightly against his chest. “I can’t wait to show Mum.”
Blake scooped up the muddy old sackcloth from the ground and straightened it out. “We should check there aren’t any messages inside. Sometimes people bury things hoping they’ll be found years later.”
“Like a time capsule,” said Ricky.
Blake nodded. He reached inside the sackcloth and felt a twinge of excitement when his fingers brushed something at the bottom. All of a sudden he was a kid again, scouring the beaches with his own father. Perhaps he and Ricky were about to find out the story behind the mysterious picture frame. Maybe they would find a letter written by an old grandfather a hundred years dead, leaving behind a memento for younger generations to find.
It didn’t feel like a letter at the bottom of the sack, though. It was something loose and hard. Blake grabbed a fistful of whatever it was and removed his hand from the sackcloth.
When he opened his fist, he grimaced.
“What is it?” Ricky was staring at him expectantly.
Blake dropped the bone fragments back inside the sack and shoved it into his jean pocket. “It’s just some worms and stuff,” he lied. “Must have crawled inside and died.”
“And you just shoved your hand in them. Ha!”
“Cheers, son. Now come on, let’s go show Mum what you found.”
The two of them set off down the field, heading back towards Poe’s Place and the inviting warmth of its natural fires. It had suddenly got very cold out in the field.