A Treasure To Die For

An Elderhostel at Hot Springs, Arkansas, is turned upside down when Carrie disappears in steaming water and Henry goes hunting.

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A Treasure To Die For was featured as one of the best ways to get a feel for Arkansas in Southwest Airlines Spirit Magazine article, "Put the Mystery into your Travel."

Take two pillow cases full of empty baking powder tins and thirty pounds of stolen cash. Put a quantity of hundred dollar bills in each can, seal lids. Hide this mixture somewhere in Hot Springs, Arkansas. After the mixture has seasoned for forty years, sift together all the people who know about the hidden treasure. Cut in one investigative reporter and one unsuspecting Elderhostel coordinator. Bake until too hot to handle, and place before Carrie McCrite and Henry King. See who survives.

Click here to read the first chapter


Looking down historic Bathhouse Row, Hot Springs National Park, Arkansas, from the Fordyce to the Arlington Hotel.

Prologue


   He stood in his pool of blackness and watched the flashing lights on Central, heard the shouts, the sound of glass breaking, metal being smashed.

   Blood-sucking maggots! They were taking away the very life of good working men and their families. For more years than he’d been here, the established way of life in Hot Springs had boomed along. They were trying to kill that.

   Oh, yes, there’d been showcase raids, but everyone knew how to get past those. Close some houses, kick a few peopleout of town, keep going to church, smile at the ladies. Hug your children in front of all the church ladies.

   But now? Who’d have thought this smash-up would come when the country was so caught up in the mess of Vietnam? They should pay attention to fixing that, not be bothering about the way of life here in Hot Springs. Folks wanted diversion, didn’t they, especially in bad times like these?

   Lights flashed closer along the row, but he knew they weren’t looking for him. Yet. No one except Mark, Will, and Hank knew what he was about. Even they didn’t know where he was, what place he’d chosen, and the cop who’d warned him thought he only needed enough time to get out of town.

   So now he watched the lights, feeling safe in his pool of blackness. He’d like a cigarette, but didn’t dare risk it. Little things, like a small glow or drifting smoke, could foul a man up, big time. He knew what was what. That’s why they’d chosen him as guardian over...he looked down at the pillow cases by his feet. How much was in them? He had no way of knowing. They hadn’t taken time to count, just shoved money in the cases, grabbing stacks of hundreds and fifties while a hidden door held off the chaos outside.

   Like the big guys said, paying a cop pays off. And he’d been ready, saving empty baking powder and cocoa tins for more than a year, just in case.

   He’d count the money before he hid it all away. Almost all. He needed traveling funds, something for his family to live on until he could find a new stake.

   Now that part might be hard. He’d grown up in the houses, learning the trade from the best, including his dad. All he knew was bookmaking.

   He laughed but was careful to make no sound doing it. Hey, he could be a bookkeeper! He knew how to keep track of money. And Hot Springs would open up again. It always had.

   Meanwhile, get out of town. He’d been very good at his job and he’d be on the list, noticeable to the state police, the governor, and all those maggots bent on looking virtuous. They’d have their pictures in the paper, the sucking maggots. He just didn’t want his picture to show up there.

   Time to be busy. He went to the window he knew would open and shoved his money bags through, letting each one drop on the floor of the silent, empty building. He slid in behind them, holding the pillow case full of cans carefully, then moved away from the windows. Couldn’t let light or rattling cans betray him.

   He’d already hidden the sack of concrete and jugs of water in the basement. He knew what was what. Oh, was this a plan! No one would be inside this place for months, if then, and all four of them had agreed to be patient.

   He heard a siren. Probably the governor, come to have his picture taken among the virtuous.

   He struck a match, touched it to the lantern wick. Time to start making holes. He needed to get out of town before daylight.


Chapter I


Henry

   “Meatloaf?”

   “That’s what I said. How does meatloaf figure into Jason���s sudden enthusiasm for this Hot Springs trip of yours and Eleanor’s? He told me...”

   “In a minute, Henry.” Paper rattled.

   He squeezed his lips together to stop himself from either laughing or saying something he’d have to talk his way out of later. Instead, he concentrated on watching the winding asphalt highway disappear under the car as his fingers beat a syncopated tap, tappity-tap on the steering wheel.

   Sometimes the woman sitting beside him could make simple things into stuff that would befuddle a sage. Why didn’t she just say right out, “Eleanor convinced Jason to go along with this vacation idea when she...when she...” Whatever. Maybe it was too silly to repeat. Probably was.

   Tap, tappity-tap tap. Tap, tappity-tap. They were driving through a forested area now, and touches of early September color hinted at fall glory yet to come.

   More rattling paper signaled that Carrie’s immediate concern was map reading. Finally she said, “About four more miles. Turn east on U.S. Highway 270.”

   Paper sounds, then a quick puff of exasperation from her side of the car. “Oh, for good garden seed, I’ve always wondered what idiot figured out the way maps are designed to fold.”

   “It’s a logical system,” he said, “very simple. A back and forth pleat. That way you can re-fold the map to any section you want to read.”

   He glanced over at her, hoping his words hadn’t sounded too patronizing, but now Carrie was concentrating on making pleats. His eyes returned to the highway, and he said no more until she had the map conquered and the paper sounds stopped. Then he asked again, “Tell me about meatloaf. Jason said meatloaf was what convinced him to go along with the Hot Springs Elderhostel idea, and that sure sounds peculiar to me. How did meatloaf break down our neighbor’s resistance to attending a school for elders?”

   “Henry King, it is not a...”

   “Okay, okay, you know what I mean. Now what did Jason mean?”

   After a pause, she said, “Eleanor makes very good meatloaf.”

   He said nothing but “Hmmm?” hoping she’d feel compelled to fill any awkward silence with explanations, as humans so often do. The silent method had worked well for him with suspects throughout his many years in police work, and he still found it useful at times.

   Tap, tappity-tap.

   But not useful with Carrie. “Henry, is that Morse code, or should I put in a music tape so you can play along?”

   No, silence wasn’t going to work. For one thing, he’d done too good a job teaching her his police methods. He’d told her about the silence thing and how it got people to talk.

   “Come on, Carrie, what is it with the meatloaf? Surely it’s not a secret. It just sounds silly. After all, Jason is no gullible fool.”

   “So ask Jason. He was the one who brought it up.”

   He laughed at that. “I’ll bet you know. In fact...”

   She went on as if he weren’t speaking. “I can make good meatloaf. You liked my Magic Two Meatloaf. You certainly ate enough when I served it.”

   He stopped as a memory flashed into his head.

   “Carrie Culpeper McCrite! You made that the same night you asked me to come to this Elderhostel with you.”

   “Did I? All I remember is, whenever it was, I wanted you to try it with me so you could help me decide if I should write down the recipe. We both thought the idea was worth keeping. And I asked you to this Elderhostel—whenever I asked you—because I thought we’d have fun. I was in the mood to celebrate. You can’t have forgotten that your daughter had just called to tell me her office finally figured out all the angles of that stock theft mess, and she’d traced most of the investments Evan stole from me. So, during one phone conversation, I went from worrying about not having enough money to feeling like I’m almost rich.”

   “And then?”

   “And then what?”

   Really, Henry thought, sometimes I wonder why I love this woman.

   The word love had come into his head unbidden, and he paused to savor it. Was this a love like some of his favorite romantic songs described it? Well, maybe not the head-over-heels stuff, not like some teenaged boy. Love took many forms. He’d never stopped to analyze what love for Carrie meant. Maybe he should, especially now that they were going to be together in very close company for a week.

   “I will ask Jason,” he said, smiling in spite of his frustration. This was too funny—he knew she was teasing, and hadn’t he already figured it out? Wasn’t it something like, “The way to a man’s heart is through his stomach”?

   Well, everyone enjoyed good food. And Carrie’s Magic Two recipe, silly as it sounded, had been very good. In fact, maybe Carrie’s meatloaf recipe was even better than Eleanor’s. Or was it just that, living alone, he appreciated meals cooked by any Walden Valley neighbor who invited him over to share—especially Carrie, of course, though so many of her cooking ideas bordered on the bizarre.

   He was only returning her teasing now, but he did prefer straight talk. Some women seemed to have trouble with that, even his daughter Susan, though both she and Carrie had less trouble with it than most. Now his smile got broader, and, day-dreaming about Susan, he almost missed the 270 turn-off.

   So of course Carrie said, “Turn, Henry, turn!” but by the time she got it out, he was already putting on the turn signal. He made the change just in time, though he’d had to brake a little harder than he liked. She’d probably noticed that, too.

   But she said no more, and on impulse he took a hand off the steering wheel, reached over to squeeze her hand, and went back to thinking about love.

   He guessed he’d been in love with her for almost a year now. They’d been neighbors a year longer than that, each drawn to the Ozarks by a quest, each seeking a new life and escape from darkness in their separate pasts.

   He glanced at the small, round, grey-haired woman in the seat beside him. She was clever, courageous, kind, and darn cute, but she wasn’t always capable of straight-out honest conversation, even when they weren’t talking about anything personal.

   Her head turned in response to his glance and the quick touch on her hand, and she smiled, reached out in return, and, since both his hands were now back on the wheel, gave his thigh a light pat. He was sure she meant the touch as friendly, but her hand stayed there long enough for his entire body to feel the warmth, and his senses rushed into overdrive. Whew. He needed to subdue this kind of thinking if they were going to spend a week together as friends in the same hotel room.

   “We both know, Henry, that I can afford to take us to nice places now, especially if we share a room. We’ll have fun here. The crystal mining, the trip on the lake, the hot baths, and the massages...ummm.” Her shoulders wiggled. “And, well, you know, fun.”

   He gave up the stoic attempt to ignore yearnings Carrie probably hadn’t a clue he was feeling and allowed his thoughts to wander where they pleased.

   But he was no more than a heart-beat into a warm, cozy picture of the coming week’s companionship before she yanked him back into the car by asking, “Do you suppose there are still gangsters in Hot Springs?”

   His answer came immediately and without any need for thought.

   “Yes, I’m sure there are.”

   Years in the Kansas City Police Department had ruined any long-ago imagining that there could be a city or countryside anywhere without a crime problem. That would be especially true of this city, which, from what he’d read, had once been known as the “wickedest town in North America” and deserved the title. True, there had been a massive clean-up years ago, a smashing of slot machines and gaming equipment, closing of sports books and bars and houses in the red-light district, all led by a governor too rich to be bribed. But not everything would be gone. They wouldn’t see it during this coming week, but oh, yes, he was willing to bet it would still be there if people, especially men, cared to look in the right places.

   Thank goodness he no longer had to deal with that sort of thing. He was out of detective work now. Well, except for when Carrie—who was drawn to humans with problems—found them and the evils that sometimes came with them. Then the two of them worked together to help solve those problems.

   But this was a vacation. No possible entanglements for them this week, just fun and some sort of classroom stuff that couldn’t be too bad. There would still be one big problem for him though: living in the same room with her all week long and being a gentleman every single minute!

   He wished she hadn’t asked about gangsters. He wished all the dark parts of law enforcement could be erased from his memory just as it had been from his life.

   Carrie’s next words broke into his thoughts and proved she wasn’t really interested in delving into Hot Springs’ crime except as intriguing history.

   “I read somewhere that they once had 500 sports books in town and lots of liquor, even during prohibition, as well as many houses of ill repute. I’m not sure I understand all of it exactly, but maybe it was something like in The Sting? Did you see that movie?”

   He nodded. “Yes.”

   She spoke her next words slowly as her thoughts traced the past. “Amos and I saw it together. He was never interested in movies, but someone in his law firm recommended it as a study of unique criminal activity. I think that was how he put it. Anyway, we got a baby-sitter for Rob and went one Saturday night. I loved the whole thing, the story and especially the music. Amos didn’t. Said it was silly. From then until the time he was killed, if I went to a movie, I went alone.”

   Henry nodded again, remembering when he’d seen The Sting. “I went alone. Irena only goes to movies if what’s showing is a highly-praised foreign film or it’s some kind of benefit. At least that’s how it used to be, and I don’t suppose she’s changed much. She attends plays, ballet, the opera. Even when we were married, she usually went to those with friends because I was so often on duty and, even when I wasn’t, could count on being called out at awkward times. The people in her circle felt sorry for her—married to a common policeman. She loved the sympathy, all that stuff about being the wife of a cop who ‘put his life on the line.’ She always managed to make me feel like a servant to her wealthy family and friends. Being called a public servant by the mayor was okay. When Irena called me that, it wasn’t okay.”

   He knew he’d already told Carrie the story of his role as Irena’s exhibition cross-to-bear, but he couldn’t keep himself from repeating it. The bitterness of Irena’s aloofness, her put-downs, rather than fading, were fresher than they had been in years, so real they made a metallic taste in his mouth now. Why was that?

   It was Carrie, of course. Her genuine interest in police work and obvious admiration of the way he’d faced challenges and dangers as a homicide detective were such a contrast. Not like Irena, not at all. His marriage to Irena had been a long-term habit, just “what was” until Irena finally got too bored with him and walked out. All during their marriage he’d avoided thinking about what he might be missing and concentrated fully on his work. If that had made him a better detective, well, it was some compensation.

   And Susan was compensation. Thirty-two years ago his loneliness had led to a one-night-stand with her mother. A baby girl had been the unexpected result. What happened that night was wrong, and, thank goodness, Irena never found out, but after so many years and the deaths of his daughter’s birth mother and the parents who’d adopted her, Susan now knew him as her father. Carrie, doing very good detective work on her own, had learned about his daughter and found a way to bring them together. Susan was worth whatever had been wrong in the past. She was...

   “Penny.”

   “Uh, what?”

   “For your thoughts. You were miles away. I think I can guess though. Come back, Henry. We agreed we’d both drop the past. My Rob and your Susan are all we’re cherishing about the past.”

   “Sometimes that’s hard.”

   He felt, rather than saw, her head duck, almost as if in prayer. “I know,” she said softly, and his bitterness was replaced by anger, but only at himself. He’d brought her into the sadness of her past just by dwelling on his. And he could think of no words now to erase the pain.

   But Carrie, God bless her, could. “Do you remember that house in the movie—you know what kind of house I mean—where the Madam had a merry-go-round in a special inside room, and her girls could ride on it when they didn’t have, um, customers? I loved that merry-go-round music and all of Scott Joplin’s music. I bought the sound track recording. I still have it.”

   She hummed a few bars from “The Entertainer,” then said, “It would be fun to see that movie again, Henry. It would be fun to see it together. Let’s rent it when we get home.”

   Yes, God bless her. He smiled as Carrie unfolded the city map the Elderhostel coordinator had sent them and sounds of paper rattling filled the car again. But he didn’t need the map. There was the expressway turn-off for Central Avenue.

   They had arrived in Hot Springs.

 

Order: Amazon    B&N    
Order an autographed copy, postage free, from the author.

 

Copyright 2015 by Radine Trees Nehring

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