Finder’s Keeper – Part Six
by D. G. Speirs
Copyright (c) 2017
It turns out the place we were headed was Clara House, near the picturesque Clara Bridge, and the not quite as picturesque Clara Bog, in historic Clara Town, part of the tradition-filled County Clara…
Technically, the whole praiseach is in County Offaly, which is pronounced something very close to “awfully.” If you get near to Clara Bog (or Bog Clara – still a bit hazy on the syntax), that becomes apparent. A little Vicks on the upper lip helps.
But I digress. The Boss and I pull into Clara (the town). It quickly becomes apparent that this event our pigeon has perched at is a much bigger to-do than I could have imagined. Now, remember, I was the father of an original Princess Sparkle fan. Over the years I’ve, uh, gotten to know a few other people who appreciate the art form – online only, of course, just to compare notes about episodes. And maybe where to get a good deal on a wig for a friend’s kid. But these folks lined up to get into the Historic Clara House went way beyond your average cosplayer. Think Renaissance Faire on a massive course of steroids.
I stopped at a four-way intersection as a roving band of barbarians looked both ways, then crossed in front of us. I checked out the Boss in the rear-view mirror. He was still studying his tablet. “So, we’ve entered Westeros. Anywhere in particular or just start a general assault the throne?”
A map popped up on the Audi’s GPS. “Center of town, a place called Doc’s. I arranged a couple of rooms for us.”
“In this? That’s Vee-level cleverness.” I studied the map, then pulled right and went the long way around the town. Might as well stay out of the scrum as long as possible.
Clara (town-version) dated from some time between creation and James Joyce, meaning streets were designed for horsepower – the four-legged kind. Everything was way too narrow, plus it was one of those that still thought to be a rebel about which side of the street was ideal for traffic flow. These were moments I found myself missing driving my old APC in Iraq – and I got blown up twice by IADs in that. Somehow, that still felt safer.
Eventually, the GPS did its job and led me to a four-story whitewashed building. A faded metal sign jutted off the corner like a last-minute consideration. It read ‘Doc’s B &.’ My best guess? Someone was holding the other letter hostage, and Doc wasn’t willing to pay the ransom.
I dropped off the Boss to check in and went to find a spot in the lot behind the building. That called for creative parking (if you won’t say I used a magic hover spell from my daughter and Princess Sparkle, then neither will I). I grabbed the bags from the trunk and made like a sherpa through the back door.
Turns out Doc’s wasn’t just a bed and breakfast. A large pub occupied the ground floor, complete with a dance floor and stage for local bands. So much for a quiet night’s sleep. Boss was at the bar, which I assumed doubled as the front desk, so I watched some sporting event on the projection TV screen over the stage. It involved guys in helmets with wire cages waving clubs and chasing a ball around a field. Occasionally they would hit the ball. Just as often they’d hit each other. Comedy ensued.
A couple of the locals at a table had a running commentary going on about the game. At least, I think that was the subject – their brogues were so thick I could barely make out a word, let alone figure out if they were speaking English or Gaelic.
“Ready to go?” Boss jangled a pair of keys in front of me. I did my sherpa-ly duties and carried the bags upstairs to the first floor (I know, I know, up to the first floor – but hey, we’re in Europe, they do things funny over here; get used to it). Tomas opened one door, then another and I deposited the appropriate bag in each. The rooms weren’t much, just six by ten with a single bed, a small wardrobe, and a pull-down window shade. There was a shared bathroom down the end of the hallway. I’ve stayed in worse.
As soon as I unpacked, I walked to the Boss’ room and leaned against his doorframe. He was sitting zazen on his bed, barefoot, eyes closed.
“So, what’s the plan?”
He opened an eye and looked at me. “Meditate and cogitate.”
I sighed. Yeah, Tomas. That’s your style. “Okay, while you center your chi, I’m going to do some ground pounding at – what’s it called again?”
“The Flaming Arrow enclave.”
“Yeah, right.” I checked my smartphone and verified I had service. “I can figure out how the thing lays out. Who knows, maybe get lucky, run into our Tiger Lily directly and solve the case.”
Tomas smiled slightly at that. “Louis, you’re former army. You’re familiar with unit cohesion.”
I considered this. “You think there’s going to be an issue here?”
“We discussed this on the drive. This is a Society for Creative Anachronism event. A fairly large one of some significance.”
I looked at Tomas for moment longer. “Gotcha.” I headed back to my room. “Enjoy your nap or whatever that is again.”
I went back to my room and changed from my usual gumshoe outfit to tourist camouflage number one – a worn sweatshirt that made me a fan of Guinness (the beer, not the world records) and a Red Sox ball cap. That was a lie, but I figured a being Yankees fan here was a liability. Add one GoPro video camera on a selfie stick and voila, instant tourista. I also popped in a discreet Bluetooth earwig that connected to my smartphone and activated it.
As I headed out onto the streets, I fell in behind a group of Merry Men (both figurative and literal) and followed them to Clara House. Tomas’ warning rattled around in my cabeza. He was right, for as much as they recruited, the SCA was a somewhat closed community. It took a true level of zealotry to do what these people did. They took a lot of pride in their events, in their fantasy world.
They wouldn’t take kindly to someone coming in asking a lot of questions. Like a cop. Or a PI. And they might have all sorts of creative ways of showing that unkindly streak, ways that involved large, heavy, possibly sharp and pointy objects.
Louis could be charming at times. This had better be one of those times.
I followed ye rollicking band of yore through Clara’s maze of streets. Ever play pick-up sticks? Toss them in the air, let them fall, then take a picture from above. That’s Clara’s street map. For added thrills, a number had been plotted through alleyways conceived long before the concept of cars, parking, or pedestrians sharing the same space. More than once I thought I’d have to play Spiderman to avoid becoming someone’s newest hood ornament.
Just when I thought perhaps I’d followed the wrong group and was well on my way to Sherwood, we turned a corner and reached the stone wall that led to the outer gates of Clara House. An old carriage turnaround had been converted into the entrance way, with traffic barriers funneling people in a queue to a double iron gate in the center of the wall. I considered this. Walled estate with a single exit, risky if they need to evacuate for any reason. A bottleneck, people getting trampled. Better keep my eye out once inside for other possible access points.
I followed the Merry Men through the line and had my camera out, and rolling as I started to stroll through the gate. A pair of gents dressed like extras from the Black Watch stepped out to block my path. The taller and rounder of the two had a white ribbon pinned to his chest, probably some kind of badge of rank. He held up a hand and said, “Halt, knave. Wherefore dost thou attempt to proceed?”
Knave? I tried to channel my English-to-Elizabethan translator and parse out that sentence. I think he means where am I going. “That way. I want to watch the archery tournament?”
“So strangely garbed? And I doubt thou hast paid thy taxes.” Translation: Dude, where’s your costume, and did you even buy a ticket?
I thought fast and gestured wildly. “Forsooth, I was overtooked by bandits whilst on the road to fair Coventry. They doth robbed me of my garb, my foodstuffs, my bow, even my trusty steed so that I have had to forage nigh these many days as I have traversed from afar. I hath lived the life of a mendicant, thus acquiring such strange and wondrous garb. Pray, have mercy on this poor weary traveler?” I bowed my head. Behind me, a small smattering of applause broke out. I grinned. At least somebody appreciated that performance. Thank you, Mr. Thronson, for forcing me to get up and recite Shakespeare in high school.
I risked a glance up at the two guards. The bigger one had his arms folded. “Think this is funny, Yank?” His face was the poster child for glower.
“Ease off, Grady,” said his companion. “That has to be the best gibberish we’ve heard all day.” He doffed his helmet and mopped off the bush of red hair underneath it. “Fun, they says. Well, that was.” He put that wet rag in a fold of his tunic and holds out a hand. “Seamus Conroy, otherwise known as Sir Culann Mac Cianain. My surly companion is Grady McDaniel, otherwise known as Baron Colin Ursell on his days off.”
Baron Ursell was checking the tickets and costumes of other visitors and letting them through to keep too big a crowd from building. “Bloody Yanks.” He shook his head and continued in on the line.
“Oh, don’t mind him,” said Seamus with a wink. “He’s just grouchy ‘cause we drew short straw and are stuck out here for much o’ the fun. But that won’t last much longer. Next watch is due soon.” He looked me over. “That was a great line you fed us, lad. As a long time Scadian, I appreciated your skills. Now, what’s your true story?”
“Just blew into town, saw the crowds and was curious. I thought it was like one of those Ren Faires we have back in the states.”
The Baron Ursell raised a suspicious eyebrow. “Just happened to blow into town, eh? Where are you really headed, Yank?”
I looked at him and smiled trying to think of how I’d dance around that question when a sultry voice murmured in my ear, “Birr Castle. You’re touring old castles. Also, there’s an old abbey nearby. Clonmacnoise.”
Thank you, Vee. She must have come back in and was monitoring from the Water Tower. I smiled. “Someplace around here called Beer Castle?”
“It’s pronounced Birr, but aye, it’s fairly close. Still doesn’t explain why Clara?”
“Also this old abbey, I understand, Clonmacnoise.”
Ursell shook his head. “Och, you’re one of them castle nuts.”
“Guilty as charged.” I leaned toward Seamus and lowered my voice. “But the real story is so incredible, you wouldn’t believe it.”
“Louis, what are you doing?” Vee scolded me over the Bluetooth. Trust my instincts, Vee.
I made sure Ursell saw me check that no one was listening. “Have you ever heard of a Finder?” I said.
The two guards looked at each other, puzzled. “Nae,” said Seamus. “Can’t say that I have.”
“Legend is that from the beginning of time there has always been someone in the world who has had this gift. Think about this. How easy is it to lose anything? Anywhere? Anywhen?” Seamus opened his mouth to answer, then stopped as the complexity of the question cascaded through his mind. “You see how quickly that haystack grows? A Finder is blessed, or cursed, depending on how you look at it, with the ability to look at that pile, and after gathering a few pieces of information, see the item he is trying to find, and what he needs to do to retrieve it.”
“You’re making this up,” scoffed Ursell. “No such person could exist. The world would overwhelm him, or try to crush him.”
“He does exist, and yes, it does. That’s why he has me. I’m his companion, lookout, and occasional bodyguard. For example, just today, he gave me the day off. But we’re here in Clara, and we never go anywhere without a reason…” I trailed off a moment, then looked back at them. “But he’s real.”
I nodded at Ursell and put my hands behind my back. I started to pace. “A decade ago my wife and four-year-old daughter were killed by a drunk driver. It was the night of my wife’s birthday.”
“Oh, mate, I’m sorry,” said Seamus.
I nodded at his sympathy and continued. “I was with the FBI at the time, assigned to chase a thief who had stolen a rare painting. A few years later, I manage to track him down. He surrendered peacefully, then told me the story I told you. He claimed he was that man and that the painting he’d stolen was actually being returned to its rightful owners.”
“Another likely story,” snorted Ursell.
“In fact, it turned out the painting had been stolen from an estate in Belgium just before World War II. It was a field of flowers, with a small child with raven hair playing among it. The painting wasn’t what I thought it was. It was an unknown Anna Boch original, and the person it was being returned to was that raven-haired young girl, now just over 90.”
“After I verified things, I decided to give him one chance to clear his name. During the flight back from London to L.A., I told him about my wife and daughter, and the crash. I said there was something special that had been lost that night. I would give him a forty-eight-hour pass from the time we landed. If he could figure out what it was, find it and return it to me in that time, I’d make sure all charges were dropped. He’d go free. If not, I’d slam his ass in jail for the rest of history.”
“But what was he supposed to look for?” asked Seamus.
“I never told him. After all, that was supposed to be his ability.”
“What happened?” asked Seamus.
“Oh, he went right down to the wire. I had his ankle tracker up on my computer, ready to activate, and already had a team of agents picked to help me collect him. But with five minutes to spare, he shows up and puts a box down gently on my desk. Then he sits down across from me and looks me in the eye, his face full of compassion and concern. ‘I apologize it took me so long. Your daughter told your bride it had been plucked out of the sky just for her. I felt it only fitting it honor her words.’” My voice cracked.
Seamus handed me a flask of something that burned good as I took a swig. The group that gathered around me was silent. “Thanks. You see, the morning before the accident, my four-year-old Bree gave my wife a gift she helped me pick out for her mother – a one-karat diamond pendant. Bree told her mother the Princess of the Night from her favorite cartoon plucked it out of the sky just for her.” I took a deep breath. “I don’t know how he did it. I don’t know how he knew – he knew – that conversation. And I don’t know how he found out that the diamond was never recovered from the accident. But the bastard did. He found the diamond and set it in a ring, in the middle of a black field, designed so that, somehow, no matter what angle you look at it from, the diamond always seems brilliant, like a star in the sky.”
Ursell chuckled. “Well, Yank, you can spin a good yarn, I’ll give that to you. But no way I’ll be believing that—”
I held up my ring, the one Tomas gave me years ago, the day our partnership began. The one that keeps me anchored, every day, to the only two good things that ever happened in my life. I walked over and put it in front of the man’s face.
“You were saying?”
Ursell stared at it, eyes wide. “Bloody hell.”
I took another swig of whiskey from the flask. “That is who a Finder is. That is what a Finder does. And that is why I quit my job at the FBI the next day and went to work with him.”