Strange Bedfellows Part Three: The Treasure

Part One

Part Two

The sight that greeted them was mildly anticlimactic. Shepard immediately noted the absence of any number of gold bars, especially a large amount. Betty was pleased by the lack of unpleasant odors. Ben felt great relief at the lack of dead bodies.

The contents displayed before them in the ten by ten unit included a handcrafted mahogany chest of drawers, three large wooden packing crates, a life-sized teddy bear, a set of chrome rims with tires, and a small, empty aquarium. A fine layer of dust coated everything, except for a handprint smear on the top of the chest of drawers.

“Well, what are we going to open first?” asked Shepard.

“The dresser, of course!” Betty answered.

Ben stepped into the storage unit and peeked around the back of the crates, but nothing else was hidden behind them. He shook his head to Shepard and Betty’s unspoken question.

Betty joined Ben inside the storage unit and grasped the handles of the topmost drawer. When she gently tugged, it slid smoothly out, revealing a large key ring with several skeleton keys. Betty’s eyes widened at the sight, and she quickly snagged the keyring and lifted it out of the drawer. She spun to show Ben and Shepard, who were watching her intently.

Shepard’s sharp eyes picked out the paper tag fastened to the ring, and he moved close enough to Betty to read the hand printing on it. “It says 2027 Fairmount Ave, Phila. Do you think that’s where the keys work?”

“Those look like old jail cell keys,” said Ben. He pulled out his phone and googled the address. “Um, if that’s where the keys are from, they are jail keys. The address is Eastern State Penitentiary in Pennsylvania.” He looked up at Shepard and Betty.

Betty’s jaw dropped. She’d always thought that to be just an expression, but she realized that it certainly was not. This day was getting crazier and crazier!

“Pennsylvania has to be eight hundred miles from here,” said Shepard. “Why couldn’t he have given us keys to a local jail?” Shepard was only half-joking.

“Um, it’s only seven hundred and eight miles away,” Ben corrected him. “I have it mapped out.” He held up his phone to show Shepard.

Betty calmed down enough to realize that she was still dangling the keys in her hand and that three more drawers remained unexplored, along with the three packing crates. “Whoa, boys, we’re not running off to Pennsylvania just because we have a mystery set of keys and an address to an old prison. Let’s finish up here before we even think about that!”

“You’re right, Bets. Let’s see what else we’ve got!” said Shepard.

Betty put the keyring on the top of the dresser and opened the second drawer, which was depressingly empty. The third drawer was also a disappointment, but the fourth and final drawer was almost as exciting as the first. An old, ragged Justin boot box was nestled inside, and when Betty carefully removed it from the drawer, the cardboard began to crumble in her hands. She quickly moved to set the box on the floor and slowly lifted the lid.

Inside were photographs. Mostly old and faded, but a few newer and brighter. She was all set to begin paging through them, but Shepard interrupted her reverie.

“That’s something you can bring home with you and have a look at. I’m going to see if I can open up this stack of crates,” he said.

Ben seemed to agree with Shepard, because he moved around Betty to the opposite end of the packing crates. Shepard took a quick look at the crate, admiring the craftsmanship, before gently lifting the lid, which wasn’t nailed down. Ben helped him angle it to the side and lower it to the floor, and they both stood back up to view the contents.

A once-white sheet covered whatever was inside, so Ben twitched a corner up and over, taking his time pulling the sheet out to reveal some odd mechanical contraption. Ben and Shepard both unconsciously cocked their heads to the side to get a new perspective on the item, but it helped neither of them identify it.

When Betty looked up and saw their confusion, she stood to have a look for herself.

“It’s a sock knitter!” she exclaimed, clapping her hands together in joy.

Ben and Shepard looked at her, mystified.

“You know, to knit socks! You already forgot how crafty I am?” she grinned. “This one looks in pretty good shape, too. My grandma had one that I used to play with every time we visited. Let’s see what’s in the next box!” Betty had forgotten all about the photographs.

Betty moved back so Ben and Shepard could move the top crate to the side of the stack, then moved closer again to watch them open the second. They placed the lid on the first box. Another sheet covered the contents of this one, and Shepard pulled it back this time.

As one, all three of them recoiled at what lay before them. Betty lifted a hand to cover her mouth, and Ben blew a forceful breath from his nose. Shepard was the first to recover enough to reach in with one hand to touch the mummified creature, and his shoulders sagged with relief.

“It’s fake, guys,” he announced. He used both hands to lift the replica Fiji mermaid from the container, and marveled at how light it was. It seemed to be made from papier-mâché.

“I-I thought it had to be, when it didn’t smell,” Betty said, seeming a bit shaken.

“Um, it looks so real, though,” said Ben. “Somebody worked really hard on that thing.”

“They sure did,” Shepard agreed. “But it’s a little creepy to put on your mantel, that’s for sure. Let’s check out the last one.” He replaced the thing in the crate, and he and Ben lifted it over to atop the first one, and opened the third and final.

Another crate, another sheet. Ben and Shepard looked to Betty to reveal the final surprise. She whipped it back with a flourish, and they saw several stacks of old books. Betty picked up one from the top, and as she was leafing through it, several loose sheets fluttered to the floor at her feet. She let the book fall shut in her hand as she bent down to pick up the papers.

“Shepard, you’re not gonna believe this,” she said, passing the first sheet to him.

Ben watched the exchange with mild concern.

“Oh, wow,” Shepard trailed off. “This is–this is exactly what I was asking about, isn’t it? These are Miss Simpson’s love letters to Clarence’s nephew. I don’t–here, Betty, it feels like a violation of her privacy for me to read this. She was like my grandmother, but I never even met this–” he looked down at the letter “–his name was Clarence, too. I never even  heard her say his name.”

Betty was looking through the other letters. “You knew her, so you’d know what she would want, but how about you have a look at this one? She really loved him, and you, Shepard.” Betty held out a yellowed sheet of paper with only a few words written on it.

“Take it, Shepard, read it to us,” Ben didn’t hesitate while speaking this time.

Shepard traded letters with Betty. “Just this one, alright?” He cleared his throat and began to read aloud. “My Dearest Clarence, I still think of you every single day. Even though we never got to say our marriage vows in the church, I have lived by them for my whole life since I lost you. You were gone long before we could have a child together, but I feel that I know who he would have been if we had. I told you about the young couple who moved in next door to me, and about the son they had. He’s growing up to be such a wonderful young man. You would be proud of him. He takes care of my yard now that I’m getting too old to do it myself. He’s always so polite, and he works so hard at his studies. I think he’s going to do well in life. I only wish that you could be here to meet him. I love you always, Mary.” Shepard’s voice was breaking with emotion by the end.

Betty leaned in and rested her hand on his arm. “I’ll bet we’ll find the whole story in these letters for you. How about we take them and the photos and all go get some rest? It’s been one heck of a day, for all of us. What do you say?”

“Um, that sounds like a good idea to me,” replied Ben. “Shepard?”

“Yeah,” Shepard answered, his voice still a little husky. “Let’s lock up, and I’ll take you back to your cars. Maybe we can meet up for dinner?”

“Let’s do,” agreed Betty.

“Sounds good,” said Ben.

…to be continued.

Inspired by TBP.