“Follow me.” The roly-poly woman told Francis as she trundled across the lawn.
Francis was a gardener and he had been working in this community where almost every family had its own patch of land. If something needed to be planted, or some branches had to be trimmed or fruit plucked, Francis was the man for the job.
Hilda and her husband had shifted into town several weeks ago, and this was his first task for her. She was in the process of re-vamping the garden, and wanted to uproot some unsightly plants and put a few of her own choice into the ground.
The bungalow they had purchased was a robust twin-storey affair complete with tiled roofing and red-bricked wall ringing the property. Hilda led the way to the front of the house. At the side of the driveway, a path designed from square tiles of kotta linked the front gate to the porch.
Hilda indicated one of the kotta tiles with a plump foot. “This tile has to be removed. I want to plant that shrub here.”
“But won’t it spoil the show of your pathway?” he asked.
“It will look good once the whole place is landscaped properly. I want the place to have a totally different look.”
The gardener shrugged. She was the boss. He laid down his sack of tools while she went to the front porch where a chair was placed.
A wind blew across the greens, rustling the leaves at his feet. Francis used the tip of his pick-axe to dislodge the dirt along all sides of the slab and then gingerly tried to see if one edge was coming up. It was. He nodded, happy that this part of the task wouldn’t take as long as he had figured.
Switching to his shovel, he levered the blade under the slab and heaved. Slowly, he shifted the whole tile sideways from its original position onto the adjoining grass.
“What the hell…” muttered Francis, and Hilda sat up in her chair with a frown. “What’s this?”
She got up and went to take a look. She was as taken aback as he was to see that there was a concrete slab beneath, which had been hidden by the kotta tile. Two iron rings stuck out from the surface.
“Looks like a septic tank cover.” offered Francis, wiping his brow. Sure enough, it looked exactly like the concrete slabs used by plumbers.
Hilda looked bewildered. “But the septic tank is at the back of the house. I have no clue what this could be…” She turned and let out a yell. “Cedric! Cedric – get out here!”
There was an answering shout from within the house, and both of them heard the sounds of someone coming down the staircase. The main door opened to reveal a stout man, a look of alarm on his round face. “What is it, Hilda? What’s wrong?” He asked, out of breath.
“Come look at this.” She ordered him and he waddled out into the sunshine.
He shook his head. “Doubt there’s any chamber out here, so far from the house.”
Francis had crouched and was examining the concrete cover. Between the two rings was a round hole. He bent forward, trying to see what was inside. “It’s an opening, but I can’t see anything because it goes slanting rather than straight.” He shrugged. “But there’s no bad smell, so maybe you’re right that it’s not a septic tank cover.”
“Slanting?” Hilda looked thoughtful. “Maybe the opening is for dropping things inside?” She looked at the men and both of them shrugged. “What sort of things would fit in through that opening?”
Cedric chuckled richly. “Ah, I know what you’re thinking: you’re thinking the previous owner was a mass-murderer and he used to hide the body parts of his victims down there, right?”
Hilda looked at him crossly. “Cedric, look at the size of the hole. Other than your brain, what could possibly fit through such a small opening?”
Ignoring his hurt look, she went on. “The previous owner, Lotlikar was a gold-merchant. He lived here alone and apparently after he died, a lot of his wealth was never found. His estranged sons gave up trying to find it and later, they were just glad to get rid of this house and move on.” Her eyes glowed. “What if the missing gold is under there?”
Francis nodded. “Well, we better move the cover if we’re going to get the gold.”
Hilda gave him an astonished look. “We?”
“That’s right. We share whatever we find between us.”
Hilda crossed her arms forbiddingly. “But this is my property! I don’t have to share anything with you!”
Francis shook his head. “Well, in that case maybe I should just go to the newspaper and tell them about what we found here. They should have no trouble contacting Lotlikar’s sons.” He took out his mobile phone. “Down the street lives a reporter who I do some gardening for. He works for The Gomantak Times.”
Hilda’s mouth dropped open in disbelief. “I don’t believe it!”
Cedric stepped forward, holding his arms out in a placating manner. “Let’s not get carried away, please…” He leaned toward his wife. “Hilda dear, fifty percent of something is better-”
She turned away from him coldly.
Francis put out his hand. “Do we have a deal?” Cedric took his hand and pumped it quickly. “Okay, let’s not waste time.” He dropped to his knees and carefully inspected the ground around the cover, loosening the packed ground to check how thick the slab was. He whistled. “Four inches thick! This is not going to be easy.” He looked Cedric up and down doubtfully. “Uh, it’s going to require some heavy work.”
Cedric flexed his muscles in a show of strength. “What you see here are arms of steel.”
Hilda snorted unkindly. “The only steel inside his body is the plate the bone doctor put in when he broke his arm in 2015.”
She watched as the two men tried to shift the cover using crowbars. After a lot of unseemly grunting and puffing and cursing, the concrete cover had barely budged.
Francis squatted to have another look. “The cover is sitting on a concrete box sunken into the earth. I suppose he built it so thick as he didn’t want any water or anything seeping inside.” He looked at Hilda hopefully. “What about you? Can you help?”
Hilda looked horrified. “What? Imagine asking a delicate little thing like me!”
Francis scratched his head, trying to think of what to do next when he saw someone walking down the street outside the garden.
It was Simone, a pretty young thing who lived a few houses away with her parents. She was in jogging gear, a strappy florescent top and spandex tights. Francis waved to her. “Simone!”
Hilda grabbed his arm. “What are you doing?” She hissed.
“We need more help.” said Francis decisively. “Another pair of strong arms.”
“She looks like she’s got strong arms.” added Cedric helpfully, running his eyes over Simone’s exposed anatomy as she entered through the front gate.
While Hilda muttered darkly under her breath, Francis explained what was going on.
Simone’s eyes lit up. “You mean, like buried treasure!”
“Um, well, it’s not exactly buried, just stored underground, and it’s not treasure, just some dead guy’s wealth.” explained Francis patiently.
“And now we’re going to get it!” said Simone, rubbing her hands in glee.
Francis gave instructions all around. While Simone and Cedric tugged at the rings with the crowbars, Francis pulled at one edge with all his might. After minutes of hard toil, they had managed to prise open the cover enough to expose one corner of the vault beneath.
“My phone has a torchlight.” offered Francis and they all squatted, going into a huddle.
Sticking one arm with the mobile phone inside, Francis caught a glimpse of something that made his heart beat faster. “Something’s glimmering down there!” He yelled. He looked around, joy clear in his face. “It’s gold!”
The foursome jumped to their feet and grabbed each other by the arms and did a sort of dance on what was left of the garden path.
“We’ll buy a new house!” crowed Hilda.
“I want a car.” declared Francis.
“I’m going to buy a treadmill with my share!” announced Simone.
“Your share?” cried Hilda, eyes bulging.
“You can buy a house too,” suggested Cedric. “and come stay next door to us…”
They spent the next few minutes discussing how to open the cover fully.
“I don’t think it was supposed to be opened. Probably he meant it to be a one-way system. The only way in is to destroy the cover with a power tool.”
Simone had an idea. “Why not try reaching a hand into it? I’m the slimmest, so I’ll try. And if my hand goes all the way to the bottom maybe I can get everything out.”
The others agreed and she lay against the ground and eased her whole arm inside.
“Take your time.” said Francis, crouching beside her. “There’s no rush.”
“Yes, take your time.” agreed Cedric, happily studying Simone’s lithe curves. His wife elbowed him roughly in the side.
Bit by bit, Simone took out what was in the vault. They counted nine fifty-gram gold bars. “That’s it.” She said, and got up, dusting herself.
“I thought there would have been more.” said Francis, looking dejected.
Cedric shrugged. “Maybe Lotlikar wasn’t as rich as people thought.”
Simone sighed. “All that work for so little gain! And after all that effort, we were just able to shift it by few inches.”
Hilda looked disgusted. “Imagine taking the trouble to build a vault like this and keeping so little inside! The man must have been an idiot!”
Francis looked at her, startled. “You know something: you’re absolutely right…” He reached for his pick. Moving to the next kotta tile that formed the garden path, he prised it loose.
“What are you doing?” asked Hilda, astonished.
“I’m going to lift it. Tell me what’s underneath it.” Without a further word, Francis heaved, raising one end of the square tile.
All three of them leaned forward to look. The way their eyes suddenly lit up told Francis he had struck pay-dirt. He slid the tile aside and grinned at the concrete cover beneath.
“You mean there’s another vault?” asked Hilda excitedly.
“How did you know?” marvelled Simone.
“It’s what Hilda said about so much work to construct this vault and there was hardly anything inside. Maybe there was so little in this one because the rest was someplace else.”
Cedric shook his head slowly. “But how did you know it was under this tile?”
“I didn’t.” Francis looked at the other kotta tiles forming the garden path with a beatific smile creasing his features. “And you know what that means, don’t you…”