The Secret Passageway

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Chapter 6

Dr. Harper returned from the bathroom to find that Jerry had brought them fresh pints of ale and slid back into the booth across from Josh. What he had always heard and not been able to fully buy into about the Crespi Collection and the Mastersons and all the intrigue and conspiracy and danger circling the whole tale had just been confirmed when he had read what Josh had brought him today. Harper was not prone to accepting wild stories in general, and the various theories and innuendo that had become part of this whole scenario had always felt to him like folklore. All that had changed in the blink of an eye after his former student, Joshua Redmond, had dropped by his office.

“You ready for all of this, Josh?”

“Not really. I’m kidding…go ahead.”

“The story I had always heard was that the pieces that had been salvaged by Father Crespi following the fire and destruction in Cuenca, was that he used the Vatican as a ruse. Certainly, the artifacts would have been relatively safe in Vatican City, considering all the intense security that surrounds the enclave. But Father Crespi was loathe to remove the pieces he had been gifted from the land and the people that meant so much to him. What I assumed was just legend, was that he had hidden what he salvaged from Cuenca in a remote, but unnamed location. It was to be known only to him and close confidants. Someday, Father Crespi hoped that all the expeditions and raids into Ecuador to locate the origin of the indigenous cache would just fade away. In the meantime, he did what he thought was right to hide what he had left.”

“But didn’t he die in like 1982 or so if I remember your lecture?”

“He did. But remember, I said he had confidants. Just in case something happened to him.”

“Are you saying….”

“Hang on, Josh…” Harper said, interrupting suddenly. “One step at a time, OK?”

Josh nodded and made an effort to contain his impatience.

“His feared that some link might be made from his small collection to the main cache. So, according to what I know as just a legend, he moved the artifacts to a location deep in the Reserva de producción de Fauna Cuyabeno, in some caves in a small village called Tipishca just northeast of the Rio Napo, known only to these confidants. He wanted the pieces to stay in Ecuador, but his logic was to remove them as far as he could from anywhere he had been doing his missionary work.”

“Out of sight, out of mind?”

“I guess that was the idea. Anyway, one of the confidants was based here in America, according to the story.”

“You cannot be serious?”

“What I was told. That is all I can say. The legend went on to say he had left behind detailed instructions and a map for the exact location in Tipishca, but that he did not want the information for locating the cache to remain in Ecuador. The people Father Crespi lived with and served meant the world to him, and I am guessing he wanted to take all conceivable precautions to safeguard what he had been entrusted with.”

“Find the small cache and maybe it would lead to someone being able to raid the mother lode?”

“Perhaps. Even with all the death that had befallen explorers who had already tried, I think the vast wealth of the main cache was still too much of a temptation. At least that is how I think Father Crespi much have seen it.”

“And since you have now seen what I found in that well-hidden crate in my cellar, you are telling me that the Mastersons were Father Crespi’s American confidants?”

“I had heard of him having a contact here in the States for such a thing, but I was never sure it as anything more than wishful thinking or just talk. But with what you showed me, there is no doubt that this is the case.”

“The language on the paper and the map? What is it?”

“A very, very obscure and nearly lost dialect of one of the most ancient of the Ecuadorian tribes. From my research over the years, I would guess that outside of myself, maybe only a handful of people still understand it. In addition to whatever may remain of the actual tribe itself.”

“And it marks the location?”

“It does. And before you ask, it mentions the Mastersons as Crespi’s last line of defense.”

“Doc…this is unbelievable.”

“You say you found this at the end of a long and narrow tunnel in your basement?”

“Yep. Spotted this door I had missed before and once I got it open…well…you can guess the rest. As far as I know, no one else in town that might have knowledge of the house or the Mastersons knew about it.”

“Not surprising. For whatever reasons they were asked to take this on, William and Helen Masterson kept a lid on the secret. Perhaps Crespi would rather have had the artifacts just go hidden forever, rather than fall into the wrong hands. Otherwise, I am not sure why he would have chosen this one couple, thousands of miles from the hiding spot as the caretakers. Certainly, he would know they would not live forever, nor would they likely pass along his entrusted pact.”

“So…now what?”

“A bit more to tell, my friend. I am guessing no one in your neighborhood knew anything much about the Mastersons, right?”

“At least from the people I have spoken with so far.”

“Here is where it gets interesting, Josh.”

Gets interesting?”

“From all accounts, the Mastersons just mysteriously disappeared about the time everyone has been telling you they died. Granted they were getting on in years, but from what I remember they were both in good health. Hardly a solid case for dying of natural causes.”

“Just gone…poof…like that?”

“I have a theory on that as well.”

“I was afraid of that.”

“True to Father Crespi’s hopes and prayers, the interest in the artifacts, both his rescued collection, as well as the original main cache, cooled off with time. It was still discussed among academics like myself, but for the most part it was seemingly forgotten other than in the vein of a lost treasure gone for the ages. Then, just after Father Crespi’s death…and yes, it was of natural causes…nothing untoward there, a new blip of interest arose in Europe.”

Josh sat back and took the last drink of his beer.

“There was this group in western Europe…Netherlands, or maybe Belgium…I am not sure—depends on who you talk to. They were passing themselves off as a historical society intent on unearthing lost indigenous antiquities for display in the countries of origin.”

“Uh-oh…”

“I can see you are already a few steps ahead of me here. As you may have already guessed, this was a façade for yet another batch of thieves looking to raid the coffers of vulnerable people. They were, from all accounts, well-funded and put up a front of respectability. They got their hands on quite a few pockets of treasure before they were unmasked for what they were. INTERPOL shut them down for the most part, but my guess is they simply either went to ground or got much smarter about how they did their business.”

“Stuff still got plundered, huh?”

“So it seems. The more they snatched, obviously the more capital they had to work with. The one treasure that still remained elusive, though, was and is, the artifact cache from which the Crespi Collection arose.”

“It’s that valuable?”

“You have no idea, Josh.”

“Even after all the failed tries and high body count?”

“Organizations like this one, my friend, see those as just mere hurdles. Losing personnel is just the cost of doing business to them. Anyway, as the story goes, the Mastersons were overseas, celebrating their 50th anniversary, I think. They just left for the trip and never came back.”

“No one ever looked into it?”

“They had no children and from all I know no real close relatives to speak of.”

“That’s what I was told, too, Doc.”

“I know it seems cold, but it was just assumed that due to their age they had died along the way. With no relatives to look into the matter…..” Harper just shrugged.

“You said you had a theory?”

“I did. I think…and remember this is just a wild guess, as I have no proof…that the European group somehow found out about the Mastersons and their link to Father Crespi.”

“Murdered?”

“Like I said…this bunch sees little value in human life other than how it can benefit them financially.”

“Think they tried to pressure the Mastersons for what they knew?”

“Over the years, I have tried not to think about that too much, but…yeah, that is my theory.”

“Assuming this is correct, you think they spilled anything?”

“My guess is no. Otherwise, that crate in your cellar would have been empty.”

Josh felt his stomach flip around with the realization.

“But you suspect they are still on the hunt, Doc?”

“Probably. It has been a long time since the Mastersons disappeared, but the payoff, in my opinion, is just too great for them to let it go. You say it was an ordeal to get to the crate?”

“Actually, once I discovered the door, it was just a dirty crawl. Fueled by some curiosity. But yeah…the door was pretty well concealed even after I moved some other boxes and crates to spot it.”

“You notice anyone hanging around that looked out of place or like they were casing the house?”

“No, but then again I have just been there for a few days. You saying I may be in danger?”

“Could be, Josh. With all the assets and contacts these guys have, it is likely they know of the map. Just not where it might be. All that time, when the house sat vacant, if they had found it, it would be long gone. Again, my best guess is they have no idea where the map is. The house would seem a likely hiding place, at least to me, but perhaps the Mastersons threw them a curve as to its location. My suggestion would be to keep your eyes and ears peeled for anything that looks off. In the meantime, I will make some calls and see who we should get the map to.”

“OK, Doc. Hardly the life of ease I was planning on after leaving my old job.”

“I am sure. But like it or not, this thing, even if by default, now seems to have dropped into your lap. You want to maybe stay away from the house for a while or even consider some security measures until we figure this all out?”

“For now, no. This may all be just an overreaction on our part, Doc. Maybe they have just packed it in. And if not, maybe showing any signs that I am aware of them could cause an escalation.”

“You sure?”

“For now, yeah. But trust me, if I see anything that looks even a little bit not right, I will call for help. OK?”

“OK.”

Harper paid their tab and Josh collected his valise from Harper’s office, after rewrapping the paper and map and locking them inside the case. He shook hands with Dr. Harper and waved goodbye before firing up his old car and heading home. In the shadows of the towering elms that formed a natural bridge at the west gate of campus, a dark brown pickup truck sat by the curb. The occupants sat unmoving, the only sign of life inside the glow of a cigarette between the fingers of the driver.

“What do you suppose Redmond wanted on campus?” the passenger asked.

“Not sure. He went to school here. Maybe just a visit back since he burned out of his job.” The driver replied. “Or maybe something more.”

“He’s had a lot of years to come visit. Seems unlikely to me that he just up and drops by out of the blue like that.”

“I was thinking the same thing. What was that building he went into and then came out of with that old man?”

“History and Antiquities Studies.”

“Seems too coincidental to me.”

“Agreed. Maybe pay a visit to his friend there?”

“Let’s find out some more about who he was first. No point in raising red flags anywhere for no reason.”

“Agreed. The last thing we need is one more black mark when we report to Mr. Richards.”

The man behind the wheel nodded and tuned the key in the ignition, and they eased off down the road in the opposite direction from that which Josh had gone and faded into the dark of the evening.

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