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The Millennium Prize (part three) ©

The detective sat on one side of the large conference room table. He and Ms. Munroe conferred for several minutes, Cosgrove doing most of the asking, mainly about her observations of the guests, she referring at times to her notes. An important point was that Banks had told the lodge director he always kept his wallet, chequebook, rings, and keys in a safe place on trips because he had a fear of losing them, and would retrieve them from the lodge safe as needed. When Cosgrove held up to her the piece of label found in Banks’ room, using small tongs, she confirmed that it did seem the same as the lodge’s own ‘Pine Needle’ brand, but the colour seemed outdated. She was released to resume her monitoring.

Ms. Munroe sat outside the room, in company with the members, who were waiting uncomfortably, like patients for their doctor.

“Mr. Blackburn, I would like to speak with you first,” stated Det. Cosgrove.

Blackburn nodded vaguely.                                            

“Now, down to specifics. I understand you to be main organizer of this conference. You ran the agenda.”

“That’s essentially true. As far as the agenda goes, to be fair, we did get off topic a few times.”

“Primarily thanks to Mr. Banks?”

“Particularly when the subject of Y2K came up, or veered anywhere near it. He was certainly the most paranoid of any of us. He’s known – was known – as a morose, fearful person, although apparently a great conductor. Some financial success at least. He carried an umbrella of negative expectation, worrying about his wine collection taking a major hit. I heard he was thinking of liquidating some of his stock by Friday, tomorrow.” Blackburn seemed to relax a little, engaging more direct eye contact. “On the other hand, I’m sure he was really hoping not to lose that bottle of Dom Pérignon Rosé, although it was his choice to pick that as the prize in the treasure hunt. Definitely a mercurial personality, you could say.”

“Was there anyone he was particularly talking to about his Y2K worries?”

“Probably everyone, at some point. I did see Ty Stanley and a couple of others at the cocktail party having a bit of a spirited chat with him. They talked awhile.”

“What others?”

“I think I saw Cameron and Tory there, Dave maybe.”

“What about you? Did you have a debate with Banks about this Y2K issue?”

“No, not really, much. We all had some discussion, of course, during our meetings. You can appreciate our having concerns. Me, I try to be a glass half full guy. Occupational hazard, I suppose, I’m a real estate agent. No matter what happens with Y2K, people will want property.”

“What about during that so-called treasure hunt this afternoon? Did you meet with him in his room after it started?”

“What makes you think that?” Blackburn paused, then shot back, “Say, what do you mean downgrading our prize hunt? It’s a rite we proudly hold at the end of each year.”

Det. Cosgrove bristled. “Let’s focus on the important issue. His death, which very much looks like murder. I understand you went upstairs shortly before he did.”

“Yes, I went directly to my room.”

“Did you see him?”

“I did speak with him briefly, but that was in the hall, after I found the clue sheet on the desk in my room.” Blackburn wavered. “I did stop by his room before going back downstairs. I heard a couple of voices indistinctly, so I just continued on.”

“What was it about the clue sheet you wanted to speak with Banks?”

Blackburn seemed about to say something, then steadied himself. He went over to a nearby desk with material remnants from the club meeting. “Here, it’s the list of TV shows from the 1960s, game shows. One of them was meant to be a clue to the hiding place of the bottle. I didn’t identify the right one.”

“Presumably all you treasure hunters received a copy of the list?”

“We were supposed to. Banks told me a copy was put in each member’s room. I don’t believe we all went up to our room before the end of the hunt, because after Ty found the bottle and the rest of us were left to commiserate, it turned out that a couple of us didn’t have the list, or didn’t find it until it was too late.”

Det. Cosgrove stood, stared out the window, then back to Blackburn. “Did you know he had a very elegant portfolio case, with a gothic emblem?”

Blackburn looked up.  “Yes, I mean I’ve seen it before. I didn’t know he brought it here, but I’m not surprised.”

The policeman pulled out the next question slowly. “Any idea how it was opened without a key?”

Blackburn looked lost. He just stared back.

“So, you didn’t go in Banks’ room, and you didn’t have a beer with him?”

“He offered when I saw him, but I was frankly determined to decipher his clue sheet.”   

“Thank you, please ask Ms. Heath to come in.”

Ms. Heath’s answers to Det. Cosgrove’s questions were perfunctory and clipped. She claimed not to have gone upstairs to her room at all since the search for the prize bottle started. She abstractedly flipped a small gold coin, hesitating only when she paused to respond to him. She didn’t know anything about the portfolio case, and was indifferent to the mystery of it being opened. Nor did she seem to be overly concerned about the ripple effect of Banks’ Y2K terrors, exhibiting only a frozen smile. That quickly changed, as she added that she was secretly fascinated to hear about his room’s artwork, and hoped to have a chance to see it

When he sat down, Sanders nodded once to the detective, jaw set, gaze alert, but with an occasional involuntary twitch.

Det. Cosgrove said, “I understand you had a testy exchange with the victim yesterday.”

“I wouldn’t call it that. I, and others, have been trying to calm him down about Y2K.”

“So, you were arguing with him about it?”

“Look, detective, it was more getting him to see reason. Tyrone and I kept telling him there are many potential scenarios, not just worse case. We wanted him to understand how his crying wolf could hurt not only him. Not helpful for stability in our businesses, or in protecting the value of our assets. And not for his own piece of mind, for whatever that might be worth. ”

“Is it true he was going to sell off a large part of his wine portfolio?”

“He said he wouldn’t actually do much before New Year’s. We hope we talked him out of doing any more than he already did. I don’t know what he told anyone else.”

Det. Cosgrove indulged in being conciliatory. “Doesn’t seem like much time left to do a lot of damage, if it’s to be by tomorrow.”

“Times and technology have changed.” Sanders seemed to appreciate any empathy. “Plus he might have made some moves already we don’t know about. After all, he was pretty flaky for a conductor. Did you notice those pictures hanging in his room?”

Beyond “Yes,” Det. Cosgrove didn’t comment. “So you also found the list of TV shows in your room?”

“Yes”. Sanders looked wistful. “But it didn’t do much good.”

“I see. Did you have a beer in Banks’ room?”

“I did see him briefly, but I didn’t hang around, I wanted to find that bottle.”

“Hmm. So, what do you think about the documents being stolen from a locked portfolio case with no key?” 

Sanders shrugged, trying to exude calm. “I didn’t notice which portfolio case he brought to the meeting. And I don’t know about stolen documents.”

Det. Cosgrove persisted. “How do you think it was opened without a key?”

“What makes you think there wasn’t one?”

“We have good evidence. There’s no key anywhere in his room, and the only one we know of is in the safe.” Pause. “I wondered if you had any ideas.”  

Sanders stared ahead. “That’s a curious one. Sorry, I can’t help you.”   

“I see, please have Mr. Stanley come in.”

Stanley initially looked wary, but as he settled on his seat he started to lean forward. His voice pitch rose as he spoke. “Nasty business. Not good for our club.”

Det. Cosgrove looked annoyed. “Not good for the club? Certainly worse for Banks.”

Stanley looked surprised. “Clearly. I mean, obviously bad for Mitchell.” 

“You don’t seem too upset, though. You didn’t like him?”

“Look, as I understand it, he was a successful, but typically temperamental, conductor. He amassed quite a wine collection. He complained a lot about how much work and expense was involved in his avocation, and lately he wouldn’t let it rest fretting about Y2K.” Stanley appeared frustrated. “He became increasingly obsessed. Connor and I were getting worried about the effect on our whole club.”  

The detective leaned back to consider, then leaned in. “I understand you and Mr. Sanders had a pretty vigorous discussion with Banks at the cocktail party.”

Stanley suddenly seemed laser focused, and a little exasperated. “It’s obvious behaviour like his could be detrimental to the group. We all have a financial stake. We wanted Banks to not do anything else, selling out in panic, assuming the worst. Look, maybe there will be some glitches due to Y2K, maybe it’s because I’m a memorabilia collector, we will survive this, the world will march on. It will find a way to.”

Det. Cosgrove tried to lower the temperature with a soft, “Let’s hope.” Then, back with, “Did you meet with him in his room?”

“When I went upstairs and passed his room, the door was ajar, so I knocked, and he invited me in. He said he would decide in the evening if he was going to sell anything else. He was going to follow his gut. I pleaded with him one more time to be responsible. I changed the subject when I saw his wall coverings. Classic supernatural of a period. Like the paintings from Night Gallery.”  

The detective thought to himself, ‘You too, eh?’ Aloud to Stanley, “You didn’t have a beer with him? Try to get him to help you win the bottle?”

“No, and no.” There was a fanatical shine to Stanley’s eyes. ”I really wanted to win the bottle, but fair and square.”

“Then you didn’t see the portfolio case?”

“No, I know he has a couple of really nice ones, but I didn’t see what he brought here.”

“Any idea how it might be opened without a key present?”

“I’m not any kind expert on briefcase science, detective, and certainly not on being a pickpocket. My expertise rests with books and investment grade memorabilia.”

Det. Cosgrove mulled this over. “So, you say you simply went back to your room. Where you found a copy of the list.”

“Yes, that’s correct.”

“One other thing. As I hear it, you made quite an impression at the talent show with your knowledge of all kinds of plant life. Including the poisonous kind.”

Stanley seemed to be reliving highlights of the talent show in his mind. “Well, sheriff, it takes all kind of critters to make Farmer Brown fritters.” He smiled indulgently. “I don’t apologize for having a range of knowledge.”

Con. Doyenne leaned in through the door. Det. Cosgrove motioned Stanley to leave. As she started her report, she showed him three embossed 8’x10’ pictures, featuring depictions similar to the gothic look in Banks’ room. One was found in Stanley’s room. Det. Cosgrove called him back. He acknowledged having seen it, but didn’t seem concerned about how it got there.

Told by her boss he would go through the rest of the report with her after completing the interviews, the constable left and signaled to Melanie Quinn to see him. 

Conscious of her profession, the detective donned his glasses, looking at her from an angle. “Hello, Ms. Quinn, the hypnotherapist.”

Conscious of his profession, she said, “Hello to you, detective.”

“I understand you also have an interest in horticulture. Do you communicate with plants by hypnosis?”

In spite of herself, Ms. Quinn bristled a little. “I presume that’s, at best, a left-handed compliment. I get my hands dirty with garden plants. And I love to discover those in the woods, around places like this lodge.” She let her sarcastic energy rise. “If the plants listen to me, it’s because of my personality.”

“No doubt. What do you know about plant poisons?”

“Not much. Is that what did in Mr. Banks?”

“Please answer the question more clearly.”

“Naturally I know some do’s and don’ts in handling plants.”

“I’ll take that to mean you have some knowledge.” Det. Cosgrove looked at her more closely. “Did you have a glass of beer with him in his room?”

“No, I didn’t see him after he went upstairs.”

“You didn’t go in his room?”

“No.” She paused to look out the window. “And, to anticipate your question, no, I didn’t argue with him about the subject of Y2K. He couldn’t go beyond reacting on a gut, emotional level. No wonder no one seemed to reach him. Like he was in his own bubble.”

“Interesting metaphor.” The detective started to reach into a pocket, then seemed to think better of it. “You’re being a Doctor of Hypnotherapy… what do you think, medically or psychologically, about the artwork in Banks’ room?”

Ms. Quinn’s eyes narrowed. “I didn’t have any analytic relationship with him. My unsubstantiated opinion, is that, given his somewhat mercurial, iconoclastic, nature, he probably felt at ease in a disturbed world.”

“By the way, did you see any of the prints he apparently had brought with him?”

“No, why do you ask?”

“Because one was found in your room.”

Ms. Quinn made eye contact and shrugged. “I try to avoid negative energy. If it was in my room, it must have been out of the way, because I didn’t notice it.”

“Aren’t you curious as to why it was there?”

Ms. Quinn’s reaction was a hypnotherapist worthy stare. “Maybe whoever put it there was looking for disciples.”

Det. Cosgrove tried another direction . “Perhaps you would be interested to know that Bank’s portfolio case was broken into, but with no damage and no key.”

She was unruffled, appearing to enjoy his parries. “No kidding! Kudos to the ingenious. As long as they adhere to a legal, moral methodology, of course.”

The detective decided not to pursue it.

Torin Currie’s interview followed a familiar path. The antique dealer’s answers reflected his own obsessions. Particularly, this came out in his tendency to speak quickly and with a rising voice. When the issue of Banks’ Y2K fixation was brought up, he was more interested in how he hoped own business would handle it. He acknowledged he found a copy of the list of TV shows in his room.

“Did you go talk to Banks in his room about it?”

“No, I was trying to figure out what damn TV show was the clue.”

“Did you have a beer with Banks in his room?”

“No, I didn’t go in there. I saw him briefly in the hall, he looked distracted.”

“What do you know about Banks’ embossed portfolio case?”

“The one featuring The Music of Erich Zann. You know, I’m kind of jealous.”

“Really! Of the case, or the image?” At Currie’s stare, he continued, “Was the print left in your room similar?”

“Actually, if I’m not mistaken, that one may be an interpretation of William Hope Hodgson’s The House on the Borderland.”

“Hmm, this seems to be a common area of interest between you and the deceased.”

Currie appeared bemused. “Yes, so it was.”

Det. Cosgrove leaned toward him. “But you didn’t see him in his room about it, or ask him about the print?”

Currie shook his head.

The detective swung back a little. “Back to the portfolio case, you have any idea how someone might have accessed one of the files, when it was locked, undamaged, and no key around?”

“Look, Det. Cosgrove, I’m one of the least likely to be affected even if Y2K turns out bad. My investments are in items which have, to some extent literally, stood the test of time, they’ve survived many ups and downs in world history. And, as you observe, I have another, more outré passion I had in common with Mitchell. Not that we were involved in any ritual sacrifices, ha-ha. Sorry. What it comes down to is, I’m not involved in his death. So I don’t think my speculation would be helpful.”

Det. Cosgrove checked his notes. “You were here on a short holiday about a year ago, with your wife, along with Mr. Blackburn and his wife, correct?”

“Yes, that’s true.”

“Anything stand out from that trip that could be relevant to my investigation?”

“Not really, we hiked in the woods during the day, and sampled the local beers when we got back. And some card playing.”  

With that, and no objection from the detective, Currie stood and departed. The last member to be queried, David Broughton, followed in.

Unfortunately for Det. Cosgrove, Broughton’s unhelpful answers almost paralleled Ms. Heath’s, except for his attitude, which was perfunctory but begrudging. He also claimed not to have gone upstairs to his room at all when the treasure hunt started. Also like her, and especially Currie, he professed to not be seriously concerned about Banks’ Y2K terrors. In no way would he admit to having a green thumb, or sticky fingers.

After the software developer left, the detective observed to Con. Doyenne that, what Broughton had in common with Ms. Heath was that, along with apparently not having found their copies of the list, they had been the least noticed during the time around the crime.

(end of part three)

The Millennium Prize (part two) ©

“As far as the clue is concerned, here it is… Relax & cover up with a 1960s TV game show”. I assure you, correctly interpreted, it will put you on the trail. Officially, I say, ‘Good luck’, but, to be honest, I won’t be disappointed if it stays in my possession.”

“Hmm, I may be oldest here, but I never watched those game shows” declared Stanley. “What’s the best way to find out their names? I see a small library off the lobby, maybe there’s a reference book planted in there. There must be a list somewhere.” Stanley raced out and down the hall to the Lodge library, usually open to all. Sanders and Currie exchanged glances and began a cursory look around. Melanie Quinn followed them around for a while, then left to go the library. She reported back that Stanley was still there, non-committal as to whether he had discovered anything helpful.

Broughton and Katy Heath, still discussing Banks’ clue, heard the gist of Ms. Quinn’s report. Laptop computer handy, he made a beeline for one of the active desktop stations. She frowned, followed, then sat at the other station. They went to work,  mainly communicating in code.

Blackburn smiled as his colleagues separated. He remained pensive as he departed for the staircase to the second floor. Ms. Quinn seemed to consider her options, took another look at her Cartier, then at her own leisurely pace also ascended the staircase to freshen up in her room, after a brief chat with Sanders and Stanley in the lobby. While discussing how to decipher the clue, the men decided a brief break could be mentally refreshing, and soon followed her.     

Director Ryder and assistant Ms. Munroe watched the members disperse. They had just confirmed the ATAS group requirements for the rest of the day. That concluded, Ryder straightened his collar and engaged in conversation with a family checking in. Ms. Munroe started a surreptitious surveillance of the contestants, unobtrusive notebook handy. As a survivalist, her expertise included tracking, be it animals or plants. She enjoyed when opportunity arose to enhance her skills indoors.  When previously asked, she agreed to act as the lodge ex officio for this agenda finale.

Ms. Munroe kept to the periphery while the majority of members were still near the conference room. Now that perhaps several had gone up to the second floor, she debated with herself about doing likewise.

Shortly after scanning the initial movements of the searchers, Banks moved directly through the lobby to the staircase, his expression dour. Ms. Munroe followed soon after. As she stepped into the hall, a few doors down she saw Banks and Blackburn apparently ending a conversation, as each turned into his own room and shut the door, Blackburn, his speaking inaudible, quite forcefully.

Otherwise, the air was largely quiet. She saw Martina in the service closet as she passed by, gradually hearing muted clips as she moved on, coming from television sets, apparently all on a business channel. Then, passing by Banks’ room there were sounds of discussion. From the tone she initially thought it was a phone call, but distinctly heard a few words from Banks, presumably conversing directly with another member. She quickly checked the currently unoccupied rooms at the back end of the hall, and all was well. On the way back, as she passed the door to Banks’ room she again heard a pair of voices at low volume, too indistinct to be identifiable. She spoke with Martina, emerging to hear a couple of doors closing down the hall, but no one was visible.

A little while after her return to the ground floor, Ms. Munroe checked in with her boss briefly in his office. As she moved through the lobby to the ‘treasure hunt’, she observed Broughton engaged in spirited discussion, as usual, with Ms. Heath. They were looking over what appeared to be a computer print-out.  “What about this one?” suggested the pilot. “What’s the connection?” responded the software entrepreneur. The names sounded like obscure TV titles. 

Hearing a few voices behind her, Ms. Munroe turned to see in the hall Blackburn, Sanders, and Currie in somewhat intense discussion, seeming to focus on their lack of success. “Look at this”, said Blackburn. “I’ve had it for over an hour, and I can’t narrow it down to fit the so-called clue.” Currie, who had just come down from his room, pointed at another copy of the sheet, muttering “Something involving taking or cover. I think it’s one of these – Concentration, Temptation, Camouflage, It’s Your Move, Get the Message, or Showdown. But what’s the tie-in to what’s round here. I wish we saw this sooner, Connor.” Blackburn exuded smugness. “You should have visited your room earlier. Someone named Banks had this sheet put in our rooms.”

Sanders looked at his watch. “Not much time left.” He looked up to Blackburn. “Did you talk to our reluctant benefactor?”

“Upstairs I confronted him with the copy I found in my room. He felt the clue would be a sufficiently fair catalyst, properly deciphered. I guess that’s what the first word in clue refers to, ‘relax’, as in your room.”

Currie looked again at the sheet. “Looks like having a head start with the list didn’t do you much good.”

Blackburn shook his head in agreement. “I’ve been going a little haywire trying to make sense of a connection.”

Melanie Quinn sauntered by. “Any luck, gentlemen?” They shook their heads. “Nothing so far”. She left them, then ventured to the sun room, checking out the impressive display of plants, and then stopped short.

Stanley was standing near a few plant holders near the window, shaded from direct sunlight. A few minutes later he yelled, “Hey, I’ve got it!” Ms. Quinn rushed over. The others heard, and followed suit.

Stanley stood there, a picture of fixated satisfaction. holding the bottle of Dom Pérignon Rosé, next to the plant holder which had been covering it. “How did you find it?” asked a deflated Blackburn. He pointed to its place, surrounded by similar flower pots on each side, a cocoon of security from exposure.   

Currie still had the list in hand. “Which show gave you the right clue?”

Stanley’s was a penetrating stare, as if preparing his musicians for a concert. “Camouflage. The most obvious reference to something hidden by a form of a cover. Then, of course, I had to look for a cover big enough, that looked it belonged in its spot. Flower pots were a natural tie-in. And in this case one protected from sunlight.” He smiled indulgently. “I’ve never spoken about it much to our club, but I find botany an activity which engages the body and relaxes the mind.”

“Well, you know enough about their terminology, anyway,” commented Sanders, dryly.

“I guess I should have paid more attention to the plant life last year when Amanda and I stayed here with Connor and Cecily,” commented Currie, begrudgingly.  

Pro forma, your analytic mind at work”, said Ms. Heath to Stanley, with limited enthusiasm, from the doorway. Moving inside quickly, Broughton said, “Let me be the first to shake your hand.”

Stanley shifted to him, stepping back a little, his voice rising. “And be the first to sample its contents with me?”

Broughton stood still, then relaxed as his cellular phone rang. “What? I wasn’t going anywhere with finding the bottle, I figured I should stay in touch with my office.” A lightbulb flashed in his head belatedly. “As far as sampling it with you, I’m willing to postpone that honour. Frankly, I prefer the kind of liquors Cameron deals with.”

Just inside the doorway, Alina Munroe stood watching. As Stanley moved back into the conference room with the bottle, she put on her lodge assistant hat and congratulated her, on behalf of the Cotaluna Lodge.  Cued by Munroe, director Ryder found a quick path to add his round of recognition.

The other attending members of the ATAS club started to drift back as well to the conference room. The last part of the agenda, still led by Blackburn, included official club recognition of the successful hunter. Banks would make a short speech praising the winner, likely bemoan the value of the prize, and perhaps make a weak joke along the lines of someone ‘helping a guy out’.

By 4:45 all members were in the room except Banks. “Where the hell is he?” mused Blackburn, looking at a clock. The prize bottle on a table before him, Stanley looked around to gauge the moods of colleagues. Ms. Heath was lightly slapping her hand against the table, her mouth betraying gritted teeth. Currie was sitting, fingers steepled, expression evidencing he should have won. At the other end was Ms. Quinn, in observational serenity. Sanders said to anyone who would listen, the fallout from the next thirty-plus hours was actually more important than winning the wine bottle. Stanley seconded this opinion.  

From her eagle eye position, Alina Munroe spoke up, “I’ll go check Mr. Banks room.” As she moved toward the staircase, Broughton shook his head, then added, “I’ll go with you”. They bounded across the hall, a quick word between Ms. Munroe and Ryder, and then up the stairs.

Banks was registered in suite 206. They listened briefly outside his room, next knocked on the door. No response. The door was unlocked. They went in.

“Banks, c’mon, time to face the music”. Broughton’s accusatory tone dropped as Ms. Munroe pointed to the mini-bar in an opposite corner.

Slumped over the bar top was Banks. Posture decidedly stiff.

There were two opened beer bottles and a couple of glasses on the counter, along with a spoon which had a scent of honey. Banks did not move in response to their calls. As Broughton leaned over to him, she said, “Don’t touch him except to check his pulse”. There was no pulse. They looked at each other. She spoke, “This is a crime scene. We’ve got to leave and secure the room, and call the police.” Broughton seemed about to debate the point. He took a careful sweep of the room, focused briefly on the murder scene, saw her staring at him, and reluctantly nodded accord. Outside the door she used a master key to lock the room.

At the front desk, a chain of reaction was unfurling.

Ryder, having collected and notified his staff, declared,  “I’ll call the station, hopefully get hold of a detective.” Ms. Munroe nodded acknowledgement as Ryder stepped into his office and closed the door. 

Sosa and Randall, the service staff, stood next to the front counter, took in the news with obvious discomfort, eyes looking around suspiciously, then resumed their duties without comment.

The surviving club members stood in a loose circle in the hall near the conference room. Ms. Munroe scanned the group, which appeared largely desultory.  Blackburn was rubbing his copy of the agenda, as if trying to remove problems. Ms. Heath was staring at a list, limited to a dozen entries. Stanley was clutching the bottle, his fingers moving to feel the texture of the label and the neck of the glass.

Lodge director Ryder cleared his throat to get attention. “You’re all here, and you know what has occurred. Mr. Banks is dead, and it looks like someone else may be responsible. We will wait for the police to make that determination. I’m sure they will want to speak to all of you.”

There was rustling from a couple of members, but Ms. Munroe couldn’t tell who. To the group’s silent reaction, Ryder added, “If there’s anything you need from the lodge, please speak to Ms. Munroe or myself. Oh, and please wait together in the conference room until the police arrive. Thank you.” Katy Heath led protestations about being allowed to go upstairs to wait. Ms. Munroe reminded them police investigation would no doubt include checking their rooms. With that, notepad secure, she left and returned with Ryder to the front desk. By this time a few of the regular guests were making some inquiries, and they had to help soothe concerns.

That evening, a promotional banner, feigning a battle royale between Cotaluna lodgers and an amorphous image of a ‘Y2K beast’, the latter imposing, in a cartoonish way, was supposed to be raised high over the lobby entryway. Upon instruction from Director Ryder, the banner was unfurled and stored with other sundries intended for the occasion in a nearby closet.

Broughton started to raise an objection, then made a half-hearted joke connecting  Banks’ demise and Y2K, quickly stopped by reactions from colleagues. Ms. Quinn raised her eyes, and the rest of her followed, then, with a hint of irony, said something about it not being a good time to tempt schadenfreude.   

A commotion at the entrance heralded the arrival of a pair of police investigators, Detective Avery Cosgrove and Constable Nicky Doyenne. Cosgrove, at 53, was an imposing presence, in good shape beneath his conservative suit and surprisingly splashy tie. Doyenne was 25, recently minted as a Constable, displaying confident deference.

Director Ryder was waiting for them. “Thank you, Detective, for your speedy arrival. And this must be Con. Doyenne, nice to meet you.” The latter tipped her cap. Shifting his direction to the stairwell, Ryder said “The room is untouched since we found Mr. Banks’, er, body. Please, this way.”

The Detective nodded to Ms. Munroe, and she joined the three of them up to Bank’s room, Det. Cosgrove in animated conversation with the lodge representatives.

While awaiting the appearance of a forensic pathologist, coming from Orillia, the two officers conducted a complete check of the room. The floor, bed, closet, and washroom, all neat, contrasted with the busy look of the desk and the scene of Banks’ death around the bar. In addition to the beer items, they discovered a vial of his heart medicine, obviously used.

Meanwhile, the atmospheric impact of the room’s comfortably rustic design was overshadowed by esoteric wall coverings.

The wall art comprised pictures of an unexpectedly dark nature, such as might be inspired by Edgar Allan Poe or H.P. Lovecraft, thus adding a melancholy air. When asked about the controversial nature of the depictions, Ryder responded that as a special Y2K promotion, the lodge was offering in the week leading up to December 31st a ‘home comfort’ option, wherein overnight guests could arrange for one or more temporary ‘comfort’ installations, as a way to make one’s stay more pleasing. Banks was clearly aware of this, and had made a request through his office for putting up some of his collected artwork. To raised eyebrows, Ryder stated that the lodge didn’t want to impose staid standards of decorum, given the peculiar uncertainty of this impending year, and that obviously comfort should be in the eye of the customer.    

The victim’s desk offered up some information. A copy of the list of 1960s TV game shows was on top of a tidy pile of documents. Ms. Munroe noted that the correct clue, Camouflage, was underlined in plum red.

A partially open drawer revealed part of an impressively ornate portfolio case. Det. Cosgrove, disposable gloves on, cautiously opened the drawer sufficiently to extract it. The embossed cover depicted an obscure Lovecraft tale, The Music of Erich Zann. The cover was locked. No key was in the vicinity. However, after verification there were no traces of wax in the keyhole, some cautious ‘elbow grease’ with applied expertise soon permitted the folder to reveal its secrets.

Det. Cosgrove motioned to his colleague to look at several forms, mainly letters of intent, in one of the two folder pockets. The other pocket was empty. The forms appeared to have been completed within the last week. Evidently there was truth to the stories of Banks’ preparedness to bail out of some, maybe a major portion, of his holdings. The detective speculated that one or more colleagues might view such action as endangering the collector market, especially for liquor products, and that one or more members of the ATAS club might face collateral damage.

Banks’ body was sitting on a chair, leaning over, head on the counter with face towards the door.  His final expression seemed to display severe anxiety. The beer bottles were about a third empty, the glasses containing residues. There were no clear fingerprints. Scent came from what seemed to be a dash of honey on the spoon, although there was a lingering, slightly unpleasant aroma. There was a napkin next to Banks, discoloured from use, sitting on top of a bowl of pretzels. Banks’ washroom looked almost pristine, except for a small piece of glossy paper Con. Doyenne found on the floor behind the waste bin. She gave it to her boss, who carefully unravelled it, revealing it to be to a tear from, likely, a beer bottle label. He noticed the tiny, embossed portion seemed unusually thick, with a metallic feel.   

Aside from Banks’ deceased condition, there were few signs of impropriety, although the net effect of the paintings alone inspired unease.

Ryder, along with Ms. Munroe, returned to the front desk after opening the door to Banks’ room. Shortly after, staffer Kirby was dispatched upstairs to advise that the forensic pathologist was expected within a half hour.

Det. Cosgrove returned downstairs. Con. Doyenne was instructed to make a sweep of the other members’ rooms and report.

(end of part two)

The Millennium Prize (part one) ©

There are few time-based mega moments in recent world history, especially those universally monitored. The bridge between the first and second millenniums was about as big as it gets.

However, it also meant wide-ranging degrees of trepidation. With versions of personal and work computers now woven into people’s lives, how well would these systems around the planet, with data coding based on the first two digits for a year defaulting to ‘19’, cope with the tidal wave of transfer to ‘20’? Planning and dry run scenarios increasingly consumed governments and institutions in the days leading up.

The popular acronym for the time of transition was Y2K. Everyone had a stake, most notably those with voluminous or sensitive data, including personal records ranging from health histories to investments, especially intangible assets. The breadth of a  negative cascade could affect the values of almost everything, including the tangible.       

As it is always want to do, the time clock kept ticking.

In the last week of 1999, the limbo between Christmas Day and New Year’s Day would still see the annual celebration of the Hamleton ATAS club.  

Membership, inclusion based on the ownership of an impressive, which is to say valuable, collection of ‘alternative’ or ‘atypical’ assets, a.k.a. ATAS, was currently sitting at ten for the local chapter. Such holdings cover categories other than stocks or bonds or guaranteed deposits per se. Almost de rigueur with groups of almost any size, whenever there was a non-compulsory gathering, it would not be fully attended. This year, eight members of the loose-knit club committed to the two-day affair.

At the previous spring meeting, led by secretary Connor Blackburn, a 56 year-old real estate agent, the club approved the location for the year-end summit. It was set for December 29th and 30th at the Cotaluna Lodge, on Lake Simcoe, near Barrie, Ontario.

Wednesday, the 29th, was a typically cool, overcast early winter day in the Canadian province. 

As Blackburn arrived at the Lodge, he was welcomed by its director, Corban Ryder.   

Ryder, an energetic 37 year old of predictably gracious demeanor, met the luxury car on arrival, greeting with “Good to see you again, Mr. Blackburn!” 

“Good to see you as well, Mr. Ryder. Cecily and I had a wonderful time here last year.”

“Please pass on my best always to her. You had a safe trip I trust.”

Simultaneous with an inviting wave toward the entrance, the director gestured to Kirby, one of the two full-time, guest service staff, to bring in the arrival’s suitcases. “Let’s get you registered, and check over the conference room as soon as you like.”

“Thank you, Corban. We’re looking forward to a stimulating experience here.” Blackburn paused before the entrance, soaked in a view of the woods leading to the lake. “This could be a nice place to ride out Y2K, if there’s really a need to. The scenery, a variety of plant life to intrigue a botanist, the peacefulness.” The director smiled indulgently.

As they were finishing the registration process, Ryder offered him a restricted master key for the main rooms they were using, but Blackburn chuckled that was O.K. because a couple of members could concoct skeletons. With thanks, a key to his own room in hand, he went upstairs to reconnoitre and get prepared for welcoming his colleagues.  

Located on the eastern shore of Lake Simcoe, Cotaluna Lodge was a refurbished take on a rustic escape, twenty bedrooms on the upper floor, with a main floor conference room overlooking the lake. The light-filled room was complete with leather backed chairs and a large mahogany table. Wood grains enhanced with gold veneer predominated. Ping pong and billiards tables stood in a wing off one end, a pair of desktop computers at private stations on the other. In the spirit of the surroundings, numerous sized plant holders exhibited diverse species, mostly gathered in an adjacent sun room. Martina, the other full-time service staffer, ministered to the varieties of lilies, azaleas, and daffodils, along with the more exotic nightshade and wolf’s bane. There were, in addition, smaller conference rooms on the floor, as the lodge was a popular getaway place for meetings.

Of the other twelve rooms available at the lodge, six were booked at this time, with those guests mingling separately. But the lodge was expected to be filled for Friday night, especially given the once-in-a-lifetime New Year’s Eve to the millennium.

Within the next hour the other seven members arrived.   

 

Four o’clock witnessed the first official gathering, wine flowing and the cheeses enticing. Blackburn sought their attention, declaring, “Fellow members of ATAS, let us toast another successful year with our investments – and look forward, hopefully, to a smooth transition to the year 2000!”

‘Hear, hear’ made the rounds, with a couple takes on ‘Let’s damn well hope so!’

As members broke into conversational groups, Tyrone Stanley, book specialist and oldest member present, pulled aside Mitchell Banks, a music conductor in his late 40s, who was providing a prized wine for the treasure hunt at the end of Thursday’s meeting.  “Hey, Mitch, how about giving a hint of what tasty delight awaits someone’s cellar, or maybe table, tomorrow?” Stanley’s eyes seemed to be transfixed with anticipation.

Banks tried to exude non-committal. “Maybe you’d like to offer me one of your Les Paul custom guitars, as a way to get a head start.”   

Stanley demurred. “Since mine are worth at least ten thousand each, I think not. Tell you what, let’s try another tune”. He looked around, lowered his voice. “Perhaps I can talk with you privately for a couple of minutes.”

Nearer a lake-side window, Katy Heath, owner of an impressive collection of Canadian and U.S. coins, passed a glass to Melanie Quinn, a hypnotherapist, possessor of what she self-amusedly called a ‘timeless’ collection of watches.  Although Katy was a few years older, having recently turned 42, her more dedicated skin regimen made them appear the same age. Melanie casually looked past her, then commented, almost to herself, “Actually, I’ve here before. Two or three years ago, once in spring and once in fall. Beautifully quiet walks in the woods. Quite a variety of plant life, some marvellous birds. Relaxing weekends by myself…beer in hand…the outside bar, featuring their own brand, by the way, ‘Pine Needle’.” She looked at Katy. “Don’t you think beer tastes better in the fall?”

Ms. Heath felt her habitual tenseness ease. “That’s a funny question, I don’t know. I’m more of a wine person, and that tastes good all year.” She paused. When Ms. Quinn tipped her head back, she followed suit. “Some of my flights coming back from out west descend over this area, probably at about 15,000 feet. Anyway, I’m glad I made it here. It’s certainly down to earth.” She smiled at her own attempt at irony.

David Broughton, a software developer, somewhat brash about being youngest member of the club, approached the women. He popped in with “Hey, ladies. Nice location, especially if you like to listen to loons at night. Sadly, sometimes I do. You see their computers here, practically outdated. Glad I brought my laptop.”

Ms. Heath sighed as she gave him a once-over. “I trust you also brought one or two of those so impressive sports’ hero cards, so the jock types around can drool over them.” At Broughton’s defensive look, she added, “But, of course, I’m sure you’ll have them protected in those cozy display cases.” Broughton frowned and shook his head.

As this conversation drifted off, they looked around the room to gauge the general mood. Stanley was now in a seemingly heated exchange with Banks. Standing almost between them, like a tennis net, was antique dealer Torin Currie, the second oldest member attending. All three ware intently viewing a notebook, Banks particularly anxious. Cameron Sanders, a 42 year old craft beer maker and collector of rare whiskies, apparently had been part of the group and was walking away, head held high. The other members paid attention, but stayed on the sidelines.

As the cocktail hour wound down, members were gradually strolling into the dining room for dinner, splitting off to their two tables, set in a cozy alcove. Ms. Quinn engaged in a sotto voce conversation with Sanders, until Blackburn joined them with typical boisterousness. At the other table Ms. Heath and Broughton renewed their verbal thrust and parry, which broke into laughter at the intercession of Currie.

Both lodge director Ryder and Alina Munroe, his multi-tasking assistant, helped the ATAS members ensure a sumptuous four-course meal was enjoyed by all. Alina was just younger than her boss, also in good physical condition, in her case enhanced by excursions as a survivalist. Her appealing looks probably didn’t hurt her getting opportunities to engage in conversations with some of the male participants.

In the spirit of his treasure hunt offering, coming one day before the end of 1999 and the foggy bank of Y2K, Mitchell Banks dubbed it ‘The Wine 20K’ event, in tribute to his contribution: a bottle of 1978 Dom Pérignon Rosé, most recently appraised at almost $20 thousand CDN. Banks made an elaborate, dramatic toast, with a few grains of resignation, to open the dinner.  “Nicely put,’” declared Blackburn, “and thanks for the opportunity to win the most valuable treasure we’ve ever had to hunt.” ‘Just make sure the rest is safe’, Stanley muttered under his breath, then looking around the room, said, “I believe we all truly appreciate this, Mitchell.” Some applause ensued. With a nod to this elevated attention, Banks said, “Thank you all, I hope you find it a tough, but not unfair, challenge when you get the clue.”

He stepped down from the lectern and paused, as he saw the others were watching him. He gulped hard. “I know most of you are not worried like me. I’m apprehensive about the day after tomorrow. Y2K could be bad! A harsh, new reality. And what am I looking at? Higher storage costs, higher insurance, maybe the markets tanking… a lot to worry about.”

Response was mute. Currie spoke up, “I know my hardwood antiques will still have a market next year. Folks, our portfolios are strong and diversified, we’ll be O.K. Mitch, all of us, let’s not rock the boat, dreaming up worst case scenarios!”

Blackburn, his big arms draped around Stanley and Sanders, ventured his glass half-full perspective. “Look, many large institutions around the world, and certainly here, have run tests and simulations, and believe they’re well prepared with contingency plans. Right, guys?” Stanley and Sanders summoned their best supportive grins. Meanwhile, Ms. Quinn stared at her watch, a Cartier from her collection. Broughton and Currie looked at the trio reflectively. Ms. Heath spoke up, “After all, commerce is still going on as planned. Many of my colleagues are still working overnight on Friday and on Saturday.” To eyebrows raised at her, she added, “Not me, I almost always have New Year’s Day off.”

Fortuitously timed to dilute some of the edge, Sanders had arranged for numerous sample cases of his company’s products to be delivered to the lodge, to be served as long as into New Year’s Eve as supplies lasted. In fact, these included not only a few cartons of praised lagers and pale ales, but also one or two small-run test beers, featuring exotic fruit or flora additives. At the suggestion of Ms. Quinn, he had offered to gift the leftover stock to the lodge, and director Ryder was surprised and appreciative. Meanwhile, Banks provided a quality red/white wine package for Ryder and his staff, however, got the club to pay for it.

Increased consumption of alcohol coincided with increased camaraderie.

Always an inevitable, yet somehow spontaneous, event, the volunteer talent show featured a few twists. Katy Heath, caching her often testy manner, demonstrated that her knowledge of coins coincided with adeptness, including them in magic illusions along with a couple of card tricks, one of which involved finding a missing card in a locked box. There was a moment of levity – except for one obvious member – when she feigned that one of Broughton’s valuable baseball cards was also in the box, its corners apparently nicked.  Then there was Tyrone Stanley’s ability to give the Latin version of any variety of fauna or flora the others could call out.  He was chided for indulging in too much explicit detail, especially about potentially toxic plants, which a few found unsettling. In a much different vein, Connor Blackburn showed how well he knew and could handle beer, being able to identify diverse ingredients with his eyes and nose covered, and without any regurgitating. His capacity to remain sensate while wrapping up the evening festivities was impressive.

Thursday morning highlighted an outside speaker dispensing tips about making tax minimizing strategies routine, such as in deducting expenses for professional development, and an update about capital gains. Torin Currie observed, as though a mantra, “Tax planning for investments is time well invested”.

When asked for his opinion about the threat of Y2K, the speaker begged off, except for an oblique remark about it hopefully turning out to be ‘just another number’.  

The afternoon session continued the serious tone. First, each member spoke about conditions affecting their asset classes, trying not to get sucked into Y2K tangents. Then, a round table discussion, focused more on trends, good and bad, again trying to avoid tangents. When someone broached that it was now less than thirty-six hours to the end of 1999, conversation circled to the elephant in the room.

As the most pessimistic of those present, Banks ventured, “The near future looks like a dust storm. I don’t want to be caught in it”. To no one in particular, “Do you?”

“Ah”, intoned Currie as if doing an ethereal voice-over, “let us appreciate, the owls are not what they seem”.  

“Is that some obscure cultural reference?” chirped Ms. Heath. Currie mouthed, ‘think early 90s cult classic TV’. Broughton and Ms. Quinn stared at him, then at each other, but neither spoke.

Blackburn chirped in. “In this case the owls fly on circuits.” Twirling his Mont Blanc pen, he continued, “We’ve compared notes about properties based on markets we understand. As Mitch has alluded to…well, rather directly…seems to me, now we should assess how vulnerable our collections are to system vulnerabilities. For example, what about major power failures affecting air-controlled environments we absolutely need? Like I do for my older roadsters and coupes. A show of hands, who here besides me keeps spare generators at their homes and storage facilities?”

Acknowledgements came from a few.

“As long as it’s not a big deal I’ll be O.K.”, suggested Broughton, “but I’m still leaning toward optimistic. Yeah, my stuff isn’t that hard to take care of.”

“Same with mine.” piped in Ms. Heath. “Better than a coin toss.”

“So, some of you really are not concerned?” pursued Banks. “Good for you,” he ventured, with sarcasm. “Am I going to benefit from tighter supplies because some wine supplier inventories may go bad? Or is going to hurt me because of the market disruption, plus the extra expenses to protect my inventory? Or even something else.”

“Well”, suggested Ms. Quinn, “at least one very expensive bottle less after today.”

“That assumes one of you finds it in time”, he retorted, not warmly.

After further pendulum shifts between anxiety and optimism, there was general agreement that at least all should agree to keep in touch over the next couple of days, especially if anything dire might be happening with their beloved holdings.

His watch showing three o’clock imminent, Blackburn spoke up to get the others’ attention. “O.K., ladies and gentlemen! It’s time to search for this year’s hidden prize. Our contributor, Mitchell Banks, will describe what we’re looking for, and give us what he assures is a legitimate clue as to where we might find it. Keep in mind, we have the whole eastern section of the first floor set aside for us. That means the conference room and its connections, plus the other four rooms, to the marked off entry to the lobby. So there’s time to check out the whole area. If you’re quick enough. Remember though, successful or not, we’re all to be back here by 4:45. If no one finds the bottle, Mr. Banks will tell us, proudly I’m sure, where it is, and he keeps it. We hope to wrap things up a little after 5:00. Any questions? O.K., Mitch, the stage is yours.”

Merci, monsieur Blackburn.” Banks raised a full scale size photo of a bottle, but of a later vintage of Dom Pérignon. “The one you’ll be looking for is quite similar to this one. But if you want to see exactly what the real one looks like…”, he looked around, challenging, “you know what you have to do.”

Indulgent looks was the response.

“As far as the clue is concerned, here it is…

(End of part one)