Some say that King John of England, Duke Normandy and Aquitaine, known as Lackland, was a bad king. Like most things in ancient history it is only a matter of opinion and of course who wrote the history. Either way, the Magna Carta and the unusual death of the king are well-documented facts.
To stir up trade and keep an eye on his magistrates, King John spent most of his life on the move, stopping only to throw huge parties. The wine, and beer consumed at these parties and the utensils used, created work and helped to maintain a busy commerce for the local inhabitants. A large entourage of troops, camp followers and even governing officials travelled with the king and partook of his generosity.
In October of the year 1216, the king’s entourage moved from Yarmouth in Norfolk England and eventually finished up in what was then called Bishop’s Lynn, where another slap-up shindig was held. Bishop’s Lynn stood on the edge of a tidal swamp known as the Great Lavar; today it is called the Wash and to reach Lincoln the often dangerous Wash had to be crossed. The night before the intended crossing King John overindulged – as was usually his way, but this time on peaches and new cider. Needless to say he became very sick.
In the thirteenth century both medicine and hygiene were unheard of. The local practitioner of doctoring and the king’s advisor could do nothing for the king, whose health rapidly deteriorated. The decision was made to move the ailing monarch by boat up the swampy river to Wisbech and then by land to Newark near present-day Peterborough. A day or so after King John had left for higher ground, the leading military officer made the decision to move the entourage across the tidal Wash swamp to be close to His Majesty. This proved to be a fatal error in judgement, for the tide came in and the swamp opened up, swallowing all but a handful of survivors, who barely reached the other side. The king’s Treasury, Crown Jewels and private possessions sank into the murky depths. On 18 October 1216, King John of England was informed of the disaster and shortly thereafter succumbed to his illness and died of dysentery.
That’s all very interesting and I do love a good treasure mystery, but I had never given King John a second thought until now. Though I remember that when I worked on the Houdini Heist, someone mentioned the story – but who cares about long-dead kings and their mythical treasure? I would expect that after 800 years there wouldn’t be much to find, even if you knew where to dig.
Our new house, donated by my wife’s father, is larger than some hotels. In fact, I think it’s larger than the hotel I own just the other side of Hamilton. We all live together in the same building … in different apartments, of course. The servants are a pain in the rear end, but I do like the fact that they do all the work, leaving my grandmother to do her own thing in her own way.
Newf, the old retrograde, had at last come home from the hospital. The dumb twit had given his bulletproof jacket to his girlfriend, Morag, and then promptly took a bullet in the chest. We almost lost him, but a small fortune and some excellent doctors managed to pull him through. His spine had been injured and now the twit goes most places in an electric wheelchair thing. We have a therapist come in every day and poor old Newf gets tortured for a good hour at a stretch – the theory being that they will eventually teach him how to walk again.
It is amazing how resilient Newf is. Even after being in a coma for just over a week and suffering several operations, he is as chipper as ever. You would think he had spent his entire life in a wheelchair. He would make a joke of zooming around the house in his thunder buggy, as he calls it.
We sat in the indoor swimming pool room and watched Morag and Deloris exercise in the water. Quite often Newf would partake as it relieved the stress on his bones.
‘I had a queer phone call yesterday,’ I said.
He gave me one of those sideways glances and said in a hushed voice, ‘You ain’t fell for another lesbo, ’ave yous?’
‘Not that kind of queer, you twit. This geezer asked me if I was interested in the Magna Carta.’
‘So, don’t you think that’s a bit off the cuff? Like some dink calls and asks a dim-witted question like that. I mean, like, well … the Magna Carta.’
‘So what was he sellin’?’
‘Ah, you see that’s it, nothing. He just wanted my opinion on the Magna Carta.’
‘So what is it?’
I sighed. Poor Newf’s education leaves something to be desired. Now history is not my strong point, but even I know what the Magna Carta is.
‘You ignorant twit. The Magna Carta contains sixty-three clauses, which is the basis of all modern human rights. Without it you’d probably be someone’s slave.’
‘Huh, I am someone’s slave; ’ave bin since I met you.’
‘Ingrate. The great charter was signed by King John in England around 1215, I think.’
‘Like quarter after noon?’
‘Pillock. The year 1215.’
‘So what did this telephone geezer want?’
‘Don’t know. He seemed extremely knowledgeable on the subject of King John, but he never actually came to the point. I thought, or at least got the impression that he wanted something but was too timid to ask for it.’
A huge smile slowly crept across Newf’s face and after a few seconds he said, ‘I gotta brill’ scheme.’
‘Go on, then. Don’t keep me in suspense; let’s hear this brilliant idea of yours.’
‘Why don’t we look for King John’s treasure? Just fink of it! There ain’t gonna be any gun-totin’ madmen, no nicked paintings or lost submarines. The worst that could ’appen is some ancient dead geezer comes after us wiv a bow and arrah.’
‘You know, Newf, if you had a brain you’d be dangerous.’
‘I take that is a no, then.’
Although Newf is an idiot, occasionally he comes up with a reasonable idea. Not being an expert on history I cornered Gran later that same day. She was sitting minding her own business in the lounge. Oh! my mistake, it’s called the drawing room, even though no one ever does any drawing in it.
‘What’s up, Gran?’
‘Oh, William, dear. Young William Tan is having his lessons; I thought I would come and sit in here in silence with my book.’
‘So what you reading?’ I walked over and sat beside her. Poor old girl, she looked rather tired these last few days.
‘Oh, just a book I found in our library. You know, William, we should collect useful books, or old books. Why don’t you invite your friend Young Harvey over here for a holiday? I would imagine he could stock us up with books of higher interest.’
‘What do you know about King John, Gran?’
She looked at me with some surprise on her face. ‘King John? Which King John would that be?’
‘Oh, like there’s more than one?’
‘Oh! lots, dear. There were several King Johns of Poland, Casimir and Sobieski. There was at least one King John of Portugal and one or two of France.’
‘So how many did England have?’
‘Only one, dear.’
‘So my question concerns him – the one in England.’
‘King John, Duke of Aquitaine – a very unfortunate king, indeed. Most of his troubles were because he opposed the Pope. Poor man should never have been king in the first place.’
‘Is that all you know about him?’
‘Good heavens, no. Other than Henry the VIII, I would say he is the most interesting monarch of ancient times; though, strictly speaking, he falls into the medieval category. Did you know he signed the Magna Carta? I believe it was 15 June 1215. Poor man had very little choice; a sort of national mutiny, you see.’
I sighed. ‘Gran, for heaven’s sake, I don’t want a history lesson. I merely asked if you knew anything about him.’
‘Which I suppose leads us to your second question, William, which is?’
‘I wanted to know if you’d heard of King John’s treasure.’
‘Yes, dear, I would say every schoolchild has heard the legend of King John’s treasure.’
‘Did it really exist, Gran?’
‘North wants to go look for it.’
She smiled sweetly. ‘Dear William, many people have looked for the lost treasure, but none have ever come close.’
‘I found Fiend’s gold – no one had ever got close to that, either.’
‘This is different, William, dear. In the sixties they spent a great deal of time, money and labour on the project. I do believe it was supported by several universities. Absolutely nothing was ever found. You would need a great deal of geological knowledge. Plus you’d have to study the tides, silt movement and the changing landscape.’
‘What do you mean, changing landscape?’
‘The Wash used to extend all the way to Wisbech but the monks built ditches, drains and canals, which eventually led to the draining of the entire area. Now Wisbech is miles inland.’
‘Kilometres inland, Gran.’
‘So to put it in a nutshell, you don’t think it would be a good idea.’
‘I didn’t say that. I implied it would be very difficult. I surely would not want you to build up too much hope and finally be disappointed by finding absolutely nothing.’
‘Newf, I mean North wants to do it. What d’you think?’
‘It just might be the project to get him walking again. The lad needs an interest other than Morag. That reminds me, is he ever going to marry that young lady?’
‘I’ll ask him, Gran.’
‘So what brought up this King John idea, William?’
‘I guess it all started with a phone call.’
‘I see. Does that mean that someone else is interested in the same project?’
‘No, Gran, just a discussion.’
‘Have you read the newspapers lately, dear?’
‘I thought you might be interested in that strange case up north.’
‘Gran, I told you, North and I have finished with detective work. Too many people carry guns these days.’
‘Yes, dear, I know, dear, but this is a simple case that I am sure you could amuse yourselves whilst solving it. You see, a young lady was found dead in the middle of the road wearing only a nightdress.’
‘So what’s so peculiar about that? She probably walked out of her house and had a heart attack or something.’
‘No, dear. It said in the paper that she had recently given birth and was found on a lonely road up north more than 20 miles from the nearest house.’
‘You mean 30 kilometres, Gran.’
‘You don’t find that intriguing?’
‘Not in the least. The cops will do a fine job. I’d rather look for King John’s treasure; less likelihood of getting shot at.’
Boy! Talk about the third degree. You ask a simple question and receive the Spanish Inquisition. I made my exit as quickly as possible. However, the thought of another project did interest me a little. Newf could do with the distraction and so could I, as long as there’s no gun-slinging. Deloris, my wife, is pregnant and showing it. If I’m clever I can arrange for the birth to occur when yours truly is unable to attend. All I have to do is get a project going, and then come up with the perfect excuse and then the birth can proceed without me. After Newf’s torture session I asked him if he’d like to go to Hamilton with me.
‘What for, Bill?’
‘Just some time away from the girls. I’d like to take a look at the library.’
‘The library? Like, you think it might not be there any more?’
‘No, you twit. I want to know more about King John and his treasure and all that.’
He stroked his chin thoughtfully for a moment as a smile slowly spread across his face.
‘You know, it’s there in the library that I first saw you. You was workin’ on the TOD murders.’
‘Yeah, I know. So what yah say?’
‘You’ll ’ave to do the drivin’. I can’t drive until I takes a test again.’
‘Newf, I love you like a brother, would I ever make you do anything you don’t want to?’
‘Yeah, all the time.’
‘Shut up and let’s go.’
Although he can sort of walk, we took his electric wheelchair thingy. I didn’t want him falling down and me having to carry him like a baby. Actually, he was doing extremely well. The therapist said if he keeps going the way he is he’ll be walking before next year.
I ran round to the back of the house and collected the SUV, while Newf motored to the front door. I didn’t want to be chauffeured; I wanted it to be a boy’s day out without nosey servants. The wheelchair thingy can fit in the back while Newf sits up front with me – just like old times.
The main branch of the Hamilton Library is huge and well suited for wheelchair traffic. All floors are accessible by elevator and the aisles are wide and smooth. Our quest would begin on my favourite floor – that being the third. We moseyed along directly to the lady at the enquiries desk.
‘Excuse me,’ I began. ‘We’d like to see something on the subject of English history.’
She smiled sweetly. ‘What exactly, sir?’
‘We’s interested in King John,’ Newf blurted out.
Again she smiled sweetly and punched a few keys on her keyboard.
‘Hmm. It’s quite a popular subject; looks like we have several dozen books on the subject. Is there anything in particular that you are interested in?’
‘Yes,’ I said. ‘We’re interested in the legend of King John’s lost treasure.’
‘Oh yes. There are several books on that particular angle.’ She hit another key and her printer spat out a list with brief descriptions. She handed the list to me and said, ‘Select the ones you want and I’ll have them brought up for you. Do you wish to take them out?’
‘No, we’ll read them here, thanks.’
Newf and I moved over to the reading area where we could examine the list.
‘So what we looking for?’ Newf growled.
‘You see after that strange phone call, I thought it might just be a decent quest, say our next summer project.’
‘What, the phone call?’
‘No, you berk. The treasure. No one has ever managed to find even the slightest trace of it.’
‘So you figured we can find it.’
‘Yeah, exactly. Now which books shall we read?’
We selected four, one of which was appropriately entitled The Lost Treasure of King John. The lady quickly located the volumes for us and we sat in a secluded area to brush-up on our history. Newf took to it like a fish to water. In moments he was nose deep in the project.
After about fifteen minutes’ study he said, ‘Yah know, Bill, I reckon we could find this treasure, what wiv you’re nose fer gold. Shouldn’t be too ’ard, should it?’
‘Why the sudden confidence?’
‘Well, it says ’ere a Roman bank runs roughly from Clenchwarton to Tilney All Saints.’
‘So what’s a Roman bank when it’s at home?’
‘The Romans tried to keep the sea out and built a earf bank. King John’s men would ’ave started their last trip on the swamp side o’ the bank. So all we ’as to do is look between there and a place called Sutton Bridge.’
‘Yes, you nit, but it’s like hundreds of metres below the surface. It’s not going to be sitting there for someone to go and pick it up, just like that.’
‘I reckon you can do it, Bill.’
Carefully, I closed my book and looked at Newf.
‘You know, your trust and belief in me is what keeps me going. Tell you what; I’ll make a bargain with you.’
‘Yeah, like what?’
‘You get back on your feet and promise never to let anyone else wear your bulletproof vest, and I’ll take you on this trip to find King John’s treasure. All at my expense.’
‘What about Morag?’
‘Now that is an excellent question. I’ll add one more proviso to my original deal. You have to marry that girl and stop kissing her in public – it’s quite sickening.’
‘Alright, one and a subclause.’
It’s difficult to explain the relationship that Newf and I share. He’s like a brother, but somehow I love to tease him and call him names. He’s actually very smart when he wants to be. He never had the chance of a good education like me, but his father seems to have taught him some very unusual skills. Newf can navigate in almost total darkness and never seems to get lost. There are very few locks he can’t open and would you believe, he not only can but does eat anything.
Gran would be the whizz on this case. She solved our first mystery, Fiend’s gold. Gran’s a darling, but these last few years she seems to have slowed down a lot. In the old days she did all the cooking and man, can she cook! Now, though, she leaves menial tasks like that to the household staff.
Deloris and I got married last year and now that she’s expecting her first baby I have to watch what I say or do. I already have a son by my first wife, little William Tan. I have supposedly given up detective work, mainly because it’s too dangerous. Would you believe, in almost every case we had I was the one who got shot, but last time poor old Newf caught the lead and it almost killed him. With my money and Deloris’, we certainly are set up for life. We all live in the same huge house and there are no monetary problems. Detective work is off my list of things to do but, and that’s a big but, why not look for treasure? That’s not really detective work, is it?
Deloris does these annoying breathing exercises every night before she sleeps. She lays there with only her silk trousers on grunting and groaning, and then excitedly counting. Looks like a grounded albatross trying to take flight. I can’t take all the bouncing around, so I sit on the chair waiting for the demonstration to end. I have to pretend I’m enjoying it all so as not to upset her. Eventually, all the activity comes to an end and we can settle down for the night.
‘Why do you do this every night?’ I once asked, climbing onto the bed beside her.
‘For our child. I need the oxygen for his brain. Healthy mom, healthy child.’
‘Okay. So what you think about the legend of King John?’
‘Then I won’t be drinking any apple cider, if that’s what you mean.’
‘No, and it was peaches and apple cider. No, what I mean is, well … Newf needs an interest. I thought looking for the long-lost royal treasure might just help him recover.’
She smiled, rolled over and kissed me. ‘I love you, Mr Reyner. You truly are a thoughtful man. I think it would be a fabulous interest; it’s educational, geographical and not dangerous. There is one thing, though.’
‘No overseas travel until junior is born.’
I pushed her flat and then put my ear to her tummy. Man, talk about industry. The noises going on in there would put any factory to shame. Whilst I was listening to the bubbling, gurgling and rushing sounds he or she kicked me right in the ear.
‘You sure it’s not twins, then,’ I said jokingly.
It was settled, for in my mind I could see Newf and myself enjoying the Norfolk warmth and searching for the legendary treasure of King John. It really didn’t matter if we found it or not. What the hey! It’s a holiday we could all enjoy. I decided we would all go: Deloris, Gran, Newf, Morag, William Tan and the newborn. The sea air would do us all good.