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I wrote this short story for my mother, a teacher of mathematics, who asked me to write a ghost story about numbers. I did - but of course, I couldn't resist including pirates in it too.

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Solving for the Unknown

By Daniel R. Baker

“Hello, Dr. Shaheed. Do you know that this is about?” Jason James said to his archaeology teacher. Even though he was Melinda Shaheed, Ph.D.’s star pupil, and even though her tigress eyes and shining black hair made his very blood ache, Jason had never had the nerve to call her Melinda.

“Jason!” Shaheed glanced over and flashed a pearly smile that inflicted physical pain inside Jason’s chest. “Please, sit down. No, our distinguished department head hasn’t seen fit to tell lesser mortals what’s going on. In fact, he doesn’t seem to have invited any of the faculty but me. I hope I won’t have wasted your time asking you to come.”

A glance around the lecture hall confirmed Shaheed’s words. There were only about twelve people beside himself and his professor, and of those he recognized only the president of the University of Trinidad and the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. Dressed in jeans and a polo shirt, Jason felt acutely out of place among all the business suits.

Presently, Dr. Gustave Elbert, head of the University of Trinidad’s Archaeology Department, entered the room. Jason knew that Shaheed’s doctoral dissertation had demolished the thesis of Elbert’s world-famous book on pre-Colombian religious cults and raised serious doubts about Elbert’s academic honesty and competence. Elbert had never forgiven her.

Elbert introduced himself and the members of the audience, most of whom were wealthy investors, corporate board members, and college regents. He identified Shaheed last.

“But, I suppose you are all wondering why I’ve called you here,” Elbert said, Shaheed rolling her eyes at the pompous platitude. “I have identified the location of Scar-Hand’s treasure.”

Elbert raised the remote in his hand. The lecture hall’s PowerPoint projector displayed an oil portrait of a long-haired man in 18th-century costume, balancing a long flintlock musket across his knee.

“This is John Evesham, popularly known as Captain Scar-Hand,” Elbert declared. “Formerly the captain of Queen Anne’s ship of the line Hermione, he is believed to have turned to piracy in 1716, after his lover Susanna Inglehall committed suicide in the wake of his slaying of her father William in a duel. The permanent deformation of his right hand led to his nickname and is believed to have been inflicted by William Inglehall’s pistol. Scar-Hand sacked an estimated fifty ships over the next seven years and ransomed several prisoners.

“The Royal West India Company having placed a bounty of £10,000 on his head, Scar-Hand was betrayed to the governor of Trinidad by his ship’s surgeon. Scar-Hand was hanged by order of Port-of-Spain’s Court of Vice-Admiralty on September 10, 1723. Although tortured repeatedly, he never divulged the location of his treasure, which, judging by the losses reported to Lloyd’s of London, probably totaled £30 million.”

Shaheed whispered in Jason’s ear. “That number’s unlikely. Scar-Hand’s share of the total would have been only half a million or so.” Still, she appeared fascinated by Elbert’s talk.

Elbert went on. “The location of Scar-Hand’s treasure has remained mysterious since 1723. Most recently, Dr. Melinda Shaheed has argued in the American Journal of Maritime Archeology that Scar-Hand threw his plunder overboard somewhere off Trinidad’s east shore while trying to evade capture, and that thesis has remained the most commonly accepted to date. However, I now have proof that Scar-Hand’s loot was not lost at sea, but is buried in Savannah, Georgia.”

Elbert turned to a new PowerPoint slide. “These are Scar-Hand’s bones, now preserved here in the University of Trinidad’s Museum of Archaeology. For the past eight months, I have been studying samples from the bones, using my latest breakthroughs in auric radiometric dating.”

Jason clenched his teeth. Jason himself had developed the latest auric radiometric methods, under his teacher Melinda Shaheed’s direction. It was so typical of Elbert to steal the credit for others’ work.

“. . . and thus,” Elbert was saying, “at the time of the subject’s death, calcified carbonates cease to accumulate around the gold microparticles imbedded in the bone. Therefore, I can determine, almost to the day, how many years before the subject’s death that he was in physical contact with a given quantity of gold. The calculations are fairly complex, but I have computerized the process.

Elbert clicked his remote and a new slide came up showing a series of equations. “In the case of Scar-Hand’s bones, the auric radiometric process reveals that he handled more than 10 kilograms of gold some time before his death. The exact figure is represented in the last equation on this line, y2+297y-900=0, where y is the number of years before the subject’s death that he last touched 10kg or more of gold at a time. From this equation, I can state categorically that Scar-Hand last handled his treasure horde exactly three years before his death – no more, no less. Scar-Hand parted with his gold on September 10, 1720.

“From there, it was a simple matter of research in the Georgia State Archives to prove that Scar-Hand was in Baylward’s Countinghouse in Savannah on September 10, 1720, hiding from royal agents. He must have spent the day burying his treasure beneath the floorboards of Baylward’s Countinghouse.”

Another click, another PowerPoint slide, this time showing a stock prospectus. “Gentlemen, this is the prospectus of the Elbert Prospecting Corporation. The corporate mission is to buy the property of the Savannah Regional Savings & Loan, which stands on the site of Baylward’s Countinghouse, and excavate for Scar-Hand’s plunder. Bidding for the initial stock offering of 100,000 shares will start at $10 per share. What are your questions?”

The audience all started talking at once, Elbert calling them by turns. Jason looked over at Dr. Shaheed. She was oblivious to him, intensely working the keypad of her palm computer. So he raised his hand himself. Only when the flow of questions from the investors and regents had stopped did Elbert call on him.

“Yes,” said the archaeology department head. “You, in the jeans and polo shirt.”

“Professor Elbert,” Jason said, “if you read that article by Dr. Shaheed you mentioned, then you know she went over the site of Baylward’s Countinghouse with metal detectors repeatedly. There was no metal found.”

Elbert shrugged. “It must have been buried too deep. Conventional metal detectors can only penetrate a few centimeters of loam per kilogram metal.”

Jason exhaled through gritted teeth. “Halford’s expedition excavated the site in 1954, before the savings and loan was built. That’s in Dr. Shaheed’s article too. Halford found no treasure.”

“Halford only excavated 36 square meters before his money ran out,” Elbert snapped. “The whole site covers more than 200 square meters. We will do it properly this time. In any case, the auric radiometric method has been tested and proven to a high level of precision. There is no possibility of error.”

Jason had no answer for that. The auric radiometric method was that precise. He knew that; he had developed and tested it himself.

He felt Dr. Shaheed’s hand on his arm. Her touch was gentle, but it sent fire racing through his bones. He looked over at her, and she shook her head at him slightly. Jason lapsed into silence, his heart sinking.

Fifteen minutes later, as Jason was leaving the lecture hall for his dorm, Dr. Shaheed ran up to him. She leaned close to his face, and as her eyes bored into his, he had to struggle to focus on the whisper she directed to his ears alone.

“Jason, meet me at the back door of the Archaeology Museum next Friday at 11:30 p.m., after you finish your marine lab practical. Bring scuba gear for yourself from the lab. Don’t forget the compass or the GPS, and don’t be late. Tell no one. Do you understand?”

Jason nodded. “What is this about?”

Shaheed shook her head. “Too risky to explain here. Just be there.”

* * *

Jason James felt rather silly as he lugged the haversack of scuba gear down the concrete steps to the back door of Trinidad University’s Archaeology Museum. He was going to feel even sillier if his teacher wasn’t there. He checked his palm computer. It was 11:28 pm. He reached for the back door, wondering if he should knock.

The door opened toward him when he touched it. From the darkness inside, he heard Melinda Shaheed’s whispered voice. “Who’s there?”

“It’s me, Jason.”

“Good. Come inside.”

Jason stepped through the doorway, and felt Shaheed’s hand guiding his arm. A flashlight flared into life, and Jason’s jaw dropped. Dr. Shaheed had a scuba tank and flotation jacket on her back, a face mask and snorkel pushed up onto her forehead, and a pair of swim fins tucked under her arm. Aside from that, she wore a bikini. And nothing else.

Shaheed smiled, obviously amused by the effect her body had on Jason. He blushed.

“This way,” she said. Jason followed his teacher through the darkened halls of the museum. In five minutes, they stood at the glass case in room 21A that held the bones of Captain Scar-Hand.

“Have you thought about what day it is today, Jason?” Shaheed asked. She was smiling, her eyes bright and mocking, her usual expression when trying to tease answers out of a bright but lazy student.

“Friday, September 9,” Jason said.

“Which is . . . “ Shaheed made a coaxing gesture.

Jason thought it over a moment, then it clicked. “Tomorrow is the anniversary of Captain Scar-Hand’s death.”

“You got it,” Shaheed said. “And you and I are about to be very rich. I could have kept all Scar-Hand’s treasure for myself, but since you did most of the work on the auric radiometry dating, I thought you deserved to share it with me.”

“You know where Scar-Hand’s gold is?” Jason’s breath was hushed with excitement.

Shaheed shrugged slightly, which made Jason struggle to tear his attention from the curve of her shoulders. “I soon will. Probably in the next hour or two. Before dawn, certainly.”

“How do you know?”

“Our beloved department head told me. He just didn’t know he had. The solution was right there on his silly PowerPoint slide.”

“He solved the equation wrong? The one calculating when Scar-Hand last touched the treasure?”

“Oh no, he solved it right. He just forgot that every quadratic equation has two possible answers.”

“Two answers . . .” Jason pulled his palm computer from his pocket and called up the equation he had entered on his notebook at Dr. Elbert’s lecture hall. He worked for a moment and looked up at Shaheed.

“I don’t understand,” he said. “Elbert’s answer is the only possible answer. Scar-Hand touched the gold three years before his death. The only other solution is negative three hundred.”

Shaheed dipped her head a little while keeping her eyes fixed on Jason. “Negative three hundred is the right answer.”

“What? How can Scar-Hand have last touched the gold negative three hundred years before his death?”

Shaheed didn’t say anything, just raised her eyebrows, as if she expected better than this from him.

Jason’s voice slowed down as he thought out loud. “It’s only possible if . . .” Chills ran down his spine. “Negative three hundred years before Scar-Hand’s death means three hundred years after his death.”

“Precisely,” Shaheed said, and looked at her palm computer. “Three hundred years after Scar-Hand’s death. September 10, 2023. Which comes . . .” she looked down at her palm computer, “. . . fourteen minutes and fifty-six seconds from now. I suggest you get your scuba gear on.”

It was the longest fourteen minutes and fifty-six seconds of Jason’s life. Scar-Hand’s time in the torture chamber, his time awaiting the gallows, could not possibly have seemed longer. It took forever to get his scuba gear on as he fumbled with the straps and buckles. But still worse was the waiting afterward. At every creak, every squeak of a mouse, he whirled around, his heart pounding. Shaheed stood as still and mute as a statue of Venus.

Finally, he heard, distant and muffled, the chime of Port-of-Spain’s old church tower ringing twelve o’clock. As the last chime faded, the bones of Scar-Hand moved. The greenish brown skeleton sat straight up with slow, inexorable power, shattering the glass that contained it. It climbed down to the floor, slowly, as if stiff after three hundred years of slumber. Without the least regard for the two humans in the room, it clacked out the archway into the next hall.

Wordlessly, Jason and Dr. Shaheed followed the spectral creature. The museum’s front door simply unlocked at a touch from the thing. It paused a moment on the outer steps, tilting its empty eye sockets toward the starry sky, then turned slightly and glided down across the deserted University campus. The teacher and her student lumbered behind, struggling to keep up with the apparition under the weight of their gear.

They had gone about a mile when they arrived at the dock. The creature walked to the end of the first pier and vanished into the water without a splash, still following a ruler-straight course. Jason and Shaheed hurriedly pulled their fins on and jumped into the water after it. They followd Scar-Hand’s skeleton from the surface, using their snorkels to conserve their oxygen tanks. The walking ghost did not float; it walked along the sandy bottom, and soon its pursuers were shadowing it from directly above, shining an underwater flashlight on it to keep it in sight.

By Jason’s GPS calculation, they swam out a mile, then a mile and a half, before Scar-Hand reached a depth too great for them to follow from the surface. Mouthing their regulators, Jason and Shaheed kicked down into the murky green water. Deeper and deeper they followed the walking skeleton, through the coral and the schools of fish .

And finally, as their air reached the 33% mark, Shaheed stopped and pointed. At the end of their flashlight’s probing finger of light, through the naked rib cage of Scar-hand’s skeleton, they saw the scattered forms of broken, rotting chests, and the faint gleam of gold.

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