Bill Merchant headed south out of Los Angeles to Point Fermin. His pickup hugged the coastline for a time before banking east to Santa Ana and continuing toward lake Elsinore. The loose shovel and pick rattled every now and then in the flatbed of his truck and punctuated the silence that had fallen between himself and Jackie; reminding them of their purpose. The California sun glinted off the lake’s mirror surface as they both inwardly struggled with what they were driving towards.
Leo had always loved the lake and, having grown up in Santa Ana, had spent every summer of his youth on its shore. He and Jackie had spent as many summer weeks there as they could crowbar between tours, recording and promo work. Within two years of his death, Jackie had sold the lakehouse it had been Leo’s boyhood dream to own, along with the speedboat moored at its jetty.
Fairhills cemetery was run by Jim Buchanan. A man who’d seen so much death, that he knew what life was really all about. The kind of man who would never ask his friends: what’s in it for me? His family had been charged with the graveyard’s care for five generations. Accordingly, he too had spent his youth on the shores of the lake, mostly in the company of his childhood best friend…Leo Hendam.
Despite not hearing from Leo since his family moved to L.A. when he was seventeen, there was never any question as to whether he would meet the requests in Leo’s will. As boys they had wandered the graveyard, reading the headstones and daring each other to enter the crypts alone. And so it was that one day Jim, Leo and Bernie, another pal of equal best friend standing, mulled through the marble laden grass of Fairhills in the summer of 1981.
The topic that day was whether Leo should dump his girlfriend of three weeks, Jane Ryan for one Vivienne Daniels who would it seemed, be far more willing to let his hand inside her bra having invested a full three weeks in her. By all accounts Vivienne would probably not be wearing a bra anyway, her friendliness to the opposite sex having cemented her nickname, merely her own initials, V.D. Bernie, being a man of the world, an ancient fourteen and a half years old and therefore six whole months older than Jim and Leo, was laying it on pretty thick in his best girlie voice “Leo you know you want me, you know you want V.D. come and get it, come and get VeeeeDeeee.”
Jim, in an effort to hide the fact he didn’t really know what V.D. was, laughed away at Bernie’s ribbing.
Leo shrugged it off smiling. “You guys are such pussies, just cause I got to beat them off with a shittie stick. By the way Bernie your mom doesn’t really sound like that.” Jim shrieked even louder as Bernie struggled to find a quick retort. They had just reached the Dryden Lair -- a definite no-go no-dare crypt -- which housed the corpses of the exposed corrupt chief of police Andrew Dryden and his wife Elizabeth.
It was a medium-sized black cube crypt that seemed to have been hewn from a single block of stone. Its odd seamless render would have been spooky enough even without its infamous occupants, but what made it worse was that despite Jim’s father’s best efforts, the grass immediately surrounding it was yellowed and brown in stark contrast to the well kept green lawns of every one of its neighbours.
Jim, being a font of knowledge of all things juicy in the cemetery, which was after all his backyard, had told them on more than one occasion who was buried here. Andrew Dryden was a one-man-show of why police needed to develop Internal Affairs departments. He was as dirty a cop as any department has ever known and having sprinted up the ladder from one plum job to the next, quickly outranked any colleague who might question his methods. He began with the simple enticements that small time criminals threw his way as a beat cop and soon learned it could pay well to look the other way. By the time he’d made lieutenant there was a regular flow of bribes running straight to his door. Early in the game though, he saw the limitations of hush money. Silence was only valuable if you knew the dirt and he was too damn lazy to go out and dig it up. So, Dryden recruited a few like minded officers and moved into the rent a cop business.
For a negotiable fee the organised crime families could get their own blue-light escort to and from meets, even rid themselves of their competitors. All they need do was pay more than the competitor and provide a where and when for a bust. Hell by the time he made chief half the collars his team made were at the behest of a paying customer.
He’d turned the police into whores and he was the pimp, but his hookers were high class and didn’t work cheap. Before long, his whole department was drowning in a river of dirty money. Those few honest cops, who tried to get to high ground and keep their feet dry, found themselves on shit-detail or worse. Not a few clean officers died, because Dryden sent them to a bad beat with no backup and a waiting crew supplied by one of his customers; the door swung both ways.
The bitch of it was he never got caught for a murder rap, or with his hand in the cookie jar. In the end after all the shit he’d wallowed in, he finally burned because his wife found out he’d been trading blow jobs for get-out-of-jail-free cards with whatever hookers he had in the cells each day. The oldest reason there is and hell had no fury, she stabbed him in the neck while he bathed. Rumour was he was cleaning that day’s whore’s lipstick off his dick at the time. In the note she left she never gave any details just called him out for cheating and wife beating, signed it then seen to her own self with a bottle of pills. The one blessing was they’d never had kids.
The inquiry was helmed by out of state cops because of the conflict of interest and as they trawled his personal accounts named and unnamed, they churned up a shit storm in their wake. One anomaly led to another and before they were through he’d been implicated in more crimes than he’d made busts in a thirty year career. The Elsinore Echo -- the local rag -- ran with the headline that the only thing they were relatively sure he hadn’t done was kill Kennedy and they couldn’t be certain of that.
The investigators ruled that Elizabeth, his wife, had killed him. But that was too neat for anyone who knew him. They couldn’t see past the death at the hands of someone he’d burned or tried to squeeze too hard, with his wife just a pawn to secure checkmate. The inquiry rolled on for months and more than one witness fell down an elevator shaft -- only to land on some bullets. Less cops burned than should have, but that’s life in the big city.
As any man playing both sides knows, death is always just one knock of the door away. He’d written a will. Ironically he left everything to his wife, but he made one request -- to be buried with his police badge; true blue to the end some would say. Accordingly the funeral director had placed it in his breast pocket. Needless to say, his coffin was not flag draped.
However, once in the crypt his brother in law, being the only true family the couple had, requested a moment alone before closing. He opened the coffin, took the badge from his pocket and threw it to the floor closing the lid with a bang and grinding the badge into the dust beneath his foot. He touched his sister’s coffin and walked out, spitting in the direction of the chief’s en route.
It would be thirty years later before anyone would enter that crypt, when a fourteen-year-old Leo Hendam, in response to goading from his pal Bernie, along the lines of “You’re the pussy V.D. boy” feigned his intention to enter. With no real plan of going anywhere, Leo pushed on the vault door, fully expecting it to protest and deny him entry. With one touch it gave, with only thirty years of dust and cobwebs offering any resistance . . . the lock was broken.
There was no creak from oil parched hinge; it merely moved inward, silently allowing the darkness within to greet the yellowed grass gathering at the threshold. Leo’s hand recoiled from the moving door as if it were a hot stove. Bernie, also spooked by the sudden access, tried to hide his shock by nervously laughing and deflecting onto Leo.
“Ha -- check the pussy now.”
Jim, although no stranger to mausoleums, was also visibly shaken. “Let’s go, guys I’ll need to tell dad.”
“Wait…why’s it open, Jim?”
Jim shrugged but thought to a conversation he’d overheard between his parents. His dad had been telling his mum how he’d moved on a vagrant who’d been sleeping rough in the grounds. Having filled in his buddies, Leo moved a cautious hand to the door. Inspection of the lock showed it had been prized and the bolt was jammed in the barrel. Leo pushed it open further and a triangle of daylight swept across the floor. All three boys were now at the threshold scanning the shadows of the chamber.
“Let’s go, guys.” Jim repeated.
But Leo had clocked that the now notably less cocky Bernie, had turned quite pale, so said. “Let’s see -- who’s the pussy now?” Raising his hands towards Bernie Frankenstein style, he said “Boo! -- I’ll go first.”
With that, Leo stepped inside, but, as he did so a cobweb brushed across his face. He panicked at its touch in the darkness and spun round, clumsily knocking into the door, which closed with a palpable click -- like a light switch turning off the sun. A tide of darkness swept over Leo as he fumbled for a non-existent door handle and in an instant he was every inch the fourteen-year-old boy again…he screamed. “Jim open the door…push it!”
Through the thick slab of mahogany he could hear a muffled reply straining through the wood as if from another continent. “It won’t move, Leo…the lock’s jammed shut.”
Then from farther still, he heard Bernie’s voice telling Jim to move. Then a dull thud on the door which gave him no new hope, it never gave even a millimetre to Bernie’s kick. Then, the words he dreaded came. “Leo…I need to go and get dad.”
“Don’t leave me in here, Jim.”
Then Bernie again, saying “I’m staying right here, Leo -- we’ll have this door opened in jig-time -- just talk to me.”
It was an empty reassurance and Leo felt terror and panic in equal measures crash over him. This wave subsided leaving only a tight knot in the pit of his stomach and an awareness that he was holding his breath. His hand slid down the cold door in quiet submission and realising Jim’s father’s help was inevitable he slowly turned his back to it and faced the chamber.
For an eternal few seconds Leo stood, eyes closed, inhaling a slow deep dusty breath. He followed it with a controlled, panic purging exhalation. Opening his eyes he realized his vision was improving; his iris dilating to squeeze the most out of the available 0.0001 foot candles of light trickling under the sepulchre door. Dark stone walls emerged from the blackness and he could now trace the shadowy outlines of the vault.
“Leo, Jim won’t be long…we’ll still make the movies and you still owe me a hotdog.”
They had planned to see the new release that night, some adventure film called Raiders of the Lost Ark. Ironically Indiana Jones would have been the very man to help in this situation.
Bernie’s voice seeped under the door again. “What time does the film start, Leo?”
Leo never answered, but instinctively checked the time on his Casio, depressing the light button 17:05, only then remembering that this light existed. His watch was the latest thing, something called digital technology. And its relative expense, along with the fact his birthday fell on the 18th of December, had meant it was a combined Christmas and birthday present.
He held in the light button and scoured the ground immediately at his feet. It illuminated a small pool of some half-foot circumference of floor space. Within its dim radius he could discern tiny fragments of gravel on the floor. He panned left and right, hand on watch, like Mr Spock scanning a planet’s surface. His Tricorder brought him no good news. Dust on all sides stepped up to meet his feet as a battery-powered pale dawn broke on his addidas kick sneakers. In the corner where he stood, he found a cigarette butt. It wasn’t yet coated in dust and Leo figured someone had stood there recently and had a smoke. But only one. Whoever it was -- most likely this vagrant -- they had not lingered long to shelter in this place, for whatever reason. Anyway, light or not, he wasn’t about to walk the perimeter of this chamber. Not because he didn’t know what he might find, but rather because he did.
“Leo -- what time does it start?”
“I don’t --” and somewhere between deciding whether to say know or care, he spotted a small bump on the dusty floor’s horizon. Seven foot away from the door’s safe harbour it lay, anomalous on the contour of the stone floor. Out of range of his watch light yet still discernable, perhaps less black than the blackness it lay in. As he strained to focus, Leo could have sworn he saw the subtlest glow emanate from it, like the embers from a lump of coal; inviting him to leave his harbour and investigate.
He depressed his watch light and took one step forwards, his foot tapping the floor in front, testing it like a blind man’s stick as if expecting quicksand. His back no longer comforted by the door’s touch, he immediately felt vulnerable to the darkness behind him as well as in front.
Had the object’s glow increased? It must be the watch light, yet still it seemed out of range. Another step, his light forcing the darkness to retreat. A stronger glow? The dark plays tricks on terrified kid’s minds. One more advance into the dark’s embrace and it was at his feet. Leo felt adrift in blackness that seemed to swirl around him, like a thing alive; the door felt a world away.
He bent down, illuminating the small mound and plucked his prize from its gravel bed. With a shake he liberated the leather wallet from its dusty coat. As he stood up, his light gave form to the shelf in front of him, on which lay the coffin of Andrew Dryden. He stumbled backwards, inviting the blackness to again lay its dark cloak upon this vision. With his back once again safely to the door, he opened the wallet with Bernie’s voice, which now seemed louder, in his ears.
“Leo -- are you ok?”
“I’m fine, Bernie…don’t worry about me.”
“Jim’ll be back any minute mate.”
“No rush, Bernie…it’s nice in here.” Surprised by his own bravado he smiled to himself as he removed the police badge. Even in the blackness he instinctively moved to the small piece of metal welded onto the rear of the badge; obviously a foreign object, which had no business there. In the darkness, Leo Hendam answered its long unheeded call and stroked it, fanning its flame . . . no longer afraid.