A quarter-century after Leo Hendam had stepped into that crypt; Bill Merchant swung his Ford pickup onto the entrance drive to Fairhills cemetery. On her mobile, Jackie was relating to someone called Jim that they’d arrived and would see him momentarily. Under Jim’s tenure the graveyard had been well looked after. Bill knew his way around a garden better than most, but would gladly concede that whoever manicured these grounds proved him a novice. Flowerbeds and shrubs flourished everywhere as if in defiance of the omnipresence of death.
“What have you told this guy, Jackie?”
She was still fidgeting nervously with her hair. “Just follow my lead, Bill.”
The crematorium perched on the crest of the hill; a soothing cream sandstone structure, with a small memorial chapel. The chapel was separated from the main building by a path adorned with plaques and markers denoting the passed. Jim Buchanan stepped from the shade of the crematorium entrance. Jackie, although she’d only met him once, could see he was tired and greyer round the temples than she recalled and was decorating his face with glasses these days.
Bill’s parking brake grated out a ratchet sound and he placed a hand on Jackie’s knee. “It’s not too late to forget about this, Jackie, maybe I could help out with cash. I’ve got steady work these days…”
She raised her hand and put a finger to his lips. “You’re a good friend to me, Bill Merchant and I thank you for that.”
Jim, who had approached the car, opened Jackie’s door. She stepped out and greeted him with a kiss on the cheek. “Nice to see you again, Jacqueline,” Jim offered his hand to Bill who took it and Jim then placed his other hand over the top of Bill’s, clasping it between both his hands. It was a gesture of comfort which he’d offered to so many over the years that he now habitually shook hands in that fashion. Bill, his hand released, smiled and put it onto Jim’s shoulder. “So you were pals with Leo, Jim?”
“That’s right, Bill, we grew up together. Pretty much inseparable…right up till he moved to L.A.”
“When was the last time you saw Leo before he passed, Jim?”
Jim paused in contemplation and then said. “The last time I saw Leo, was in the summer of 1981.”
Jackie, still fiddling with her hair, said “1981, but he didn’t leave till eighty-four, Jim.”
Jim just smiled at her and nodded as he showed them through to his office in the crematorium. En route he stopped to check the oil level in a small red sanctuary lamp burning in an alcove in the sandstone. It was a perpetual-light which he had tended since childhood.
In the office Jim sat, hands clasped in his lap, steel rimmed spectacles hanging sagely from the bridge of his nose. “So, Jacqueline what’s all this about and please don’t give me that story about a lock of his hair to check if he’s the father of a groupie’s child? I know I come from a small town Jacqueline but in every small town at least two people have some smarts. Here in Santa Ana there’s me and Earl,” He pointed out a picture in a vast photo mosaic on his wall of an unshaven man wearing a Simpson’s T-shirt and holding a tiny fish aloft -- obviously proud of his catch. “What can I tell you? I lucked out.”
Jackie was caught completely off guard and as she fumbled the ball, Jim offered to fill in the gaps. “It’s the guitar isn’t it, Jacqueline, you want the guitar. I’ve tucked a lot of things in boxes with their owners over the years but never a damn guitar. You see I could’ve understood it if he was Egyptian and needed it for his journey to the afterlife but Leo was no more Egyptian than Bill here is Chinese.”
“It’s not the guitar, Jim…”
Jim stopped her in mid flow. “Jacqueline…I saw the guitar bag in the car door when I opened it for you.”
Defeated, Jackie looked at her feet and admitted. “It’s the guitar, Jim…” Swallowing her shame at her lies and at what now needed to be said. “I need to sell it, Jim…I’m losing the house…Leo would’ve wanted me to….”
Jim, feeling a bit ashamed at his lack of tact, a quality he prided himself on, took her hand across the table. “It’s ok, Jacqueline, I understand.” His posture, tone of voice and facial expression, were all honed to perfection; the man was a walking shrine to empathy. “Why don’t we walk down to the graveside together just now? It’s too early to exhume, there will still be visitors in the grounds.”
It was as if his words had banished gravity and Bill felt his shoulders drop like a large weight had been lifted. This guy ran the place and if anyone could help them do what needed done and avoid jail time, it was clearly Jim.
They stepped back into the California sunshine and followed Jim’s lead through a neighbourhood he knew all too well. There were no fallen headstones or overturned statues on his beat. He allowed himself a quiet smile as they passed the Dryden Crypt, so benign in the sunshine, with the grass so lush and green around its circumference.
As they walked, Bill felt Jackie’s grip on his arm tighten, her distress heightening with every tight step. She walked though, with her head high, through shadows thrown by leafless willow trees. The last and only time she’d been here, she wasn’t even sure if she’d loved the man she was burying. Now after her drug fuelled, soul searching trip she had emerged damaged yes, but rejoiced at the grief she felt for Leo. It was only in the years that followed that she realised what a large part of herself she had buried in that grave. She had loved him and mourned him in her own way. But always from a distance, never strong enough to visit his true final resting place. The guilt was carved in every feature of her once beautiful face that she had now come…for money.
When they had buried Leo there was only Jackie and Richard Jenkins, Leo’s manager at the ceremony. It was short and clinical and Jim had steered the proceedings as per Leo’s request, with no mention of God or the hereafter. Such a God-dry service was relatively rare as recently as six years ago but Jim found himself conducting more and more of these so called Humanist ceremonies these days. Leo’s casket was lowered and after a brief moment of silent reflection, Jackie and Richard walked to Richard’s car and were gone. No limousines for this burial, it was a discreet and secretive affair.
In contrast, his official ceremony at High Deans, had been attended by hundreds of friends and celebrities and each of the big three networks had a news van on location. Bill Merchant had worn a pair of borrowed shoes and his only suit, which had last seen daylight for his mother’s funeral. The streets had been lined along the cortege’s route by tearful fans; many of whom seemed so tormented you would have thought Leo had been a member of their immediate family. Jackie had never felt comfortable with the inordinate degree of devotion of her husband’s fans, but Bill had thought her oddly detached that day. Obviously, he assumed it was merely grief choosing its form in Jackie; Bill knew well enough that it can express itself differently in the bereaved. But now he could see, she was detached because -- Leo was not even there -- it was pure theatre.
They reached the brow of a small hill with a willow tree fronted by a row of six gravestones. Bill felt Jackie halt and her grip dictated that he do the same. She was staring at the third headstone from the left. Bill took her hand and led her the rest of the way, now knowing exactly where he was going.
From the crest of the hill, they could see beyond the willow to a breathtaking view of Lake Elsinore. The land basined downwards in almost perfect symmetry, like some giant green cocktail glass into which the lake had been poured. There was not even a ripple on its black surface and a white sail boat at the far shore was the only sign of man’s interference in this perfect picture. In the foreground, an osprey swooped up the lake, its shadow reflecting on the mirror surface. Then, it soared as if repelled by its own image, only to plummet, entering the water like a grey torpedo which teased almost no protest from its surface.
Bill wondered how anyone could ever willingly leave such a place. The lack of wind in this basin had forced the sail boat’s captain to engage his engine and its low drone carried on the crisp air and broke the spell, Bill attended again to Jim. He stood aside and Bill could see that the headstone read: Archibald Stanton Born 1946 Deceased 1996 Beloved Husband and Father.
“Is this what he asked for, Jim?” asked Jackie.
With a solemn nod he replied. “Exactly, Jacqueline.”
She had never seen the stone erected in the week following the burial. Looking at this foreign name on the polished stone, it held no resonance for Jackie and this only magnified her resurfacing grief; as if the marker’s lie robbed her of a hoped for link to Leo.
Bill could feel Jackie’s hand shake in his and placing an arm around her shoulder he asked. “So what do we do, Jim come back later and dig?”
Jim checked his watch. “Only another half-hour before I close the gates, Bill…then we can begin.”
Jackie asked for a moment alone at the graveside but before obliging, Jim guided her to the next one in the row marked: Unknown -- Left Here By Strangers Buried by the Friend Who Found Him 1981 May He Find Peace.
“Jim this isn’t it -- I remember it was this grave.” She pointed to the Stanton marker.
Jim nodded and placed a hand on her shoulder. “You’re right, Jacqueline but there was more to Leo’s requests than you or more importantly, Richard Jenkins knew.”
Jackie’s eyes saucered as Jim continued. “As part of his will, a letter from Leo was mailed to me detailing the requirements for the ceremony and with money to cover all costs. However Leo stressed that Richard be unaware of his final resting place and knew he would find a way of attending. So when you left, as per his instructions, I removed Leo’s casket and placed it in this grave with this marker.” He pointed to the Unknown stone. “I must tell you, Jacqueline, that two weeks after the burial…this grave,” He pointed at the Stanton marker. “Was re-opened and someone took great pains to hide that fact. Had I not been shall we say monitoring it, I would have missed the fact the lair had been disturbed at all.” Jim paused, considering Leo’s instructions and nodding in affirmation continued. “Leo, for whatever reason, knew exactly what he was doing and was proven right.”
This information made no sense to Jackie. Why would Richard Jenkins mess with the grave, he was richer than Leo? And for what, a stupid guitar? To him it was exactly that -- just a guitar. Jackie could appreciate the man trying to buy her husband’s most famous guitar because she knew the lengths and the scary means some fans would go to chasing a piece of their idol. But Jenkins was not a fan and he didn’t need money, it made no sense.
Jackie had never liked Richard Jenkins and she had often made that clear to Leo, who would always leap to his defence. He always painted him as a good manager who more than earned his cut. It was news to her that Leo never trusted him. Her own dislike originated from his part in taking her husband away for months at a time. It was not personal and she would have regarded anyone with that role with similar disdain.
In truth some part of her felt for Richard, as despite his riches he was crippled by a bone disorder. His malady was called Osteopenia, and it had eroded his right hip joint leaving him limping with a walking stick at a young age. Jackie felt her intuition had been proven right though after Leo’s death, as after the papers were signed she never heard a peep from Jenkins again. Although the reburial to dupe Jenkins made no sense to her, she could see that Jim was honest and thanked him.
“I still have the letter, Jacqueline; you were to be shown where he lay if you ever returned, but only in Richard’s absence. It was never his design to fool you, but I now know that he obviously had his reasons.” With that, Jim shepherded Bill from Jackie’s side and they left her finally, by the grave of her husband. It looked worse for wear and the grass that marked its boundaries was yellow and dried compared to the fecund green carpet that furnished the lairs on either side.
Jim strolled Bill through the manicured grounds.
“Why did Leo go to these lengths, Jim? I thought I knew him as well as anyone; I spent eight years with him on every continent. None of this makes sense to me.”
Jim frowned. “I can’t help with his reasons, Bill but maybe I can shed some light on his specifics. When we were kids we spent a lot of time in this graveyard. We played all the usual games kids play but cowboys was a favourite of Leo’s.”
“He loved those Spaghetti Westerns.” Bill confirmed.
“Exactly,” laughed Jim. “Leo was a big Clint Eastwood fan even then. Did you ever see The Good The Bad and The Ugly, Bill?”
“Who hasn’t, Jim, compulsory viewing for any male of the species. Can I say the word classic to you?”
“Do you remember where the climax of that film takes place, Bill?”
Bill looked up, accessing his database. “It’s a shootout in the town,” he said confidently.
“No, Bill…it’s in a graveyard.”
Pruning his chin Bill mused, as if suddenly aware of his surroundings. “So it is, Jim…you’re quite right.”
“And do you remember the name on the grave, Bill where the gold was buried?”
Bill raised his hands. “It’s been a few years, Jim, I mean I’m a Clint fan but Leo was the Clint fanatic.”
Jim smiled. “I know…I had to check myself, Bill…the name was Arch Stanton.”
Bill’s head spun to meet Jim’s eyes. “You’re kidding?”
“Nope…but the kicker was that Eli Wallach dug up that grave and sweated for nothing…because the treasure was in ...”
Bill raised his hand to his forehead and nodding, silenced Jim. “In the grave marked Unknown next to Arch Stanton.”
As if a lynch pin had fallen into place, finally at least one small part of this puzzle made some bizarre sense to Bill. “Now that sounds like the Leo I knew,” said Bill. “That’s his sense of humour right down.”
Less than an hour later, as they sat in his office, Jim explained that Jackie should not accompany them for the exhumation. “Jacqueline you have already managed the most difficult of things, to watch your husband be buried beneath the earth and face that finality. You have thrown your dirt on his casket, Jacqueline, to see it removed will only open old wounds further.”
Bill was liking Jim more and more in the two hours he’d known him and reassured Jackie that he was right. So after a final sweep of the grounds and a check that the visitors’ car park was empty, Jim locked the gates to Fairhills. They left Jackie in the office with Leo’s letter and a bottle of Jack to keep her company.
Bill’s leg pain -- which had calmed some in the car on the trip down -- had woken up angry again. It was often the simple act of changing posture that set it off. Frustrated, he limped to his truck and lifted his shovel, then noticed that Jim was walking not toward the grave but to a lockup adjacent to the crematorium. As he rolled up the steel shutters, their sharp grating sliced through the serenity that filled the grounds. Inside there waited a miniature JCB digger. Bill looked down at his shovel and feeling stupid let it drop to the ground “clang”
Jim laughed. “No, Bill, bring it, we’ll need it when we reach depth.”
At the graveside, Jim stopped. “Bill just for the record…I don’t do this often.” He shook his head, like an actor who’d fluffed a crucial line. It was clear this explanation was important to him. “Scratch that, Bill…I have never done this. The only exhumations I have overseen have involved the sensitive and dignified removal and re-internment of human remains in observation of doctrinal, legal and scientific requirements.”
Bill nodded slowly. “You lifted that straight out your code of practice…didn’t you, Jim.”
“I didn’t quite pull it off did I…but…hammy as it sounds, it’s true.”
Impaling his shovel in the earth adjacent to the grave Bill said. “I don’t doubt it, Jim but, why are you helping Jackie, you hardly know her?”
“I knew Leo, once, and, she’s right -- he would want me to help her. I’m sure he loved and trusted her. That much was obvious in his letter.”
Bill stepped aside for Jim to operate the digger and thought of Jim’s recount from The Good the Bad and the Ugly. The treasure is in the grave marked Unknown next to Arch Stanton. Jim manoeuvred the digger into position and with a controlled scoop, its blade sliced through the yellowed grass that hovered over Leo Hendam’s coffin.