Author's note: I want to thank my writing buddy Jim Smith for his proofreading talents! How he found all that stuff I'll never know but Thanks Jim!



An Empty Grave...

Chapter 1: Fire!

No matter how it might have looked, I was not trying to commit suicide the night I smashed Rick's truck into that stone gate post at the end of Les's driveway. I mean, what the hell, I was already dead so what would be the point? Besides that, it made something of a mess out of a perfectly handsome stone gate post. That was Friday, the fifteenth of April--well, actually Saturday, the sixteenth when you consider that I hit the thing at four thirty in the morning--at the end of what was probably the worst night of my life.

Before you decide I'm some sort of drunk or irresponsible nut, let me go back a bit and give you some background. My name is David Duckworth and I'm thirty five years old, reasonably bright (at least the University of Arizona thought so when they gave me an MBA) and, at the time at least, holder of a very responsible job with the well known brokerage house of Frederick & Company in Los Angeles. Before that I'd spent nine years working for The Biggest Bank In The World (it isn't really, of course, but that's the way it thinks of itself--and with all the words capitalized, too). So you can see I'm really a very stable and responsible guy. I vote in every election, I give to charity, I don't drink too much and I don't do drugs at all (I agree with Cher who said, "Life is complicated. I can't do drugs and life at the same time.").

Back to Friday, April fifteenth. My partner Rick (yeah, that kind) and I had tickets to see Tosca at the Los Angeles Opera. We were especially looking forward to the performance because it had Ruth Ann Swenson singing Tosca and Johan Botha playing the Baron Scarpia. I'd loved that opera since I'd first heard it back in Tucson; this time, though, I should have stayed home.

To begin with, I'd had a miserable day at the office, with C. Weston Hollingsworth, my operations co-director, making more than his usual number of stupid decisions and then getting sulky when I pointed out their consequences. I suppose I should have been more tolerant of C. Weston, but the man didn't have a clue as to how to run a brokerage operation. The only reason he got hired to run operations in the first place was his daddy's position on the board of directors and the fact that he'd proved himself too dumb to be a stockbroker. You don't put a man like C. Weston Hollingsworth in charge of other people's money. Not unless you really enjoy lawsuits.

When operations had been run so far into the ground that even the guys at the top had to recognize it, I was brought in to fix things and, incidentally, to keep C. Weston under control. Thus it was that Frederick & Co. had co-Directors of Operations. I should have known better, but the money--and the challenge--were just too good to pass up.

Anyway, the day was not my best one, and then, just as I was leaving for home, it began to rain and, as everyone knows, there isn't a person alive in Greater Los Angeles who has a clue about driving in the rain. Thank God it doesn't snow here or the place would come to a complete halt--except of course for the bars and the trendy restaurants which are always crowded, rain, smog or clear skies.

Traffic was a nightmare and the freeway was a parking lot ten cars wide all the way to Hollywood but opened up a bit after we hit Santa Monica Boulevard. Does this mean that the folks who live further out in, say, the San Fernando Valley are somehow better drivers? I doubt it.

When I finally made it home, Rick's truck was parked at the curb so I pulled into the garage figuring we'd put the truck away when we came home from the opera. The house is one of those older Los Angeles hillside houses with a garage so narrow you have to park in tandem so it's always last in, first out. Since Rick's current assignment required him to leave the house at five a.m., he got the first out position.

I knew something was wrong as soon as I got upstairs into the house; the stereo was off and there was no Crash, throwing herself at me with complete abandon and little regard for my suit, my balance or anything I might have in my arms. Crash is a sixty-five pound Airedale and is very enthusiastic about people coming home.

I put my briefcase and keys on the counter and went upstairs wondering if Crash had conned Rick into taking her for a walk. Walks are very big in Crash's life, rain or no rain. But it turned out that it wasn't a walk they were having, it was a nap, Crash's second most favorite way to spend an afternoon.

The afternoon light was fading fast and it was dim in the bedroom. Even so I could see that Rick's skin was flushed. He appeared to be sound asleep until Crash jumped up, tail wagging, pleased to see me home. I scratched her behind the ears and accepted wet kisses to the cheek while Rick slowly opened his eyes and sat up.

"Hi." Rick's voice sounded like Tallulah Bankhead on an especially bad day. He didn't look much better, either. I touched his cheek and found it hot and dry, like a newspaper left out in the sun too long.

"Hi. How do you feel?"

"Lousy, thank you." He laid back against the pillows and sighed. "I think I'm sick."

He was. The new digital thermometer confirmed a temperature of 103 degrees and two aspirins with a glass of orange juice confirmed that he wasn't going to keep anything down for a while. Damn! At least he didn't want me to stay around and play Florence Nightingale to his Camille--he knew how much I'd been looking forward to seeing the opera.

I cleaned up the bathroom, gave him a sponge bath and alcohol rub and settled him back in bed. Then I gave Crash a bad case of approach–approach conflict by going down to the kitchen; she couldn't decide whether to stay and comfort Rick or follow me and see what was for dinner. Her stomach--along with a desire to be with someone conscious, I suspect--won out. She shook her head and bounded down the stairs with me.

I poured myself a glass of white wine and sipped at it while I watched the Channel Four News and tossed salted peanuts in the air for Crash. She loves to show off by catching them but will only do it with cocktail peanuts--you know, the kind roasted with oil and salted; try it with one of the dry roasted kind and she'll spit it out and then won't play anymore. Crash is a creature of clear cut--and rigid--tastes.

The news was depressing as always and I paid more attention to Crash than I did to the starry eyed news casters (why do those people always look so affable?) until they brought on a story about the effects of the rain on the evening commute. After the usual pictures of traffic backed up for miles trying to get onto one or another of the freeways they switched, live, to a reporter standing on an overpass above the Hollywood Freeway which looked like some bizarre used car lot where the salesmen had turned on all the headlights and windshield wipers in some insane winter sales pitch. The story caught my attention because the only way I know how to get to the Dorothy Chandler Theater is on that freeway. Oh, I know there are lots of alternate routes and surface streets I could have taken but for as long as I had lived in Los Angeles I'd never really taken the time to explore alternate routes to anywhere. Hell, I was lucky to know any routes to anywhere.

I ran upstairs, took a quick shower and got into some fresh clothes. Rick woke and squinted at the clock radio.

"You leaving so soon?"

"Traffic's a real mess out there. Creep and stop, creep and stop. And fender benders everywhere. I'll probably be late as it is."

He sat up a little. "Then you'd better take my truck. It's smaller than that thing of yours and another ding or two will only give it more character." He managed a weak smile. "And give my ticket to any sweet young thing you happen to find wandering around the lobby."

"Sure, Rick. I'll do just that. Speaking of which, where are the tickets?"

He nodded at the dresser. "In my wallet. Take the whole thing and let me buy you a drink during intermission."

I patted him on the cheek which was still very hot and dry. "Sure I can't get you anything? Chicken soup? OJ?" He made a face and shook his head.

"Just send Crash up to comfort me, that's all." He slipped back down in the bed and was asleep almost instantly. I grabbed his wallet and keys and went downstairs where I found Crash just finishing her supper.

I gave her ears a quick scratch. "Gotta go. You stay, take care of Rick."

If only she could have.

I actually did make it to the theatre on time but just barely. There wasn't even time for a quick drink before the start but I did manage to give Rick's ticket away--to a sixty-seven year old woman who had arrived a day early to visit her son and daughter-in-law. Bill, the son, had come to the theatre fully prepared to spend his evening in the bar and let his mother and wife have the seats. Bill was insistent about paying for the ticket but that seemed kind of silly to me since, as I told him, the ticket was essentially worthless; they don't give refunds at the opera. We compromised with an intermission drink.

The whole production was fantastic. Ms. Swenson was in fine voice and Mr. Botha turned out to be a better actor than I expected. Even the orchestra seemed to know they were giving one of their best performances in a long time. The only bad part was that Rick wasn't there with me. He'd never seen Tosca and he would have loved it.

After the show Bill, his wife and his mother invited me to join them for a late supper but I declined. I wanted to get home to Rick.

The rain had stopped by the time the performance was over and a few stars were beginning to show in the sky. Traffic had thinned out and was moving nicely, even past the interchange, so it took about a third the time to get home that it had taken to get to the Music Center. When I made the turn onto my street, La Presa, there were a couple of cops turning away traffic.

"Can't go up there," one of them said as I rolled down the window. "Fire engines blocking the street. Have to go around." He gestured in a wide circle.

My house was just up the block so I let the truck roll back down the hill and around the corner where I found a place at the curb for it. As I got out I had a sudden sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. What if...

I dashed around the corner and made it up the street half a block before my nightmare became real. There were three fire engines and six or seven police cars in the street centered on the front of my house and there was a guy wearing one of those yellow rubber suits with an air bottle on the back coming out my front door. My first impulse was to run, screaming, at the fireman and demand to know what was going on but something held me back, something that, to this day, I can't explain, no matter how much I think about it. Whatever it was, it kept me rooted to the sidewalk just down from my house, in front of old Mrs. Freeze's place.

I looked around and saw a young guy who was writing in a small spiral notebook, like he was taking notes or something. I went over to him and asked if he knew what had happened.

"House fire," he said, "third house down there." He pointed to be sure I got the right house. It was mine, the one with the front door hacked open and the water running down the porch steps. He turned and looked at me. "You live around here?"

That something stopped me again. "Uh, no. I was just driving by and stopped to see what all the excitement was about." He looked disappointed. "You a reporter or something?"

"Yeah, the Times. Guy Davis, cub reporter." He laughed at the description but that only served to underline his distaste for it. "Doin' the same thing as you, only I got it on my scanner. Always keep the thing on; you never know..."

"Bad fire?" I tried to keep my voice even.

"Not really. Only really burned a room or two from what I could see walkin' up to the corner." He put his hand on my shoulder. "Hang on a sec, I think I see someone I know."

The reporter waved at one of the firemen who waved back and then came down the sidewalk toward us, lighting a cigarette. "Hey, Guy. You got a sudden thing for fires or something? Or have they assigned you permanently to the fire desk down at the paper?" He laughed, blowing out a plume of white smoke.

"Neither. I was on my way home and picked up the call." He gestured at the knot of police cars. "Why all the cops?"

The fireman took another deep drag on his cigarette and blew the smoke out through his nose making himself look like an angelic dragon. "Looks like the fire was some sort of cult thing and you know how the cops are with that. Jesus, what a mess in there." He gave a little shudder, took a final drag on this cigarette and then ground it out on the sidewalk. Some small part of my brain suddenly formed a picture of old Mrs. Freeze sweeping that sidewalk and silently cursing the clod who had had the nerve to put out a cigarette in front of her house. I thought maybe I was beginning to crack up. Guy pricked up his ears and licked his pencil. No, really, he did. Why do I remember stuff like this?

"What sort of mess? Blood and bodies all over like that one out in West Hollywood last year?"

"Naw, nothing like that. This one's spray paint. You believe that? Spray paint. Red. All over the house, big circles with a bar across them, you know? Like those no parking signs. Only instead of a 'P' in the center they've written 'FAG DAVID'."

"So what makes them think cult? Sounds more like some anti-gay thing."

The fireman lit another cigarette. "That's what I think too but what the hell, what does a simple-assed fireman know? Now cops, they know everything. Or so they tell me, anyway. I did hear that they found some sort of jeweled dagger up in the bedroom. Big one. God, I hope they killed the poor son-of-a-bitch with it first. Burning's not a pleasant way to die."

My knees went weak and I thought for a moment I was going to pass out, right there on Mrs. Freeze's sidewalk. She'd hate it if I bled all over her clean concrete, I know she would.

"You okay, fella?" The fireman took hold of my arm and steadied me.

I tried to pull myself together. "Yeah. Sorry. Cramp in the leg. Someone's dead in there?"

"Guy who lived there, I guess." He let go of my arm and brushed the hair back from his forehead, leaving a streak of soot just above his eyes. I thought it added nicely to the dragon effect. God, I really was cracking up. "Not much left of him; the bed he was in had been soaked with gasoline or something and then someone tossed a lighted match on it. Probably went up like a volcano." I had a sudden, almost uncontrollable urge to throw up. Guy, the reporter, was taking notes.

"You see this jeweled dagger you mentioned? Could the burning be part of some ritual do you think?" Guy asked.

The fireman just shrugged his shoulders and took another drag on his cigarette. "Didn't see the thing myself. After I found what was left of that poor slob in the bed I had to get out. Ugly sight."

It finally sank in: Rick. That was Rick he was talking about. The poor slob in the bed, burned to death, was Rick! I turned and walked away, back down the street and around the corner to Rick's truck. I unlocked the door, got in, started the engine and drove off. Just like that. I just drove away from my lover, my house, my street, everything. Then things get kind of hazy. I think I drove around for a while and I know I stopped somewhere and drank a lot of coffee. I remember going to the rest room there.

Standing at the urinal, letting myself go, it all came to me with a sudden clarity. Rick was dead. We'd only been together a year and two months, but I loved that man and now he was gone and he'd never come back. I think I started to cry and then my stomach rebelled and I began to retch. All that coffee came up, black and horrible, stinking like everything inside me had rotted.

Later I was in Pasadena somehow. I know I was there because I found a gas receipt in my wallet--Rick's wallet. I must have cleaned myself up there; at least I have no recollection of that sick smell after that.

I drove aimlessly for a while and then decided I had to go to Palm Springs, to a little resort place where Rick and I had stayed just after we'd gotten together. It was in June and we'd driven down in the new BMW, burning our faces with the top down but not caring. When you had a brand new convertible you certainly couldn't drive around Palm Springs except with the top down.

 We'd stayed at a place we'd seen advertised in The Advocate. The place turned out to be even better than the advertisement, with big rooms that were bright and airy. Ours had a king sized bed, a shower we could easily fit into together, and a view of the mountains. The place was clothing optional which made us a little self conscious at first but it didn't take us long to feel very comfortable sunning in the buff along with all the other guys.

We had dinner at a place called Plum with another couple from the resort and then went back and made love under the stars on our private little patio. Afterwards we went for a swim and then slept, curled together in the king sized bed. We had never felt as close and as peaceful as we did that night.

So I headed for Guys Inn, sure I would find--what? Rick's spirit? A time past? I didn't know but it seemed somehow urgent that I go there.

I drove into the parking lot and found the whole place dark. Just looking at the place I knew it was empty. When I finally spotted the For Sale sign I knew that it, too, had been abandoned. I sat under a palm tree and cried for a long time.

I guess I just drove around after that. I found myself out in the desert for a while and then I was someplace with big houses and high walls. It was there, along that road that I guess I fell asleep and smashed up Les's stone gate post, Rick's truck and a good bit of my left leg.

The next thing I remember with any clarity is waking up on a hard, cold table with a lot of lights shining down on me, so bright I couldn't open my eyes. A brief mental inventory of my body told me that I hurt everywhere except for my left leg which didn't seem to exist anymore. I think I tried to say something--probably something profound like "Where am I?"--but I can't be sure. I do have some hazy impressions of hearing voices and then there were a lot of really weird things which must have been dreams brought on by whatever it was they gave me to keep me quiet. I mean, it's not reasonable to believe that I actually flew through Hell hanging on to Christopher Reeve in his Superman costume is it?