An Empty Grave...

Chapter 4: Cops!

"I spoke to Inspector Davis," she said, coming back from the hall where the phone was kept in what she referred to as the `telephone alcove,' "the one that was here before. He said they would come right away. I explained that you were badly injured and became tired quite easily so they must not keep you long." She smiled proudly at her little embellishment.

"Now don't forget," Les said, rehearsing the story we'd worked out while Mrs. Freeze was on the phone, "you came down to my place Wednesday afternoon. You--that is, David--was supposed to join us on Saturday morning and spend the weekend." This last was to show that we were all friends and the police wouldn't think perhaps Les and I--that is, Les and Rick--had some sort of relationship in which it would be advantageous for me to be put out of the way. It all sounded very flimsy but Les was sure the cops wouldn't actually care enough to look at it too closely.

He was right--on all counts. Inspector Davis and his sidekick Sergeant Wiley spent more time munching on the little pastries Mrs. Freeze put out--four kinds: two chocolate (one of which was the inspector's favorite and so was conspicuously bypassed by Sgt. Wiley), one lemon and one almond--than they did talking to me. There was one tense moment at the beginning when Inspector Davis turned to me and said, "Let's see now, you're David Duckworth, right?" but it turned out that he was merely confused as to who was dead.

Once my identity was established ("Jeeze, guy, you are a mess but yeah, I can pretty much see it's you on this license") and confirmed by Mrs. Freeze ("Of course I know him. Do you think I wouldn't recognize a man I've lived next door to for more than a year?"), they asked some general questions about threats and suspicious mail or phone calls. Both of them danced delicately around the subject of my relationship with David--Rick--until Mrs. Freeze excused herself to make a new pot of coffee. Then it came out fast and hard:

"You a queer too? I mean, you and this David guy fucked each other, right? Regularly?"

"We were lovers, yes."

"Thought so." He turned to the sergeant. "You can always tell, know what I mean?" Sergeant Wiley nodded, wrote something in his little spiral bound notebook and then helped himself to another one of Mrs. Freeze's lemon bars. Maybe it was a reward to himself for spelling `queer' correctly, I don't know. The inspector turned his attention back to me.

"So, you guys were getting along okay?" He lowered his voice, as though speaking confidentially. "I mean, there wasn't some pretty little queen making a play for one of you, making the other one jealous?"

"No. We were very happy." I gritted my teeth and tried to smile but it wasn't easy.

"He, the dead guy, he into any weird stuff? You know, like leather or tying people up or whatever? I mean, maybe this is some scene that got a little out of hand, okay? I mean, it's a Friday night, right? The guy's lonely or maybe he's just feeling horny what with his, uh, his boyfriend out of town. So he goes out and finds himself a little diversion, you know what I mean? Brings some guy home for something with just a little kink to it, huh? And it goes wrong. Not the first time we've seen stuff like..."

That did it! "Look, Inspector. David and I..." some little part of my brain was quietly amazed at how easily that rolled off my tongue. "David and I were very dull, very quiet, and very normal gay men. We went to work. We came home. We cooked dinner and we watched T.V. We worried about the mortgage payment, we bitched about the traffic and we argued about who to vote for. In short, Inspector, about the only thing we did that you and your wife don't do is read the Wall Street Journal and go to the opera once in a while. That's it. Okay?"

"Okay, okay. No need to get all touchy about it. I mean, Jesus, okay."

There were a few more questions about our relationship but they were cut short when Mrs. Freeze came back from the kitchen with the coffee. With her in the room the questions shifted to more polite ground.

The whole time the two men were questioning me Crash sat next to my chair, on guard and staring fixedly at them, her lips pulled back from her teeth just the slightest bit. This had the effect of making Sgt. Wiley very nervous and probably served to cut the interview shorter than it might otherwise have been. In any case, it wasn't long before they abandoned their coffee, scooped a discrete handful of cookies into their pockets and took their leave. They hadn't even bothered to talk to Les except to ask for his address. I guess they considered him just another superfluous queer. At any rate, the entire interview simply served to reinforce my earlier decision not to go to the police looking for protection. Les and Mrs. Freeze felt the same way.

Crash got half an almond cookie as recompense for guard duty and then the rest of us spent some time rehashing the interview. Final conclusion: David Duckworth was still dead, at least for the time being.

After a while Les suggested that if we were going to go next door we'd better get on with it. I was beginning to feel awfully tired but I agreed, knowing it was something I had to do, no matter how much I dreaded it. Crash, of course, bounded along, sensing some sort of adventure.

The front door was nailed shut so we went in through the garage which no one had bothered to lock.. Les helped me up the stairs to the kitchen; the smell of smoke was almost overpowering and made me sick to my stomach.

"Look, why don't you just sit down here and rest. I'll take a quick look around and make sure the place is secure."

"No, Les. I want to see..." I wasn't sure what.

The power had been shut off but Les had brought along a flashlight and we made our way carefully up to the second floor. The smell was much worse. The carpet was soaked and our feet made squishing sounds in the silence as we moved slowly down the hall. Crash began to whimper and then she sat, lifted her head and cried, a high, thin howl. She would not go to the bedroom door. I did and it was a terrible mistake. When the beam of the flashlight hit the charred remains of the bed I saw it all: Rick lying there, groggy with fever, someone suddenly bursting in, hacking him to death, covering him with his own blood. And then setting him on fire, burning what was left of him. It was so clear--like a movie that wouldn't stop, running over and over again in front of me.

Les caught me before I fell and half walked, half carried me back down the hall into the little study. He put me on the couch and then ran downstairs for water. When he got back I was crying, my head in my hands, welcoming the pain of my bruised face.

"This was a dumb idea, David. Dumb." He gently laid his hand on my shoulder and held the water out to me. "Come on. Let me do a couple of things and then let's get out of here." Crash came to me and crawled up into my lap. She was shaking and I felt her pain as much as my own. We stayed that way for a long time, holding on to each other, sharing our loss.

After a while I became aware of sounds, hammering and then, later, water running. Then Les's voice.

"Better?" He gently wiped my face with a cold cloth. "Think you can make it down the stairs?"

I nodded. "Sorry. It all just... I saw it all happen and..."

He pried Crash off of me and helped me up. "I know. Come on." Somehow he got us out of the house and into his car, then went to tell Mrs. Freeze that we were going back to Palm Springs. Crash sat close beside me, wanting to touch. I put my arm around her and held her close.

We rode in silence for quite a while, each of us lost in his thoughts. Then, when we got to Pomona, Les said, "Would you like some ice cream? I know a place here that makes their own and it's pretty good. Seems to me we could use some about now."

It did sound good. We were lucky and found a parking place right in front of the shop. Les went in and returned with double cones: chocolate and peppermint stick for me, mocha and butter-brickle for himself. Bless his heart, there was also a single vanilla kiddy cone for Crash.

I don't know what there is about ice cream, but it really does make you feel better sometimes. By the time the cones were gone I had my equilibrium back and Crash had decamped to the back seat so she could hang her head out the window until we got back on the freeway.

"Pretty rough on you back there wasn't it? We should have waited."

"No, I'm glad we went in. I... I'll be better next time. I guess it just got to me. I hadn't thought it out, what it'd be like." I watched the passing hills for a minute or two, lost in thought. "What were you doing? I thought I heard hammering."

"Oh, yeah. I boarded up a couple of doors with some plywood I found in the basement and nailed most of the first floor windows shut. Without power your alarm system won't work so I did what I could to make the place secure."

I laughed. "What's to steal?"

He turned and looked at me, his face serious. "Everything. David, there's hardly anything damaged on the first floor. Some water dripped down from upstairs but mostly everything's fine. Even on the second floor the damage was pretty much confined to the bedroom. No point in loosing it all."

I didn't care. I'd already made up my mind to sell what was left of the place. I could never live there again, not after what had happened. When this was all over--if it ever was--Crash and I would find another house. Thinking about living with Crash brought up another thought.

"Isn't Crash going to be a problem, Les?"

"How do you mean, a problem?"

"Well, won't your cat take some umbrage at having a sixty-five pound dog moving in on him? After all, it is his house."

Les laughed. "No, it won't be a problem and precisely because it is his house. Crash will have to live by Tux's rules, but I think it'll be okay."

We passed the rest of the time in silence, each of us lost in thought. At one point I wondered just what Les must be thinking about all this, but I didn't ask him. Maybe I didn't want to know. Maybe I was afraid to find out. At any rate we didn't talk about it.

An hour or so later we left the freeway and made the short run down to Palm Springs. When we turned in at Les's driveway we found a new steel post set in place of the stone gate post I had smashed into. Les got out and inspected it, testing its strength. Then he went to the other post, the one I'd left standing, and punched a code into the little keypad hidden among the stones. The gate opened without a sound.

"Fast work," I said as Les got back in the car. "How'd you manage that?"

"Oh, I called Eric this morning. Asked him to take a look at it."


"Yeah. Guy who does odd jobs around the place. You'll meet him. Nice, works hard and really understands mechanical stuff."

We drove up to the house and into the garage. Les helped me out of the car and handed me my crutches. When he opened the door to the house Crash pushed past him and bounded in, just like she owned the place. I followed as best I could, fearful for Tux. Crash had never really met a cat except to chase one or two out of our back yard and I wasn't sure just how she was going to react to one who actually owned the house where she was going to stay. I needn't have worried. Tux could take care of himself.

In the kitchen Crash was pacing around in front of the sink, obviously thirsty. Les pulled a large bowl out of a cabinet, filled it with water and put it down on the floor by the door. Crash attacked it in her normal exuberant manner, slurping and splashing water everywhere. Les watched for a moment and then pulled a dish towel from one of the drawers. "We'll get a better mat tomorrow," he said, putting the towel under the bowl. "I will say though, cats are a lot neater in the drink department."

"Where is the cat?" I propped myself up against one of the kitchen stools.

Les shrugged. "Somewhere. Assessing the situation. Plotting. Don't worry, David. It'll be fine." He looked at his watch. "Later than I thought. You hungry?" He looked me over critically. "Maybe not. Looks like you need a pain pill more than anything."

I nodded. I'd begun to come down from the tension of the afternoon and everything had started to hurt again. I was exhausted, too, I guess. Every movement seemed to involve more effort than I seemed to have in me.

I washed down one of the little yellow pills Les gave me and then he got me into bed before things got too hazy. Crash jumped up and settled herself next to me, her paw thrown over my chest. Seven hundred dollar quilt be damned, she was not leaving me.

The next thing I clearly remember is sunlight: a bright band of it splashed over the foot of the bed, so bright I couldn't look at it. I closed my eyes and let myself drift for a while in that half sleep where it's hard to tell reality from dreams. After a time something began to get through to me but I couldn't decide what it was. I sorted out the various sounds in the room: Crash's breathing, a bird calling outside, the sound of the wind in the palm trees. None of those. It was almost like I was being... watched.

I was.

Across the room, sitting on top of the chest-on-chest, absolutely still, was the biggest black and white cat I had ever seen. Its eyes were large, even for a cat, and a luminous, almost incandescent, yellow-green. It was staring at me as though I were some sort of curious creature found near a rotted log. This had to be Tux.

I stared back, playing that who blinks first game. Tux won. His stillness was unnerving; except for a slow twitching at the very end of his tail nothing moved, I couldn't even see him breathe. He merely sat and contemplated us.

Crash must have felt the heat of those eyes on her, too because she woke, stretched and then wrinkled her nose, testing the air. I tensed, wondering what she would do when she saw him. She pulled herself up, gave me a little kiss on the hand and began idly scratching her belly. She stretched again, looking directly at the chest-on-chest and then jumped down from the bed and wandered out into the hall. Evidentially she hadn't seen him--or perhaps she thought he was just some sort of very realistic figurine. In any case she gave no indication of knowing Tux even existed.

I could see why Les called him Tux. He was brilliant white on his face, neck and half way down his belly. The rest, except for the tips of his front paws, was absolute, middle-of-the-night black. There was also a black marking on his neck which looked for all the world like a bow tie. If he'd had a cane and a top hat he could have starred in any number of 1930's movies.

Tired of the contemplation game, Tux negligently licked one paw and then jumped to the floor by way of the wing chair and, without a backward glance, walked elegantly out of the room. I turned on my side and went back to sleep.

The next thing I knew Crash was licking my face and Les was standing over me. "Good morning," he said when I opened my eyes. "She," he scratched Crash's ears, "was afraid you were never going to wake up."

"Why? What time is it?" I looked at the digital clock on the bed side table. Nine-thirty? Couldn't be, could it? Les read my mind.

"Nine-thirty it is. We working guys have been up for hours, hunched over a hot keyboard. You hungry yet?"

I was. It occurred to me that I hadn't had anything to eat except an ice cream cone since leaving Mrs. Freeze's. I felt a sudden hot pang of guilt: neither had Crash. Great master I was.

Les helped me out of bed but I made it into the bathroom on my own--well, with a little help from the crutches and Les still had to dress me because I couldn't bend much and couldn't stretch at all. It struck me that I wasn't in the least uncomfortable about being naked around Les. Odd, considering. I put it out of my mind.

We went to the kitchen, Crash trotting along ahead, just like she owned the place. "Oh, I guess I met Tux," I said. "At least I saw him; we didn't have much in the way of conversation."

Les chuckled and took a pitcher of orange juice from the refrigerator. "Crash met him too. Last night after you'd gone to sleep."

"Uh oh. Bad?"

"Mild scuffle. Tux won of course. He has both a weight and an age advantage. Being able to climb to the top of the book case didn't hurt either." He poured juice. "They made their peace."

That explained this morning when Crash seemed not to notice Tux on top of the chest-on-chest. She'd decided to ignore him, pretend he didn't exist. She does that sometimes with things best left alone--like the time she chewed up Rick's new sweatshirt. It lay on the bedroom floor for three days, as a reminder. In all that time, while she gave it wide birth, she never once acknowledged its existence. She never chewed up another sweatshirt either.

"Scrambled eggs and bacon okay?" I nodded. "You would have had leftover chicken and rice except Crash ate it for her breakfast."

The eggs and bacon really hit the spot. When we finished Les made up a shopping list--including a bag of proper food for Crash--settled me on a lounge chair in the shade on the back deck by the pool and went off to do some shopping.

I tried to read the paper but just couldn't get excited about the latest City Hall soap opera or the inane things going on in Washington. The air was warm, almost silent except for some far away traffic sounds, and the scent of citrus blossoms was strong. I guess it took me all of five or ten minutes to doze off.

"Well, well, Mr. Wallace. Up and about. Good for you." I jerked awake, startled by the feminine voice.

"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to startle you." She helped me sit up and then held out her hand. "I'm Dr. Langford."

Dr. Langford is what is known in straight adolescent locker rooms as a Major Babe. She's tall, slender and very well built. Her face is oval with wide set eyes, a slightly upturned nose and a mouth that looks like it likes smiling. She has long silky blond hair--real blond--and very pale blue eyes, like the color of those glass insulators you sometimes find along the road where they've repaired the power lines. If she was wearing make up I couldn't tell it but I sure could tell that the jeans and silk blouse she was wearing hadn't come from any bargain basement or discount store. The blouse, by the way, exactly matched the color of her eyes. This woman definitely had it together.

"Hi. Les went to the store but he'll be back pretty soon."

"Oh, that's okay. It's you I came to see. And who is this?" She knelt and scratched Crash's ears, earning a wet kiss for her trouble. She didn't flinch which made both of us like her all the more. "What a handsome dog." She looked up at me. "What's her name?"

"Crash. We went down yesterday and..."

She stood, shading her eyes against the sun. "I know. Les was very proud of himself for finding her." She laughed, a low, throaty sound, full of enjoyment. "I'm not entirely clear as to just how he does it, but I swear he could make those computers give up the secrets of the universe if he set himself to it. And of course, if he wanted to know the secrets of the universe." She pulled up a chair and sat next to me. "Now, let's see how you're doing."

Les drove up in the middle of the examination. He tossed the doctor a quick greeting, carried grocery bags into the kitchen and then went back to the car for more. By the time he had it all inside Dr. Langford had finished with my head and chest. She asked Les to help me back inside and get me out of the sweat pants I was wearing so she could go over the rest of me. "And give him a pair of shorts, will you Les? I don't know him as well as I do you." Les laughed but it looked to me like he blushed a little, too.

When the exam was finished, my bandages were changed and I was pronounced recovering even better than expected, Les helped me dress again and then suggested perhaps it wasn't too early in the day for a glass of wine.

"Oh, wait. Don't open anything," Dr. Langford said. "I've got something out in the car. We're not going to release it for a couple more weeks yet but somehow a couple of stray cases found their way down here." She laughed and went out to her car to get it.

"This will probably turn out to be the best wine you've ever tasted," Les said. "She just happens to be a major investor in Beckner Vineyards." I guess I looked blank because Les began to chuckle. "Beckner Vineyards is just about the hottest new winery in Northern California. They grow the best grapes in Sonoma County and have the best and most sought after young vintner in the state. They make the absolute best Merlot in the state and have a room full of gold medals to prove it. Before any new wine is released they always send a couple of cases down to Susan. It pays to keep their investors happy."

Les went to get some glasses while I made my way out to the deck, all by myself. Susan was just coming up the stairs with two bottles of wine and a long, thin loaf of bread. "You're doing pretty well on those crutches but you've got to be very careful. I don't want you to damage those swollen glands in your arm pits any more than they're already damaged." She helped me into a chair at the umbrella table.

Les came out with the glasses and a corkscrew. When he saw the bread he went back inside and returned with some cheese and sliced salami on a tray. "Looks like lunch, doesn't it?" he said, handing Susan the corkscrew.

It was good wine. Cool and dark and gentle in the mouth. I liked it a lot.

Dr. Langford, who had become Susan by this time, asked about our trip up to Los Angeles and Les tried to describe Mrs. Freeze's living room to her. I don't think she entirely believed him.

After twenty minutes or so of conversation she cocked her head and looked at me. "Uh, have I missed something here? How come he keeps calling you David?"

I looked over at Les but he just shrugged. "What can I tell you," he said, "I've never been much good at cloak and dagger stuff. Besides, she's probably not the one out to get you anyway. Here, wait a second." He got up and went into the house.

Susan made a tiny sandwich from the salami and cheese while we waited. I sipped at my wine and watched Crash drinking from the pool.

"Here we are." Les handed Susan the newspaper, folded back to the story of my--Rick's--murder. "If you read this first it'll save a lot of time."

She skimmed the article and then went back and read it more carefully. When she was finished she looked at me for a moment and then said, "So you must be David..." she consulted the paper, "Duckworth. And Richard Wallace? He's the roommate who's been away for several days?"

I nodded. "But he wasn't. Away I mean. He was home, in bed with the flu. Only someone thought he was me and..."

"Why do you say that? Why not someone out to kill him?"

"The stuff painted on the walls. My name..."

Les leaned across the table. "Slashed circles with `Fag David' written in them. I saw them. No mistake."

"Fag David. Yes, I see. `A simple hate crime.'" She shook her head. "Doesn't sound like it to me. And a jeweled knife? Jesus." She was silent for a moment. "You and Richard were lovers?"

I nodded. "Only a little over a year but..."

She put her hand over mine. "Maybe so but it's still the shits."

I choked up a bit when she said that. Crash sensed my distress and left off staring at the salami tray to come to me and lay her head in my lap. It helped. A lot.

"Here's today's," Les said, opening another paper and handing it to Susan. "You haven't seen it either, David but it seems that Mrs. Freeze has some sort of pipeline to the Times."

Susan finished reading and silently handed me the paper. The story was on page nine this time:



Police still have no leads in what they are still characterizing as the cult murder of David Duckworth in his home last Friday night. Mr. Duckworth's roommate Richard Wallace has been interviewed by police but, according to Inspector Clyde Davis who is heading the investigation, shed no new light on the case.

"These cult things are always difficult," Inspector Davis told this reporter, "but we usually get them in the end. It just takes time."


When I finished Susan poured a bit more wine in my glass. "You have to take it easy on this stuff but I guess a little more won't hurt." She refilled Les's glass, then her own. "You have any idea..."

"Not a clue. I've thought and thought about it--well, at least I've tried to. Those little yellow pills of yours don't always leave much room for thinking."

"That's okay," Les chimed in. "What you need now is a lot of rest and healing. The thinking can come later when you're back on your feet."

"I suppose," I said and then something struck me. "Susan, where's Rick's body? What'll happen to it?"

"Right now I suppose it's in the morgue. If no one claims it it'll be cremated and..." She stopped and thought for a minute. "The paper said you have no relatives, right? But what about him? Won't someone be wondering about him?"

I shook my head. It wasn't strictly true that he had no family but I wasn't up to trying to explain about Rick just then. "Can I claim him?"

Susan shrugged. "I don't know. You're not legally related I guess but... Hmm. Want me to find out?"

"Would you? Please?"

"Sure. I think I still have some friends up there. What are you... No. Never mind. Let's see what I can find out first."

We talked a little more, but pretty quickly the sun and the little bit of wine I'd drunk began to take their toll on me and my eyes didn't seem to want to stay open. I guess I dozed off because the next thing I knew Susan was gone and Les was helping me into a lounge chair under an umbrella. When I was settled he left me to nap and went inside to work in his study.


Comments always appreciated and always answered.

Greg Bowden