by Christopher J. Lynch
This story is also available on Amazon.
In the high desert above Barstow, California. Present day.
The 1998 Oldsmobile struggled anemically over the pockmarked dirt road, its aged frame and body parts protesting noisily with every dip and gully. Ahead, they could see a swatch of desert open up as the headlights cut through the darkness. Behind, the red taillights cast an otherworldly glow in the dust trail the tires kicked up.
“You sure it’s this way?” Frank asked.
Leroy turned and shot him a look. Even in the darkness of the car, Frank could see how four decades of incarceration had hardened him.
“I know where I’m going,” he said flatly.
It had been a much longer trip than anticipated. First, a tire had blown fifteen minutes out of LA and the spare had barely got them to a discount tire store. A hundred dollars later they were on their way, only to overheat twice going over the Cajon Pass on the way to Barstow. A new car, Frank thought happily. First thing: a new car.
Leroy eased off the accelerator just then and let the car roll slowly at idle. Gravel crunched noisily under the wheels as he squinted out at the darkness.
“I think we’re close,” he said.
They continued on for what seemed like an eternity, the car slowly crawling over the primitive road, both men craning forward in their seats.
“Bingo!” Leroy suddenly said as he pushed down on the accelerator. The tires broke loose and sprayed gravel, fish-tailing the rear, throwing Frank back in his seat.
A hundred yards or so further down the road they slid to a stop. Leroy slammed the car into park and shut down the motor. He jumped out, removed a military style compass from his pocket and immediately started taking bearings.
Frank got out and watched silently as his old friend pointed the compass this way and that. They had briefly considered calling the trip off after the car problems, but Leroy insisted that he could find it. The moon was full and he had triangulated under worse conditions than this while they had served together in Vietnam. Besides that, each man had waited a lifetime for this moment.
“This way,” Leroy announced, gesturing toward an area where the road entered a small canyon.
“Get the detector and the shovels?”
Inside the trunk were a couple of flashlights, a pick, a round-nose shovel and, most importantly, a brand new Bounty Hunter metal detector. All were removed and Leroy led the way as they marched another fifty yards or so away from the car. Bearings were taken a couple more times and then finally Leroy dropped the compass into his pocket. He swept the flashlight around, its beam briefly illuminating boulders and the rough walls of the canyon.
“Look familiar?” Frank asked.
Leroy nodded slowly. And for the first time since his friend was released, Frank thought he caught the briefest hint of a smile on the aged face.
“Good thing about burying it out here,” Leroy said philosophically, “scenery never really changes. Only Mother Nature can move mountains or carve canyons.”
Frank nodded mutely before finally asking, “What now?”
Leroy said nothing, shoving his hands into his pockets. He meandered around for a few moments silently, trying to get a feel for the place, to recall. The last time he had been out here, LBJ was in office. He wanted to narrow the search as much as possible. Finally he said, “Here.”
He pointed his flashlight beam at a spot on the ground ahead of them and swept it outward towards an area with some prominent boulders.
“Start here and sweep this way.”
Frank dropped the shovel and pick, and switched the metal detector on. He didn’t use the headphones, as the only background noise was a slight breeze blowing through the canyon where they stood.
Though Frank held the detector, both men hovered over it as it was moved back and forth over the ground. In a moment or so, the whistling sound it made suddenly increased in frequency. They froze. Frank moved it slowly in a tight pattern around the source of the disturbance. When the sound didn’t escalate, Frank looked up expectantly at his friend. Leroy shook his head no.
“Too faint,” he explained. ”Probably an old tin can or something. This thing would send it off the scale.”
Frank nodded and they continued the search. A couple of minutes later and about ten feet from a large boulder the detector’s needle pegged out, the audible alarm virtually screaming.
“Bingo!” Leroy shouted for the second time.
The detector was dropped on the spot and the pickaxe was produced. Leroy scraped a rough three foot square around the area and soon both men were trading off on the labor. It was tough going. The ground was hard and both men were old and out of shape.
As he held the flashlight during one of his rest breaks, Frank asked, “How deep Leroy?”
The answer came between swings and pants of breath. “Two…maybe three…feet. I was a lot younger then…a lot more ambitious.”
The very next swing produced a distinctive ring–metal striking metal. They had found it! This time a smile was definitely on Leroy’s face.
“Careful,” Frank warned. “I don’t want to screw up the dial.”
“Right,” Leroy said as he cautiously chipped away. A few cycles of the pick and shovel and soon a rough, half-buried outline appeared in the ground below them. It was a Turner safe, model 1060, approximately two foot cubed and one of the first fire safes available on the market. It was one that Frank had cracked many a time before. Lying in the ground face up, they noticed that the chrome plated dial and opening lever had not lost much shine, though the paint was starting to rust in the corners.
“Do we need to take it out all the way?” Leroy asked.
Frank considered it for a moment and then said, “No. Not really. Just move that dirt off around the hinges.”
Leroy struggled down onto his knees and used his hands to brush away the remaining bits of dirt. When he was satisfied all was well he lumbered up and turned to Frank.
“Your turn,” he said.
Frank went to the car and returned a few moments later with a physician’s stethoscope dangling around his neck. At first he tried kneeling next to the hole and leaning down to perform his work, but that soon proved too painful on his joints. He was forced to abandon the idea and sprawl face-down next to the hole. As Leroy held the flashlight for him, he went to work.
* * *
They had met in the army during the Vietnam War. After they were discharged, they bummed around the US for a while, just having fun, feeling good to be alive and in one piece. Their back pay and unemployment soon ran out though, and with only high school educations and the country in a recession they had few options. The one they chose was crime.
They pulled some small robberies and burglaries here and there around southern California but it barely kept them fed and housed for very long. Eventually, they grew weary of the small time and hatched a plan they felt would set them up for good. Leroy would take a menial job working for wealthy families doing gardening, handyman work and other odd jobs. After adequately casing the place he would arrange to let Frank onto the premises so that he could put his talents to work: namely, opening safes. It was a skill Frank had acquired from his father, a locksmith.
Everything was set to go on the night of September 20th, 1970, when Frank was arrested for trying to steal a jacket from an upscale men’s store. Leroy panicked at this point, fearing Frank, under the cop’s persuasion, might cave in and spill the beans about the job they were planning. So he removed the safe from the house, drove out as far as he deemed necessary and buried it. He planned to lay low until Frank was out so they could retrieve it, crack it open and make off with the loot. In the meantime, though, he had no job and no money and Frank wouldn’t be out for ninety days. He had to survive somehow and so he attempted to hold up a liquor store and was caught in the act. He received five years for armed robbery.
Once in prison, his troubles only seemed to magnify. A prisoner was killed on his cellblock and a jailhouse snitch fingered Leroy for the crime. He protested his innocence profusely but it fell on deaf ears. The correctional institution didn’t really care who did it, as long as someone was punished.
Frank’s path, on the other hand, took a decidedly different turn. After being released from jail and without a partner in crime, he thought better of the risks involved and decided to go straight. He found a job in an auto parts store where the owner was sympathetic to his situation and he stayed gainfully and happily employed. The business grew and Frank moved up the ladder, eventually managing his own store as the owner franchised his good name. Straight or not, though, the loot was still half his.
* * *
It took three attempts, but finally Frank had all the tumblers lined up. He could sense Leroy’s anxiousness from behind as the flashlight beam seemed to move in time with his excited breathing.
Frank reached for the door lever and turned it. The bolts made a loud click as they fell free in the mechanism. He pulled the door open a sliver. But just then, in the dark desert behind him, he could hear another “click,” one that sent an uncontrollable shiver through his body–the distinctive sound of a gun being cocked. He froze, holding the door in its place.
“What’s this about, Leroy?” He said.
From behind him he could hear Leroy’s choked voice. It was soft, apologetic.
“I’m sorry, Frank.”
Frank remained still, not wanting to make any sudden moves.
“I thought we were in this together Leroy,” he said. “Fifty-fifty, right?”
“I’m sorry Frank,” Leroy repeated, a little more forcefully now. “I need this.”
“Well, so do I.”
“Not as much as I do.”
“How do you figure?”
“You had a job Frank, you made money. You bought things. I rotted in a fucking cage for forty fucking years!”
Frank nodded slowly. He held the door in its position, neither opening nor closing it. He didn’t want to turn and see the man he had shared a foxhole with, dodged bullets with, or got drunk with, leveling a gun at his head. What would be the point?
“So that’s it then huh, Leroy? Just because you got the lousy hand of cards and I didn’t, you’re going to cut me out of it. Is that the way it’s going to be?”
Leroy took a deep breath, exhaling wearily.
“I’m sorry Frank. I don’t know how many more times I can say it, but I have nothing. Nothing! I’m sixty years old and even if I didn’t have a record, who’d hire me? This is all I’ve got. For four decades this is all I’ve ever had. It’s all I ever dreamed about, day in and day out.” He took a deep breath again, steeled himself. When he spoke again his voice was stern. “Now I mean it Frank. Give me the money.”
Frank briefly considered some sort of an attack, some way to get the gun away from Leroy so he could get his share of the money, but that was for the movies or for younger men. Debating the point further seemed fruitless and Leroy had the drop on him. He resigned himself to the situation.
“Okay,” he finally said. “How do you want to do this?”
“Just…just open the door all the way and start taking the loot out. Set it next to you. When it’s all out, get up and move off to the side. Leave the door open, though.”
“Okay,” Frank said and slowly opened the door to its full travel.
“I don’t want to hurt you, Frank,” his former friend said, trying his best to sound sincere.
Frank nodded and looked inside the safe. Through the flashlight beam he could see stacks of hundred dollar bills banded together. It was more money than he had ever seen in his lifetime. He reached for a stack to pull it out. It fell to pieces in his hand.
“Hey,” he said.
“What, what!” Leroy asked excitedly, the flashlight beam dancing about.
“Bullshit, Frank! Don’t mess with me. I’m warning you!”
“Look,” Frank said. He took the crumpled remains of the bills and held it out. He crushed his hand around it and it fell to dust, the soft breeze of the desert night taking it away.
Leroy looked on in horror. “Try another one,” he demanded.
Frank complied and with similar results. Every one he touched crumpled to bits like cigarette ash. Stack after fragile stack.
“What’s wrong?” Leroy cried “What’s wrong!”
Frank shook his head. “I don’t know. Maybe the years…”
Then it hit him. He remembered now; fireproofing. Early safes had trouble with entrained moisture. He put his hands on the ground around the hole.
“The fireproofing, Leroy.”
“The fireproofing in the safe. The early ones had trouble with moisture. Things mildewed in them, rotted. You needed to keep desiccant in the safe to absorb the moisture”
“Bullshit!” Leroy screamed desperately. “You’re lying!”
“See for yourself.” Frank reached deep into the safe and pulled out a handful of half-decomposed bills. One squeeze and they turned to dust.
Leroy said nothing for a long time. Frank lay prone in his spot, waiting. What would happen now? Finally, he broke the silence. “C’mon Leroy, let’s go. Let’s forget about the whole thing. You go your way and I’ll go mine.”
He waited a long time for a reply but there was none, though he thought he could hear Leroy weeping. After a while he said again. “C’mon Leroy, let’s call it a night and get out of here.”
Again, there was no response for a long while. Then he heard a choked voice cry out in the dark and unforgiving desert.
“I’ve got nothing,” Leroy Jones said, before turning the gun on himself and pulling the trigger.
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