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The Rot Orchard

By Danny De Maio All Rights Reserved ©

Mystery / Horror


Detective Joby Burris has been involved in his fair share of unnerving cases. However, it is in the forgotten California town of Redlands that he finds the mangled body of Ava Richter and a piece of evidence that resembles the calling card of the Black Orchard Choir, a religious cult he investigated a decade earlier. While Burris doesn’t want to believe Ava’s murder is the next chapter in the cult’s plan but rather a copycat killer, he won’t know unless he follows the shadow of clues. Against the backdrop of a trio of wildfires in drought-ridden Southern California, Burris must navigate the town’s dimly lit streets and deep-rooted occult leanings in search of answers, both personal and professional. What he finds hiding in the strange symmetry of the orange groves might just make him another footnote in the town’s dark lore.

Chapter I


It was June and Southern California was burning. Three years of the drought had created a year-round fire season. It was a wonder the place didn’t light up sooner. Before the drought people held their breath between late summer and the dawn of December. They’d wait and wonder if the big blaze was coming. After three years without more than a few drops we all viewed the big blaze the same as we did the big quake, which was less a matter of if than when.

Two nights had passed since a trio of fires rose up and started marching across the dead vegetation. The distant plumes of smoke seemed like small problems. That’s always how it starts. They burned erratically, directed by the whims of the unseasonal Santa Ana winds. I imagined the blazes burning the way a barfly stumbles through a version of Sinatra’s “My Way.”

As the fires burned and the early summer temperatures spiked people fled in the direction of the ocean. They thought they were escaping to an oasis. They’d been sold a lie. The coastal cities played tricks as a mirage does. Packs of cars drove towards the sea with the promise of having their skin and nerves cooled. In reality, the Pacific Ocean couldn’t even promise west Los Angeles another two hundred years of existence above water. The salty waves reached high upon the banks of the beaches and, bit by bit, pulled the city back out to sea, leaving behind the garbage that the city had dumped in it. And then parents let their kids play in the trash. Cheeseburger wrappers, stray shoelaces, and the occasional syringe latched onto their feet as they ran across the sand.

“Only until the water touches your knees, sweet pea, so I don’t have to come save you,” a mother would call.

A father would scream, “Don’t you go another step further, goddamnit, or you’ll drown!”

These warnings were accurately macabre, but backwards in their logic. These mothers and fathers worried about the dangers of the ocean snatching their kids from them amid the perceived chaos of nature, but they had it wrong. The waves ran like clockwork, and if you were paying attention you’d have no problem avoiding death. It was on land that you could be paying attention and still end up in a body bag by sundown. Take your pick: A car accident on Santa Monica Boulevard, a stray bullet in Compton, or maybe a jealousy-fueled strangulation by some coked-out Hollywood executive. The land is where the chaos lived. That’s the thing I’d learned in my five years working LAPD homicide. What I found in the bushes was always worse than what was tangled up in the seaweed.

The last half decade working in my hometown felt like visiting the fair you went to as a kid; smaller, too loud, no fun, and indefinably creepy. When I ditched LA and went off to college at Tulane in New Orleans I told myself I wasn’t ever going back. Trying to cement that declaration, I enrolled in the NOPD academy a few months after I finished my bachelor’s degree. Now, I often missed New Orleans. The humidity and cheap booze were more attractive in comparison to the perpetual gridlock and ten-buck beers so native to LA, of which I had been too young to grasp fully when I left at eighteen. I didn’t feel like the prodigal son returning to the urban sprawl. It didn’t even feel like a homecoming of any sort. I’d just happened to be born within imaginary lines called Los Angeles.

If my dad were around I imagine that he’d have been disgusted with me. He hated cops. When they wrote him a three-hundred-dollar ticket for driving ten miles an hour over the speed limit I understood why. I was eight then. Two years later I watched him slug my mother. Two to the chest, one to the head, just like they taught us in the academy. She said she hated him and I understood why. The beatings became common, like a ritual. It’s why blood doesn’t faze me much. It’s the cracking of bone-on-bone that is a chilling eternal echo inside my head. After a few years of my mother playing the fool I called the cops on my dad. I was wearing only boxers when I watched my father arrested in front of our Los Feliz shithole. He didn’t resist them. He just glared at me. I never saw him again. I didn’t care why.

Now, at thirty-five, I still only slept in my boxers and didn’t care why I never again saw my father. The hotel that I woke up in smelled clean, but as if someone had sprayed Lysol over every inch of the place. Made sense since rumor had it porn directors from the Valley would shoot their stuff in the rooms because they were so cheap and deceptively classy. I suppose there is a difference between sleeping in a clean room and a disinfected one just as there is a difference between sleeping beside someone and sleeping with them.

My head throbbed and I yearned for a simple cup of black coffee to rinse my mouth of the cigarettes I drunkenly smoked the night before. My ashtray mouth was as surprising as waking up alone in a hotel that couldn’t have possibly ever earned its “H.” That’s what happens when you drink, jackass, I thought. My ache for coffee gave way to a silent prayer for its appearance in the lobby, knowing that it would be the closest thing to toothpaste and a confessional that I’d come across. Scalding coffee, all the way down. That’d be my penance.

It was six-thirty in the morning when my cell phone rang. It laid facedown on the floor near the door. I picked it up and saw that the caller ID was blocked, so I knew it was the precinct buzzing me. I answered it.

“Joby?” the voice questioned. It was Captain Todd Dwight. My boss.

“Yeah, Cap,” I croaked out of a cigarette-scorched throat.

“You sound awful. It’s too bad they can’t cure that case of throat gonorrhea,” he deadpanned.

“That’s not even where you get that disease, you ape.” That was the thing about superiors on the force; there were about as many role models as there are boxing champs without domestic abuse records.

“Why didn’t you answer your home phone?”

“Because I’m not home.” It hurt to talk, and I wondered who actually called home phones first these days. “I’m in a hotel near Lincoln and Manchester.”

“What the hell are you doing over by the marina? I thought you lived in Echo Park.”

“Met some friends for drinks,” I lied. There had been drinks, but the “friends” I met was just one person. She was an old flame among many that had revolved in and out over the last half-decade. When something burned too hot I got into the habit of freezing it out. Then, when I got cold and lonely I’d call a girl up, add booze, and watch it burn out of control for a night or two. Something similar had happened. Bad habits. “Friends and drinks,” I repeated dully.

“Well, I hope you’re not going to whine about not being able to wash off a hangover in the shower. You’ve got to hustle over to Redlands this morning.”

“What happened?” I croaked.

“You’re on homicide aren’t you? What do you think happened?” He had a fair point. The whiskey and the nicotine had left a film around my brain. I searched the room for one of those mini-coffeepots. No luck. I prayed again that there was coffee in the lobby.

“Wait, why Redlands? That’s San Bernardino County isn’t it?”

“You’re a college boy, Burris. Shouldn’t you read the newspapers or something?”

“I only read the finest fiction,” I deadpanned with my eyes closed. It felt like an anvil was sitting on each of my eyelids.

“Regardless of whether or not you pay attention, smartass, the county is on the verge of bankruptcy. They’ve been slashing the budget every which way, so we have been helping out our brothers in blue where we can. And it’s State’s orders, too.”

I actually did remember reading something like that in the paper. It was one of those stories on the front page but below the middle crease. Los Angeles liked using the Inland Empire as its punching bag, but didn’t care about it enough to put its woes in plain view on newsstands. The article said that the City Attorney of San Bernardino had told all residents to lock their doors and load their guns. I suppose he thought living in the Wild West would have been a ball.

Captain Dwight broke my moment of reminiscence. “I know you weren’t supposed to come on until noon today, but you can’t waste time swinging by the station for a patrol car.” I heard him gulp his coffee on the other end. “You think that hunk of junk can make it seventy miles without breaking down? We’ll pay mileage, obviously.” He was referring to the 1963 Ford Falcon convertible that my father’s brother, Uncle Nick, had left me in his will.

“Yeah, it’ll make it,” I said in a whisper, sparing myself the throb in my throat.

“What’s that?” There was enthusiasm in his voice. The coffee he was gulping was doing its job, I thought. Lucky him.

“Yeah, yeah, it’ll make it,” I repeated.

“Good, I’ll email you the address. The body was found in some of the orange groves.”

“That’s a waste,” I said. “Just text it to me, you Luddite.”

“What’s that, Burris?”

“I said text it to me, that’d be all right.”

“Didn’t I say I’d send it in an email, Burris?” He liked to call me by my last name like a pissed-off football coach. I imagined him wearing a Tom Landry hat sitting at his desk. “I’m sending it over now,” he said before hanging up.

The email with the address came through as I was pulling on my pants. There was a cigarette burn in my slacks where some of my knee showed through. I lifted my white button-up shirt from the floor and hoped it was halfway clean. I guessed it didn’t matter much either way since I’d be in a town where no one knew me.

I buttoned the shirt slowly and by touch. Tilting my head down felt like a handful of marbles rolling to the back of my head, crashing into each other the whole way. A hangover like this required the blackest coffee in west LA. I needed it then, so I didn’t even bother going to the lobby to checkout, leaving the key next to the bed lamp.

Outside I noticed the smell of sulfur had grown heavier. In burned inside my nostrils stronger than the ghosts of whiskey and cigarettes of the night past. The nastiness of an early, brutal summer wasn’t helping matters either. It wasn’t seven o’clock and LA felt and tasted like the inside of my mouth. The light breeze coming off the ocean was as good as a dirty mop, pushing the filth and dirt around in circles. I didn’t recall a moment of it, but in my drunken stupor I’d had the good sense to pull the top up on the Falcon before passing out.

I settled for coffee at the gas station across the street from the hotel. It smelled burnt when I poured it into the Styrofoam cup, having probably been sitting for hours. More sulfur. The selling point was the caffeine.

Out on the road cars paced like trained rats. Some drivers were undeterred by the thickening of the atmosphere, yet the Friday morning traffic seemed to have dissipated, shifting from its usual roar down to a grinding hum. Los Angeles was never a city that quieted down. I drove towards the freeway onramp and thought about the ocean and the land again. They were both dangerous, but the disparity between the chaos of the land and the predictability of the sea were indisputable. It made perfect sense as I aimed the car at the interchange between the 405 headed north and the eastbound 10. It made sense because the bending concrete transition paving the way to the Inland Empire lent me a front-row seat to the ravages off in the distances. Plumes of black and grey smoke rose like massive fists towards the heavens, flailing against the sea-given June gloom and the rising sun. I imagined that even the Rapture, whenever it came, would have more restraint and structure. Out there the consolidated spoils of the conquistadors was being consumed in variations of black and gray. The blacker the blaze, the more intense the flame. The whiter the smoke, you might not choke. My Uncle Nick taught me that when fire season would begin. I didn’t need to study my rearview mirror to know that Malibu was getting chewed up, but what was ahead mystified me. Was it San Bernardino or Riverside or Ontario that was feeding the flames out east? Houses or industrial factories? Whatever the details, I thought, the Inland Empire was burning and at the end of the road ahead a dead body was waiting for me.

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