A Comedy of Characters

Chapter One, Section One

Jake Clooney drove his black Dodge Ram through the wrought iron gates of the Eternally Here Cemetery in Las Pulgas, California. A large banner flapping overhead proclaimed that 2023 was its 200th year and read, “Home of Many Early Las Pulgas Families.” It pictured a group of pioneers standing beside their Conestoga wagon. A small wooden sign stuck in the grass under the banner warned, “Do Not Disturb Our Federally Protected Peacock Population.”

Jake cruised around the administration building, noting the large number of cars in the parking lot. The windows in the chapel were open, and he heard a hymn being played on the organ. He hummed along contentedly. It had been a productive morning. He turned the corner and stopped when he spotted a small mausoleum displayed on the grassy side of the building. It hadn’t been there when he last visited a few days earlier. He parked on the side of the lane, left his truck, and approached the structure. It looked like a miniature house with stained-glass windows. A large sign indicated that it could be purchased for loved ones with small monthly payments.

He stared at the mausoleum and considered the possibilities. What a great hiding place if the cops were on his tail! He already owned several adjoining plots in the cemetery, with his wife, Verna, buried in one. The mausoleum was just the right size to fit over the spaces, and he could put his own lock on the door. He walked back to his truck. The shiny finish reflected a dark-haired man with a Giants baseball cap, white t-shirt, jeans, and hairy arms.

He drove to the Heavens Gate section of the cemetery and parked on the side of the narrow road. Across the lane toward the fence, he saw a woman bent over a grave, carrying on a conversation with whomever was buried below. He had noticed her before. A pleasant-looking woman, and friendly, but at least thirty years his senior. She had become one of the regulars at the cemetery. He chuckled at the thought. Starbucks had its usual customers, but who would have guessed the same could be said for cemeteries. He watched her for a few minutes. She spread out a blanket on the grass and lay down.

He stepped down from the truck and reached in the bed, pulled out a spade, a six-pack of colorful impatiens, and a small metal box. He placed them by the head of his wife’s grave. The stone read, “Verna Clooney.” He looked down and sighed, “We had good times and bad times together, Verna, but I never would have wanted this for you.”

Jake walked back to the truck and pulled out a medium-sized cooler, the newspaper, and a deck chair. He looked up at the mountains in the distance and congratulated himself on owning Verna’s plot and the adjoining sites next to the road. A few years ago, he had some extra cash from one of the jobs. Verna had read in the newspaper that cemetery plots were a good investment. She said if the cops got suspicious, they might check their bank account for unusual activity but they would never check for their names on the list of owners at the local cemetery. They had both laughed. Poor Verna. She never imagined she would be lying in one of the plots now.

The more Jake thought about it, the better he liked his plan. The spaces could easily accommodate a mausoleum the same size as the one on display. Time to get to work. He placed the cooler on the ground, opened it, and pulled out a Rubbermaid storage container. After checking that no one was watching, he opened it. Stuffed inside were a jumbo burrito, some chips, and a sandwich bag wrapped in butcher paper marked, “ham and cheese on rye.” He unwrapped the bag to reveal three jade rings and an ornate Chinese eighteen-karat gold bracelet cushioned between four slices of Wonder Bread. He smiled and smelled the burrito. The haul from this morning gave him an appetite, but first he needed to stash the jewelry until he could fence the pieces.

He noticed a group of mourners in the distance dressed in black at an excavated area next to a mound of dirt. Two hearses parked close by. The door to one opened and workers rolled out a coffin and placed it over the hole. Flowers from the second limousine were laid on top. He saw an older man dressed in black holding a book. He looked like the elderly Reverend Wright.

When Jake had been released from prison a couple of months earlier, he chose to return to Las Pulgas. He had grown up in Oakland, but, when he and Verna married, they moved to Las Pulgas. Shortly after Verna died, somebody squealed on him and he went to prison. The Reverend and his family were known for welcoming recently released prisoners. They had reached out to Jake and pressed a prayer book in his hand, but he didn’t want to become involved with any group. He liked his independence. He had one friend in Las Pulgas from prison, Chicky Bates. Chicky’s wife, Rhonda, was Reverend Wright’s daughter.

Jake was glad he had arrived before the burial. He had been careful to enter the deceased’s house at exactly 9 a.m. when the obituary in the Las Pulgas News said the service started.

He quickly moved the jewelry to the metal box and walked to the front of Verna’s gravestone. Getting on hands and knees, he used the spade to soften the earth and dig a hole. He placed the box inside and planted the flowers on top.

He stood up, walked to the cooler, and pulled out the food and a beer. A police car cruised the perimeter. He recognized Chief Dodovich. Jake smiled. There were too many criminals in the area, so it was a relief to know Chief “Dodo” was patrolling.He sat back on the chair, put his legs up on the top of Verna’s stone, took a large bite of the burrito and followed it with a swig of beer. Life was good right now. Jake let out an impressive belch. He picked up the newspaper and turned to the local obituary section. Let’s see…Abbott, Beacon, Cornez….