TOPANGA (Chapters 10 & 11)
There was an ambulance parked in front of Richard Hemmings place and Sheriffs and suits taking positions and every one of them moving with precision, excited eyes and carrying shotguns or side arms in their hands. Must have been ten of them, it looked like the Tet Offensive out there. The neighborhood was under siege. But for all the action the EMT's carried the stretcher, a body buckled to it with the sheet over its face, without hurry, loading the back of the ambulance like routemen putting loaves of bread into the racks of a delivery truck.
I glanced back at our front porch, Lisa was standing on it with Rachel beside her, though I don't think they'd seen the body being carried out of Richard's place. I waved Lisa back indicating that Rachel shouldn't be seeing this. Lisa took Rachel by the shoulder and put her through the doorway, then Lisa walked down our front stairs and out into the lane to see Richard Hemmings being led to a car in handcuffs.
Grant had tried to make it to Junior's front door but was intercepted and surrounded, patted down, placed on his knees with his fingers laced behind his head. A moment later he was cuffed and led off to Richard's place.
The remaining cops milled around uneasy and unsatisfied; they glared at all the neighbors with expressions that were deadly serious.
Billy opened his gate without being summoned and five armed officers swarmed through the opening and started yelling at the house.
Lisa had the most freaked out expression on her face I'd ever seen. Her hand was to her mouth, she was pale, shaking and her eyes were falling apart. I couldn't register it, I stored the expression away to analyze later and watched Richard Hemmings having his head pressed under the backseat door of a Sheriff's car.
Next thing I knew I was flanked by two cops and was being led through Billy's gate. I tried to tell them where I lived and that I needed to see my...
"Shut up." is what I was told.
I tried again and this time when he said 'shut up', I knew he meant it.
The hillbilly and his daughter, Abner and one of the biggest rock and roll acts in the world were face down on Billy's lawn with
four cops standing over them. The door to the place swung open and a cop came out carrying an arm load of rifles and hand
"Get on the ground." They told me and I found a place between the hillbilly and his daughter. It was plain by the atmosphere those of us on the ground weren't supposed to be communicating. But the cops were openly discussing us, the dead girl, Richard Hemmings and whatever it was they were finding as they went through our houses.
In the next few minutes Billy's lawn filled up with various neighbors, all of us face down, all of us directed to shut the fuck up.
They kept us there for an hour and a half, IDing us, checking our pockets, handling some of us rougher than others. We, apprently were all lumped together in crime, or if they couldn't tell us apart they didn't seem to care much. This was Topanga with its bad reputation, history of suicides, murders, orgies gone to mayhem. The hiding place for the decadent privileged and the morally corrupt.
The toe of a Sheriff's cowboy boot kicked at my shoulder,
I got up watching the eyes still on the ground either turning away from me or watching intently.
I was led through the hillbilly's gate and then stopped in the lane. One of the cops flanking me put his hand on my chest
and held it there, I was embarrassed at how fast it was beating and how hard it was thudding.
Two guys in suits walked up, one settled in his shoes, the other who looked so much like Elvis it made you want to smile despite yourself said,
"Mr. Burnett...don't get mixed up in this."
Before I could ask him what it was he was talking about the other one indicated my distant front door and said,
"Get your family the hell out of here."
"You can go."
And I went.
"Sissy met her. I've never seen her."
They were timing their questions. They'd ask, I'd answer and they'd wait to let me hear my words hanging in the air. A fairly effective means of investigation in that it automatically puts the suspect ill at ease. You'd think they'd let the words tumble and try to get a rhythm going that could reveal any lying. But by going slow and remaining dead pan to any answer and making you wear it, even the truth could be unsettling.
We were on my back porch, the house was empty other than for me and Sissy who sat on her ankles on a silk covered pillow in a wicker chair and hadn't been asked a thing yet.
They turned to her but before they could speak she said,
"You mean, Debbie Watson...I met her down at Junior and Grant's place with Richard Hemmings and some other guy...John something or other..."
Sissy went on to describe a scene where a young girl was frightened in the company of her heroes and some low life dealers.
We let them go on with their interrogation for about a half hour. Sometimes they'd ask each of us the same exact question deliberately unrelated to anything about the girl or the neighbors as though to stretch out what they seemed to know into the surrounding world including our past.
I blew all that off, although I treated each question with the same sense of assumed urgency at being seen as innocent, and fearful that there could be the confusion they were hoping to instill.
We were being earnest in other words.
Johnson was pretending to struggle for his next question when Sissy just up and interrupted him,
"You ever think of baiting them?"
They looked at each other and Elvis smiled,
"I was just thinking..you know how fucking stupid it is to be asking all these questions after the fact...you know, like this shitty thing happened and now we're going..."
She puffed up her chest and cheeks, and pounded one fist in the palm of her hand,
"..to get to the bottom of this..damnit and someone is gonna pay."
Johnson's head suddenly itched and Elvis just stared at her,
"I think, that if you have a general territory to hunt in, instead of chasing mother fuckers around until you can prove one of them did what we all know is being done, that you bait them, and pop them before they can, you know, rape, tape and kill another girl."
Johnson and Elvis exchanged uncomfortable looks and I was so proud of Sissy, again, as I had been all her brilliant, courageous life. Now the silence in the air was heavy as a building tornado.
She stretched her arms over her head like she was bored,
"...That's what it's about right? They killed the pimps, grabbed their girls and murdered them for snuff movies, right? And this thing with Debbie Watson was more an accident than anything else...but...see...you can put on a big show if you want but the problem you got ain't going away...unless you catch them red handed...Richard Hemmings ain't a serial killer..he might know them..but he's as clueless to what's going on as you are. I know you both know that much."
They looked at me and I just shrugged and smiled.
"...So we should help each other with this. I think..."
She leaned closer to them and needlessly lowered her voice both mocking them and enlisting them to her plan,
"...I think you should just pin everything on Richard Hemmings...whoever's doing this probably has enough experience to know that you guys would do anything to solve the crimes in the public's eyes...and you get a great story.. underbelly Hollywood..crazed tastes of the rich and decadent..you can even appear to be anti-misogynist..and enlightened..anyway.....hold Richard for awhile and in the vacuum of that...let them think they can get in a couple more...and one of them could be me...and then..."
She pulled the imaginary string on a stick holding a box over a carrot and trapped the rabbit,
"...we got em!"
Elvis leaned back and laughed,
"Holy shit." he said.
Sissy laughed along with them for a moment and then cut it off,
"But the guy I'd be talking to if I was you and a lot smarter would be Abner..because if anyone knows he does."
Now they looked at each other, then looked at Sissy, then at me, and then at each other again, got up warning us as they left to stay in town. Interview over.
We waited and smiled when we heard them knocking on Abner's gate.
"Nice work, Honey."
"Thanks. I'll need a body guard."
"Leave it to me."
The eggs were ruined, the band was gone. I called the motel and told Gloria to bring the girls back tomorrow morning and
Sissy and I leaned on the counter eating jam on cold toast and talked about the band's music that Sissy had put on
the record player. They were good, folk rocker types, spooky stuff, kind of Appalacian and fitting to Topanga. The front man
had a surprising voice, and the music was just perfect, understated, clean with a heart in it that sounded pre-Civil war.