“So,” said Nash. “Now what?”
They’d gone to Nash and Justin’s flat to outfit themselves for the dig, everyone except Stephanie bolstering their resolve by sucking on a bong shaped like a lizard. Justin had rifled through his collection of Burning Man cum camping gear, assigning costumes and equipment. He was wearing a full length emerald-colored gown with faux fur collar, accented with pearls and hiking boots, holding a heavy duty bolt cutter. Nash, gripping a folding shovel, had on cargo pants, a brown camouflage t-shirt, a bright blue handkerchief tied around his neck, and night vision goggles. Jordan sported a plaid skirt, high knee socks, a white furry vest, and a tire iron. Stephanie had balked, reluctantly accepting a Papal tiara along with a Leatherman. All four sported headlamps.
“I’m freezing my balls off,” said Jordan, hopping back and forth. “This getup sucks; you could’ve at least given me wool underwear.”
“That goes with the nun costume, which you refused to wear,” retorted Justin. “And quiet down.”
Chester’s property was situated on a corner, small apartment buildings tight against it on two sides, protected by an eight-foot high chain link fence interlaced with thin redwood slats. A double-wide curb fronted a firmly closed electronic gate. It was well after midnight. The street was deserted; nearby houses quiet and unlit.
“We could have climbed it,” said Stephanie, eyeing the fence, illuminated by a street light. “But, probably not with those dresses on. There’s an absence of forward thinking going on here. Or really, of any thought at all.”
“Au contraire, mon not enemy,” said Justin. “We have everything we need. Nash, deploy night vision, find us a way in.”
“Uh, okay,” said Nash. He adjusted the goggles, turned them on, and scanned the fence, walking along the perimeter. Jordan bounced, trying to stay warm. Stephanie leaned against a parked car, arms folded across her chest. Justin stood, hands on hips, watching Nash.
“Find anything,” Justin asked. “A weakness? A hole?”
“Nope,” said Nash. “It’s a great looking fence. We’re not getting in. Time to go home.”
“Oh for the love of Harvey Milk!” exclaimed Justin, turning on his headlamp. “It obviously takes a man to do a man’s job!” He strode around the corner, to where the fence ended with a pole mounted a few inches from a tired-looking three-flat Victorian, and started snipping links with the bolt cutter. The three gathered around him.
“Why do you have that thing, anyways,” whispered Stephanie. “I mean, who keeps a bolt cutter?”
“Long story,” said Justin, “involving handcuffs, a similar fence, very short shorts, no shirt, and Dolores Park. Anyways, here we are.” He pried open a strip of links. “Headlamps on! Ladies, first,” he said to Stephanie, bowing.
“Fine,” she said, stepping into the property, followed by Jordan, Nash, and Justin, who peeled the strip back into place. They stood in front of a large area crowded with tall plants, pots as big as tires, and life size garden statues, adjacent to a covered space, filled with similar bits, that was next to a modest-sized building.
Jordan looked at his iPhone. “The footprint of the original building should be this way.” He weaved through the outside nursery towards the structure, the trio following single file, their lights dancing on the foliage, briefly illuminating concrete deer, wooden tortoises, and a mermaid fountain trickling water. Stopping at the back entrance, Jordan walked slowly along its exterior. At a corner he squatted next to a pile of branches and debris. “Help me with this.” Following Jordan’s lead, Justin and Nash pulled at the pile, revealing a set of concrete stairs that led to a small vestibule and a windowed door that’d once been painted yellow.
Justin whistled softly, and stepped down the stairs, pushing aside clumps of twigs, leaves, and bits of plastic garbage. He cupped his hands, peered through the window, jiggled the doorknob. “Tire iron,” he said, reaching an arm towards Jordan. The dry wood gave way easily; Justin pushed the door forward, shifted aside rubble, and stepped into a large high-ceiling basement, the rest of the group trailing behind.
“Phew,” said Nash. “Smells like burnt death.”
“That’s what we’re looking for,” said Stephanie, softly.
The light from their headlamps swept the space. Half of it was filled with sinking stacks of cardboard boxes, some had toppled, all layered with a sticky grey-ash residue that emitted a microwaved plastic odor. Justin jolted when his headlamp lit up what looked like a melting face, which turned out to be a rubber monster mask set on a stick. Nash bent down and riffled through a few of the boxes, finding a chipped blue ceramic ashtray half-filled with loose coins, a toy accordion in mint condition, photograph albums, books, a drivers’ license. “Todd Cox, expires October 27, 1987. What is all this stuff? It’s seems to be from before the fire.”
“Shells and pebbles left behind from the high tide of the AIDS epidemic,” said Jordan. “I listened to some podcasts about multi-unit apartment buildings occupied by clusters of gay guys. During the 1970s and ‘80s people fled their homes in Ohio, or Nebraska, searching for a place where they could be themselves. Kind of like me, except I’m more of an economic immigrant, looking for a place I can make big bucks. Their relatives disowned them; not like mine, who definitely plan on cashing in when I hit it big. When HIV swept through and they died, no one was around to take their stuff. This must be where they stored unclaimed items when they cleaned out tenants’ apartments here.” He poked through a box, pulling out a small metal globe, which rattled in his hand.
“It’s like a diorama of death,” said Nash.
“A tomb of Todd-in-common,” quipped Jordan.
“Okay, guys, this isn’t what we’re looking for. Can we like, move on, so we can go home?” said Stephanie.
“Over here,” called Justin, from the basement’s far corner. “I think this is what we want,” he said, as they crowded around him.
In front of them was a mess of large objects, whose contours became clearer as the four rays of light darted over them. Tattered ribbons of yellow police “don’t cross” tape snaked throughout. A few washers and dryers, askew, a v-shaped line of dark smoke outlined above them. Piles of plaster, scorched planks, and ruined light fixtures intermixed with torn fabric. Several charred wooden beams, perhaps a dozen feet in length, lay like Pixy Stixs, their lower ends slow-crushing shadowy piles of laundry baskets, pillows regurgitating clothes, old chairs, indistinguishable blobs. The burnt smell was fierce. Justin beamed his light at the ceiling above the chaos; it was rudely patched and spackled. “My guess is that if anything, or anyone, fell through to this level they ended up here.”
“Yeah,” said Nash, holding up his small shovel, which he’d unfolded in preparation. “And we’re not finding it, not by ourselves. Not tonight, not any night.”
“You’re probably right,” said Jordan.
“Wait a sec,” said Stephanie, who had pointed her light at some rubble at the far end of the destroyed space. “That could be promising.”
“What,” said Justin, walking towards her.
She gestured towards the pile, now illuminated by multiple shafts of light. Resting on a battered rectangle of white decorative tin, the type used for paneling in Victorian homes, was a dust-caked pair of aviator-style eyeglasses. “Jordan, can you bring up that photograph of John Randall?” Stephanie asked.
Jordan tapped on his phone, and held up an image of a Black man, in his 60s, wearing the same type of glasses. “I think we have a match!”
“Maybe,” said Stephanie, moving towards the pile. “Let’s find out.” She bent-walked toward the glasses, choosing her steps carefully.
As she reached for them her Papal tiara knocked against a beam that angled above. The hat fell to the floor; a cloud of dark dust billowed upwards. Stephanie covered her mouth with her hands, violently coughing, bending down so that one of her knees pressed against a mound of debris, which puffed more particulate matter. The beam made a short screech, shifting a half inch downwards.
“Yikes!” yelped Nash, who pulled his handkerchief over his mouth and goggles over his eyes, and cat-walked to Stephanie, avoiding the larger wreckage.
“I can’t see them!” Jordan yelped, gripping Justin’s bicep. The beam screeched again.
Nash emerged from the dust, clutching Stephanie in front of him, who continued to fiercely hack. “Let’s get out of here!” he croaked. The four scrambled towards the exit, knocking over boxes and other objects, trailing a cloud of sticky powder, like a vehicle driving across a loose dirt road.
They stumbled into the night, a chorus of coughs. Justin wedged the door shut, the dust spreading through the cracks around them.
“Follow me!” said Justin, leading the group to the gap in the fence. The dust seemed to follow them, mixing with a thickening fog as if greeting an old friend.
On the sidewalk, Stephanie held on to Nash, her and the others’ coughs subsiding.
“You all look like you came out of a coal mine,” panted Jordan.
“Yes,” wheezed Justin, “You too.”
“That didn’t work out so well,” gasped Stephanie.
“I dunno,” said Nash. He reached into his pants pocket, and held up the eyeglasses. “At least we got this.”
Each month the View publishes a chapter from Gold, a serialized tale of politics, capitalism, and corruption in San Francisco. Previous chapters can be found on the paper’s website, www.potreroview.net. Advertisers or supporters interested in sponsoring future installations, or publishing the final manuscript, should contact firstname.lastname@example.org.