The Chest

by Joseph DeRepentigny

 

Dexter was everything he wanted to be. He was successful, rich, and handsome. His life was the dream others wished for and he knew it. Dexter lived in a $100,000 a year apartment in the most fashionable district of Atlanta. He drove a different car every day of the week and wore suits to match the color schemes of his cars. In a word, he was the paragon of new wealth in the new south. He’d come from somewhere else and built a company that bought land and built tract housing. He was the most powerful land developer in the state, if not the entire south.

On this bright sunny day in Atlanta, Dexter had a mission to accomplish. Dexter had only dealt with the tax assessor over the telephone or through meetings at his midtown office. At first, he planned on having a flunky do all the legwork but his lawyer insisted that the work be done privately because the situation, though legal, was questionable. The plan was simple, Dexter remembered from that last meeting with the tax assessor—a young man named Nathan.

Nathan was a tall skinny man in his late twenties. He spoke with a slight southern accent that was subdued by years of elocution lessons. “No, I got the old man over a barrel. His taxes were a few cents short thirty years ago. With interest and penalties he now owes the county $15,000. I am allowed to sell the debt to a broker for ten cents on the dollar. That, by local law, would give you ownership of the property and the old man would have thirty days to move or go to jail,” Nathan said with a grin.

“What if he pays off the debt?” Dexter asked.

“He can’t. He was given the chance by mail several times over the last year, but he never responded,” Nathan said, smiling broader. “Almost like the letters were never sent.”

“So, what do I do?” Dexter asked.

“Sign the papers and write the county a check. When the check clears, you own the land.”

“And what do you get out of this, other than an increase in tax revenues?” Dexter asked, waiting for the other shoe to drop.

“Ten percent of the home sale and a small kick-back from your construction company,” Nathan said with a wink. “All of this is legal in this county. Our ethics laws are real liberal.”

That had been a week ago. Now Dexter found Nathan and another young man in a police uniform leaning against a police car. They were parked in front of a rusted old mailbox. Dexter looked around; the place didn’t look like much to him—weedy old-growth woods and an old tar and gravel road. A stream meandered through one side of the property. Shaking his head, he thought to himself, “What a waste of perfectly good real estate.”

“Hello, Dexter!” Nathan shouted. He walked toward the car, waving the cop to come along. “The deputy is here to ensure legal enforcement of the eviction. Your lawyer insisted he be here.”

The deputy smiled and nodded at Dexter. Then he went back to a businesslike scowl. Dexter immediately liked the man. An underling that didn’t talk unless spoken to, the perfect servant in Dexter’s mind.

The three of them walked up the driveway toward the old tin-roofed shanty. The house, if it could be called that, was a single-story affair badly in need of painting. The deputy indicated to Dexter and Nathan to stay behind while he served the notice. He knocked on the door and announced himself. No one came to the door. The deputy then looked in through a dirty window and swore to himself. He turned and spoke quickly into the walkie-talkie he had on his hip.

“What’s wrong?” Nathan asked.

“Old man Hill is dead,” the deputy said curtly.

“What, are you sure?” Dexter asked. “Maybe he just passed out.”

“Take a look for yourself,” the deputy said, smiling evilly.

Dexter climbed the three steps and looked through the dirty window. Inside he saw a bloated fly-covered corpse. Even from outside, he could smell the rotting flesh through the closed window. He nodded and walked back to the deputy. “He’s dead alright.”

A little while later, an ambulance and several police cars arrived on the scene. Dexter thought it was odd that they brought an ambulance. After all the rushing around and interviewing, the local sheriff told Dexter to stay in town until a cause of death was determined.

Dexter left the scene and went to the best hotel in the area. A franchise operation noted for appearing in episodes of that reality police show. Still, after the day’s events, Dexter welcomed any rest. He lay down in bed in a room that was slightly smaller than his bathroom back home and went to sleep fully clothed.

He awoke the next morning, hungry and confused. He looked around and saw the tan telephone on the nightstand. “Room service,” he said, after dialing the front desk. A voice on the other side politely informed him that they didn’t have room service. Dexter slammed the telephone down, swearing to himself. He did not look forward to dining with the local rabble. Cleaning up best as he could without his shaving kit, Dexter went outside to a local diner that was across the street. Inside were just three other patrons, gathered at one end of the lunch counter. That suited him fine. He could sit away from them and have a cup of coffee and a danish.

The waitress smiled and said, “Hello, sugar. That end’s closed but I can take care of you down here.”

“I need a little privacy,” Dexter said, feigning weakness. “I found a dead man yesterday.” The corpse was in fact not the first one Dexter had ever seen or was it the most decayed. Dexter often boasted to his friends about finding his mother and father dead after coming back from a trip to London.

“You just sit over here and we won’t bother you too much,” she said.

He was served plain coffee and a freshly thawed pastry. He took a sip and frowned. Probably a blend of cheap and cheaper coffee, he thought. While he was forcing the coffee down, he listened to the general conversation.

“They say old man Hill passed on last night,” a man in coveralls said, sipping his coffee.

The waitress tilted her head and looked at Dexter funny. “Did you say you found a dead man mister?” she asked.

Dexter was not in a mood to talk to illiterate scum. Still, he knew he was out-numbered and his cell phone was back in the room. “Yes, I did and he was not freshly dead either. He’d been laying there for a week or more.”

“Serves the old man right,” one of the other patrons responded. “He was never right with Jesus. Besides, all that money and he never spent a dime on his wife or boy.”

“What did you say?” Dexter asked.

The waitress smiled, “Oh, there’s a silly old story that Ben Hill came back from the gulf coast when he was around twenty and had a pirate chest full of gold coins.”

“No, not that, the wife and son you spoke about,” Dexter asked again, his irritation showing slightly.

“He has a boy who lives in town. Works as a janitor for the hospital,” the patron wearing coveralls said. “Neither Hill or his son was ever baptized. Never went to church either.”

“His wife died years ago,” the other man said, nodding. “She was a good Baptist to the end.”

Dexter paid his bill and rushed out of the restaurant. He knew that an heir could mess up his plans. The whole tax issue could be brought to court and the kid could have millions entitled to him for a mere $1500. He called Nathan on his cell phone and asked to meet him at the hotel.

Nathan showed up, wearing a simple suit and tie. He looked haggard. “What’s so important that you called me this time of day?” he asked.

“Hill had a son,” Dexter said quickly, a little annoyed that this hillbilly was being gruff with him.

“Yes, I know about Benny. He’s a simpleton that cleans toilets at the local clinic,” Nathan replied.

“Well, that simpleton now has the right to appeal the eviction. He owns the property, not me,” Dexter said loudly. “He can have us both over a barrel.”

“No, he won’t. I already talked to him. He’ll give up the land for $300 cash,” Nathan said, smiling. “I have the money here. You want to come along?”

They met with Benny at a small pool hall in town. The sign out front said billiards but there was only one table. The establishment had six booths and a bar along the far wall. The light was dim and the room smelled of stale beer and cigarette smoke. A jukebox was playing softly in the background.

Benny was a squat man with mottled skin. He looked like a leprosy victim. His hair was a greasy brown mess that needed combing and delousing. He wore a single filthy brown jumpsuit that was designed for the dirty work he did. He was eating a sandwich with grimy hands that left dirt prints on the white bread.

“I works nights because no one likes to see me,” he said in a wheezy voice.

“Your daddy died you know,” Nathan said to Benny.

“Good for him,” Benny said, smiling through brown teeth. “I never liked the old coot. He hit me all the time.”

“This man is willing to buy your daddy’s property for cash money if you’re willing to sell,” Nathan said.

“Good enough!” Benny said loudly. “Just promise you burn the shack down to the ground. I can’t go in there or near the place.”

“Too many bad memories?” Dexter asked, speaking for the first time.

“Yeah, that too. I also still ain’t allowed in there,” Benny said looking directly at Dexter. “You gotta promise to burn the house and barns down. They is bad and awful dangerous.”

Dexter looked Benny in the eyes. These were the bluest eyes he’d ever seen. It was like looking into the depths of some primordial sea. Dexter shook his head to clear his mind and said, “I promise, by next month you won’t recognize the place.”

Benny patted the table asking for the money. Nathan handed the young man a brown envelope filled with money. He also pushed a contract toward Benny and told him to sign it. Benny scrawled his signature along the bottom line. Dexter called the bartender over and had him witness for twenty dollars.

“Benny, aren’t you concerned about the treasure?” the bartender asked, looking at the contract.

“Oh, there ain’t no treasure in that there chest,” Benny said as he took a bite of his sandwich.

Outside, Dexter looked at Nathan, “Why is he so blemished?”

“No one knows. His daddy was a pale white man and his mama was normal. There aren’t any other people around here who look like him so we know Mrs. Hill was faithful to Mr. Hill,” Nathan said. “Anyway, she died giving birth to Benny. That’s why the old man beat the kid to idiocy.”

Dexter nodded. “I’m going back to my room. Call me on the cell when the autopsy is done. I want out of this place as soon as possible.”

While walking, he thought about Benny’s last words. He had said that the chest was empty. That didn’t shock Dexter. He expected as much from a simpleton. The others at the diner seemed certain the money was there. Dexter shook his head. There probably was no money on the farm. Yet he feared some migrant laborer or a menial in his own firm would find something of value and keep it for themselves. The contract said that the land and everything on it was his. Dexter decided that he’d explore the property before any of the locals or the cops had a chance to poke around and steal what was rightfully his.

Dexter drove out in his Aston Martin to the old Hill place. He expected to see a cop car watching the place. Instead, all he saw was a strip of yellow tape across the driveway. Dexter didn’t want to break the tape and alert the cops to his presence. Therefore, he parked a little ways up from the driveway. He figured that they would assume someone was fishing in the stream.

Dexter then cut across the pasture to the old farmhouse. The door was sealed as well. Dexter cut the tape and opened the door. Inside it stilled smelled of rotted corpse. It took Dexter a minute to get used to the smell. He smiled and thought to himself that his parents’ home smelled a lot worse when he found them.

He poked around the house, surveying it quickly. There were four rooms in all—a living room, a kitchen, and two bedrooms. The house was immaculate, very different from the outward appearance. Dexter wondered where the bathrooms were, and then he noticed a small outhouse through the kitchen window. He chuckled and shook his head. He was truly in the dark ages here. A quick search around the house showed no place for hidden panels or even a secret door. Dexter was beginning to think that the trunk didn’t really exist after all when he noticed a small door in the kitchen near the sink.

The door was a simple affair with a painted white knob. It looked like a fuse box panel. He opened it slowly, expecting a trap. Instead, inside he saw a simple key on a hook. Taking the key he looked around for the padlock it went to.

Nothing was padlocked inside the house so Dexter went outside, searching. He cringed, hoping that the outhouse wasn’t the location of the chest. His luck held. Going around back, he saw a basement entrance on the side of the house. It was a wedge of two red, rusted steel doors. They were locked with a simple padlock. He examined the doors closely. They hadn’t been opened in years. Spider webs and debris covered the doors. Dexter tried the key and it fit perfectly. It took a few tries but he eventually unlocked the old lock.

The doors opened with loud metallic creaks and groans. They revealed stone steps going down to a dirt floor basement. Dexter went down the stairs, brushing aside cobwebs. At the bottom he couldn’t find any light switches and it was too dark to fumble around looking for a light switch. He remembered he had an emergency flashlight in his car’s trunk. So he ran to the car and ran back in minutes. When he got to the house, he was out of breath. This was the most running he’d done since he was a young man.

The flashlight revealed a simple basement filled with various items. An old table, a couple of packing crates, a crib and children’s toys. It looked almost like a nursery from some bad horror flick. Poking around he saw a small chest on one of the tables.

The chest was made of bronze and was sealed with a flimsy silver cord instead of a lock. Dexter smiled. Everyone talked about this treasure chest. Here it was, just an ornament for a child’s room. The chest was around two feet wide and six inches tall. Dexter lifted it up, surprised at its weight. The box actually seemed to shift around when he moved it, telling him that something heavy was inside. Putting the flashlight to one side, he used both hands to carry the box upstairs to the sunlight.

The weight was unbelievable. It took Dexter over an hour to get the chest to his car. As much as he wanted to see what was inside, he figured it was best to open it when he was someplace safer. He rushed back to the house and covered all signs that he’d been there and ran back to his car. When he got to his hotel room, the police were waiting for him.

Figuring they saw him taking the chest, he prepared for the worst. Instead, they had the coroner’s report that stated that Mr. Hill had died of asphyxiation.

“Asphyxiation?” Dexter asked in shock.

“Yeah, apparently he swallowed a peach pit and died a week ago,” the police officer said grimly.

“Then I can go home?” Dexter asked.

“Yes, sir,” the policeman said and left.

That night Dexter was in his apartment in Atlanta. He was going to go out on the town and celebrate his triumph. Still he wondered about the chest. He’d brought it up to his apartment via the freight elevator and set it on his dining room table. The bronze was quite old. It was covered in engraved drawings, depicting hybrid sea monsters. Half-men, half-lizard or octopus, the etchings were hard to concentrate on. Shaking his head he cut the thread of silver and opened the chest.

Inside was a pool of water. Steam started to rise from the water.

Dexter reached in and felt something soft and pliable touch his fingers. A deep revulsion hit Dexter with a might he’d never felt before. It was an ancient, near instinctual fear of what he touched that gripped him. He immediately pulled his hand back. Suddenly a large tentacle darted out and enveloped Dexter. He screamed for a moment and was silenced.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that his lawyer had found Dexter dead in his apartments. Every bone in his body had been crushed. The police suspected that someone he’d swindled in the past had killed him. Nothing was stolen from the apartment, the police had no suspects, and no solid leads.

Benny was sitting in the billiard hall with a new friend when he heard the news. He lifted up his bottle of beer and said quite loudly, “To Dexter.”

The friend who could have been Benny’s twin brother raised his beer and said in a slurred voice, “To Dexter!”

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