Three Friends Diner

August 2, 2015 at 12:00 AM

The estimated reading time for this post is 26 minutes, 47 seconds

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To:  Jeremy Fuentes, Ph.D
Professor of Cultural Anthropology
University of California, Berkeley

Jeremy –

        I assume you have heard about the strange discovery made at 918 E. 3rd Street – a converted warehouse located on the corner of 3rd and Weller Avenue, in the middle of the Arts District in Downtown Los Angeles.

        The building is currently undergoing renovations.  Three weeks ago, construction workers noted a foul odor wafting through the property, coming from behind what they had thought was a solid brick wall.  But upon further investigation, it was discovered that the inside measurements of the property did not match up with the outside.  There was, in fact, a 25x30ft. space on the first floor completely overlooked.  A secret room, so to speak; one inaccessible from any point inside the building or out.  It was located at the far end of the property, along the wall forming the west side of Weller.

        With permission, the workers broke through the wall to access the otherwise-inaccessible area.  Immediately, they were floored by the overpowering stench of rotting meat.  Bandannas over their noses, they entered the enclosure. 

        Inside, they found a nice 16mm camera, smashed to bits.  They found film equipment, all destroyed – cracked lights, torn screens, metal light stands folded like paperclips.  Cheap-looking framed paintings and kitschy prop menus scattered like confetti.  And three bodies.

        Three decomposing bodies, in a state too disturbing for description.  Though the term “half-eaten” has been thrown around.

        How the equipment, or the corpses, ended up there has yet to be determined.  Neither the walls nor the ceiling were disturbed at any point, and there was no sign of tunneling under the four-foot-thick concrete floor.

        No one can explain how three dead people and a bunch of film paraphernalia magically appeared within a completely walled-off space. But it was all the more shocking for me, personally, due to the contents of a handwritten letter left for me by a former patient of mine.

         Her name was Kathryn Soo.  She voluntarily checked herself into the Marsdale Psychiatric Treatment Center, where I am an on-call physician, several months ago, and was discharged shortly before the horrific discovery at 918 E. 3rd Street.  I am no longer in contact with the young woman.  However, I believe you will find her testimony – a transcript of which I have enclosed – very intriguing.

Sincerely,

Larry Schurr, M.D.

*****

Testimony of Katy Soo
1/5/2015, Marsdale Psychiatric Hospital

        Just for the record, shooting Bella Cardone’s movie at the Three Friends Diner wasn’t my idea.  I told her it was a scam; that no restaurateur in Los Angeles with two brain cells to rub together would have possibly charged us so little for a location so photogenic.  Again and again, I insisted it just felt wrong.

        I was right.  I used to like being right.

        A little back story.

        I’m Katy.  I’m 21 years old.  I used to be a junior at Cal State Northridge, studying business administration and film production.  I enjoyed the phone calls and the organizing and the paperwork-filling that most film students hate, and had built up a modest reputation as a pre-production guru amongst my classmates, as well as with friends and acquaintances who attended other schools.

        Bella Cardone was one of such acquaintances, a 29-year-old international student from Italy I’d met at a third-rate horror film festival.  She’d been employed at a television station in Rome doing… something, but dreamed of writing and directing Hollywood movies.  She was one of a dozen or so, mostly foreign, enrollees a year and a half into the two-year Master’s program at New York Film Academy; she was writing her thesis script at the time, and asked me to help organize the production of the short film.

        Her script was about a starving artist working as a waitress, who gets dumped by her boyfriend then has an existential breakdown in which she imagines herself poisoning her customers and getting tortured, culminating with a series of flash cuts in which she simultaneously slashes her wrists and drowns in the ocean.

        Typical pretentious grad student fare.

        We needed to lock down five locations: an apartment, a beach, a park, something that could function as a dungeon, and a restaurant.  The beach and the park were relatively easy, and a classmate of Bella’s agreed to let us use her North Hollywood apartment for two days.  Another classmate, a quiet little guy named Sandeep, discreetly told me about an S&M store with a basement dungeon they infrequently rented out for movie shoots.  I don’t know how he came to be so familiar with such an establishment, and I’m not sure I want to know, but it proved ideal for our purposes.  Which left the restaurant – a notoriously difficult one for student and independent filmmakers.

        So when I found a little French place in Encino on Craigslist, got in touch with the manager, and played the “broke student” card so well he granted us use of his restaurant for a night for a little over $400, I was ready to sign the papers, get the permit, and move on.  It was two weeks before Bella’s scheduled first day of shooting, and I had a million other things to worry about – from liability insurance to catering to talking Northridge underclassmen into helping out as G&E crew and PA’s.

        Bella, however, thought $400 for a night was too expensive, and remained convinced she could find a better deal.  So she went on Craigslist herself and placed a “restaurant wanted for student film” ad.  But I’d put up a similar posting three weeks earlier (that’s how I found the French place in Encino), and Bella received the exact same responses from the exact same people.

        With one exception: an e-mail from [email protected], which she forwarded to me.  It read like this:

CLEAP LOCTN for filmn studnts!  Restarant in downtown Losangeles.  35 weller ave.  100 fr day. Rsp nd to this email, will send you key, pay on dt of filming.  MST b decmbr 3rd aftr noon.

         I was suspicious immediately.  $100 for a day of filming seemed a little too good to be true. Then there was the poor spelling and lack of contact information, and the fact that when I tried to respond to the e-mail, all I got was an error message.

        And then there was the key.

        The key turned up in Bella’s on-campus mailbox two days after the e-mail, enclosed in a stained brown envelope with no return address.  And as if that wasn’t creepy enough, it came with a scrawled note – “key to 3 frends dinr.”

        I was ready to call it a scam and be done with it.  But Bella thought we should at least check the place out.  If it was real, she argued, it was too good a deal to pass up.  Movies are expensive, and we were already pushing her budget.  So I agreed to go with her and Hamed Shirazi, the cinematographer, to 35 Weller Avenue.  Which, it turned out, was in the middle of the Arts District.

        I have a love-hate relationship with the Arts District.

        It’s a cool place to meet a friend at her new loft.  There’s some nice restaurants and amusing wall art, and the dissonance created by graffiti-coated trashcans, barbed wire, and long smelly lines outside the social services building sharing a block with yoga studios, BMWs, and boutique gift shops hawking 80-buck vintage baby sweaters is ironically poetic.  But the streets are one-way and parking is nonexistent.  I drove in a triangle for fifteen minutes before surrendering and pulling into a $10-flat-rate lot.

        “Weller Avenue” wasn’t a street so much as a glorified driveway – a short, narrow alley that branched off of 3rd street and dead-ended.  A large, L-shaped building occupied the east and north sides of Weller.  It appeared to be a closed night-club in the process of being converted into an art gallery. The blacked-out windows were covered with torn, dirty stickers advertising shows long since played and bands long since broken up, and graffiti artists (the gang-affiliated kind, not the Arts Foundation kind) had had their way with both the seafoam-green walls and the ratty trash dumpster abandoned in the corner.

        The grey brick warehouse that functioned as the west side of Weller, 918 E. 3rd Street, looked completely unoccupied.  A sign hung in a window; the building had apparently been bought by East River Development.  I recognized the name – my realtor father knew some people who worked for that company.  They bought old commercial properties and converted them into trendy, pricey apartments.

        The most prominent visual, however, was the mural painted on the north wall.  It depicted the head and chest of a woman, face tilted eastward.  The woman had tan skin, ruby-red lips, and flowing hair in varying shades of blue – periwinkle at the tips, darkening to deep lavender at her scalp.  Her eyes were closed.  In the background, some distance behind her, was what appeared to be an orange grove.  It was a beautiful painting, and strangely mesmerizing.  If you looked at the woman one way, she seemed young and innocent, sporting a demure grin.  Then, if you cocked your head or blinked, lines appeared on her cheeks and her lips rearranged themselves into a pouty sneer.

        I saw only one door on Weller, leading into the grey building.

        It was a very shabby door of splintery, untreated wood; with a rusting doorknob and keyhole.  No business name.  No street number.  This couldn’t possibly be the restaurant from Craigslist – Three Friends Diner, I guess it was called.  How did anyone ever find the place?  I was still puzzling when Bella and Hamed found me.

        “Bloody hell!” Hamed barked, in lieu of a greeting.  “Where’s the restaurant?”

        “Here, according to my phone,” I said.  “I’m willing to bet money someone is fucking with us.”

        Bella didn’t seem too concerned; her eyes were fixed on the mural.

        “So pretty!” she exclaimed.  “Can we film?”

        I shrugged.  “I’m not sure.  We might run into some copyright issues.  And it doesn’t look like we’re going to be filming here at all, since we’re not looking at a restaurant.”

        Bella frowned at me, and took the key out of her purse.  She walked up to the wooden door.

        “Here?” she asked.

        “I don’t think so,” I said.  “There’s no sign or anything.  I mean, you can try it, but I’m really doubting that key is going to fit into that…”

        Bella turned the key and pulled at the knob.  With a creak, the door opened.  Hamed and I rushed to her and, together, we stepped inside. Hamed scrambled for a light switch, and then the room was illuminated by a warm, golden glow.

        We found ourselves staring at Three Friends Diner.  It was perfect.

        It was a larger space than I’d thought it would be; rectangular-shaped, the kitchen jutting out from the north wall.  Behind the kitchen was a small corridor leading to the bathroom and a closet that could function as dry storage.  The walls were painted that particular shade of deep red that looks beautiful on film, and the tables and chairs and diner-style booths were a nice contrast in black and grey.  And each table was adorned with a salt and pepper shaker, an empty bottle of ketchup, and a vase of plastic lilies.

        “Don’t get too excited yet,” I said to Hamed, who was examining one of the series of stained-glass lamps from which light was emanating.  “We don’t know how much juice you’ve got to work with.”

        “That’s the beauty of it,” he said gleefully.  “I don’t even need that much juice.  If we come a bit early and switch out all these bulbs, I can use the lamps as practicals.  Plus, this place obviously isn’t open yet, which means I’m not sharing power with anything.”

        He was right about that.  The freezers and refrigerators were unplugged, the storage closet was empty, and there wasn’t a plate or a cup or a scrap of food to be found.  It was definitely a new restaurant, the latest in an avalanche of trendy urban eateries inundating the Arts District as the neighborhood gentrified.  Of course it was hard to find.  That would lend an air of mystery to the diner, foster the impression of exclusivity, attract a Twitter following.

        “I love it!” Bella announced.  “Can you get permit?”

        I tried to talk her out of it.  Something about Three Friends Diner made me nervous, made the little hairs on the back of my neck stand up.  But it was exactly what Bella had been looking for, and Hamed had already started planning shots, and the little hairs on the back of my neck didn’t stand a chance against cheap, gorgeous, and logistically ideal.  The restaurant wasn’t open yet, which meant we could shoot during the day, decorate how we wanted, and place the camera anywhere without worrying about being in anyone’s way.  And December 3rd – the date the mysterious proprietors had insisted on – was our scheduled 6th day of shooting.

        “Don’t look under the horse you get,” Bella told me.

        I think she meant “don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.”

        That saying is a reference to the Trojan Horse, given as a token of surrender by the Greeks during the Trojan War.  I don’t know why people keep repeating it.  Because if the Trojans had looked into that horse’s wooden mouth, the Illiad might have ended differently.

        As I said before, I’d been forced to park in a ten-dollar lot.  And, of course, the attendant’s iPhone was malfunctioning, so I couldn’t pay with my card.  I had no cash; the attendant directed me to a convenience store on Alameda that apparently had an ATM.  I wasn’t thrilled. It was getting dark, and a trendy neighborhood six blocks from Skid Row is still a trendy neighborhood, six blocks from Skid Row.

         The convenience store stuck out like a gold tooth; a little scrap of what the neighborhood used to be, wedged between a café and a construction site.  A cracked neon sign branded it “Alameda Mart,” the ice cream fridge was stuffed with La Michoacana popsicles, and the cash register sat behind a pane of bulletproof glass.  I engaged in battle what must have been the slowest ATM known to man, and was mentally cursing the “loading” screen when I became aware of the sole other customer in the shop.

        “Need to pay for parking?” he asked.

        I turned.  The man standing behind me was obviously homeless – he wore grime-caked jeans and a stained military service jacket, and his leathery face demonstrated the dullness of days with no soap.

        I nodded and smiled.

        “You a tourist?”

        I shook my head.  “Student filmmaker, actually.  My friend’s going to shoot at this restaurant on Weller.”

        Immediately, I doubted the wisdom of sharing this piece of information.  I didn’t want him to show up and beg for change.  But his unshaven face fell, and his tone became one of alarm rather than anticipation.

        “There’s no restaurant on Weller,” he murmured.  “There’s just Bessie.”

        I giggled.  “Bessie?”

        He nodded.  “That’s what folks ‘round here call her.  The old folks say she can change things.  Make things appear and dis’pear.”

        He leaned in, narrowed his eyes, and dropped his voice to a conspiratorial whisper.

        “If I was you, I’d stay away.  They say each twenty years, for one day, Bessie ‘comes corp’real and feeds.”

         I would have asked him to elaborate; to explain exactly who “Bessie” was and why I should be afraid.  But right then the shop proprietor noticed the homeless man, and yelled at him what I’d assume were not nice words in Spanish.  He booked it and, by the time the ATM coughed up my cash and I was back on Alameda, he’d disappeared.

        On the way to the car lot, I passed Weller.  The blue-haired girl was right where I’d left her.  Standing in front of a grove of trees in three-quarters profile, facing westward towards the door of the Three Friends Diner, eyes closed.  Was she “Bessie?”

        Then fear washed over me like a cold shower, and I ran.  I threw a twenty at the parking attendant and got out of there as fast as I could.  Something about that mural had scared the shit out of my subconscious.  Halfway to the 405 freeway, I figured it out.

        She – Bessie – was facing the wrong way.

*****

        Bella’s first five days of filming went delightfully well.  So well that, when I arrived at Three Friends Diner for the sixth and final day, December 3rd, I forgot I was scared of the place.

       Crew call was one.  Hamed had already been there for an hour, switching out light bulbs and unloading equipment with Esteban the gaffer and two grips, Miguel and Andrea.  Our grip truck was parked out front, partially obstructing my view of the mural.  But I could tell that Bessie was facing eastwards, towards the club-turned-gallery.  As she had been the first time I saw her.  Of course.  It had been dark that night, and I’d been scared and alone.  I’d seen things that weren’t really there.

        I made my way through the obstacle course of lights and c-stands, set up my iPad at an unused table, and worked on the equipment drop-off schedule as crew members filtered in.  I heard Katia’s voice at least a minute before she and Bella walked through the door.  God, that chick was loud.  Bossy, too; no wonder she was such a good assistant director.  Then came Venna, the production designer, carrying a large box of prop-house framed pictures and the menus she’d designed.  Nairi, the 1st camera assistant, set up the Arri while her lackey du jour loaded film.  Then two more grips, Pete and Ryan.  Kaylee and Michelle, the freshman PA’s.  Lisa, the script supervisor.  Dante, the sound guy.  And finally Ming, the make-up artist.

        Then the actors came, and then Hamed and the guys were setting up lights for the master shot, and then Katia was calling for last looks, and then we were pushing in for close-ups.  The first four hours went as smoothly and productively as we had any right to expect and, for a short time, we entertained the possibility of finishing early.  We were an hour ahead of schedule when we broke for lunch, everyone talking and laughing and enjoying themselves.

        That’s when things started getting weird.

        Right after lunch, as we were picking ourselves up and resuming our work, one of the freshman PA’s – Michelle – went to use the restroom.

        A minute later, there was a bloodcurdling scream.

        Ryan dropped a c-stand.  Nairi nearly dropped a lens.  Hamed and Esteban took frantic steps towards the bathrooms as Michelle sprinted down the hall back towards us.

        “Who the fuck was in the storage closet?” she cried.

        We all looked at each other.

        “Seriously,” Michelle demanded.  “This isn’t funny.  You fucking knocked me over.”

        “Michelle,” Katia asked, “what are you talking about?”

        Michelle was trembling.  She looked ready to cry.

        “I went to the bathroom,” she said.  “And I heard this… thumping coming from the closet that’s back there.   Someone was pounding on the door.”

        “We didn’t hear anything,” Hamed said.

        “Someone was, like, ramming against the door,” Michelle repeated.  “And so I opened it.  And someone ran right into me, then ran towards you guys.”

        She sobbed.  Hamed narrowed his eyes.

        “You sure, Michelle? Because we were all out here, and no one came running from the bathrooms.”

        “He was wearing a black hoodie,” Michelle insisted.

        I looked over the dining room to see if anyone was missing.  Nope.  Seventeen crew members, four actors.  None of whom was wearing a black hoodie.  All inside a restaurant with only one entrance.

        “You didn’t see who it was?” I asked Michelle, rather stupidly.

        “Obviously not!” she shouted.  “It happened really fast.  I just saw the black hoodie and really pale, really white skin.”

        We couldn’t solve the mystery.  Michelle was pretty shaken up.  One of the grips, Miguel, offered to drive her back to Northridge.  He said he had to go, too, because he had afternoon classes.  But it was hard to miss the tremble in his voice or the dampness of his palms.  And suddenly Kaylee, the other PA, also had “classes” she’d forgotten to mention, and tagged along with them back to campus.

        Three hours after that incident, we set up for our last shot in the dining area before moving to the kitchen.  Though we’d come to the unspoken agreement that Michelle was either looking for attention or smoking pot in the bathroom, everyone was a little bit on edge, and it had slowed us down.

        To speed things up, I offered to help Venna dress the kitchen.  She’d brought cutting boards, utensils, bread, lunch meat, and enough restaurant necessities to make the empty kitchen look like a busy back-of-house.  At one point, she ran to her car to fetch some plates she’d bought from the 99 Cents Store. 

I was arranging knives on a knife block.  I accidentally dropped one; it skidded across the floor and got stuck under one of the large industrial refrigerators.  I knelt down and reached under the refrigerator to grab it.  As I did, I heard a creak behind me – a door opening on stubborn hinges.

        I straightened up and turned around, still on my knees.  A blast of cold air hit me in the face.  I was staring into an open freezer, ice caked on the back of the door and the walls.

        There were bodies in the freezer.

        Old, decomposing bodies.   Wrinkled, leathery skin peeling off yellowed bones.  Bones that were oddly compromised, shattered, pulverized.  Greenish mold clinging to the remains of brain matter cradled in cracked skulls.  The putrescent smell of rotting flesh.

        I closed my eyes and screamed.  And screamed and screamed and screamed.

        “Katy!  What the fuck, Katy!”  I heard Hamed’s voice, felt his hand on my arm, shaking me.

        I opened my eyes.

        The freezer was empty.  Empty and turned off.

        I looked up to see Bella and Venna standing over me.  The rest of the crew was crowded around the kitchen entrance or watching through the window that separated it from the dining room.

        “Sorry guys,” I stammered, heart still racing.  “I… I thought I saw a rat.  Did I ruin the shot?”

        Hamed shook his head.  “We’re done.  You sure you’re okay?”

        I nodded.  “Um, can I talk to you and Bella and Katia outside?”

        The three muttered agreement, and we made our way across the dining room and out the door as the rest of the crew set up lights in the kitchen.  I had to tell them.  We had to leave.  Now.  Someone… something… was trying to impress on us we weren’t welcome.

        “I thought I saw… dead things in that freezer,” I started, quite pathetically.  “It was on, and it was cold, and there was this smell.”

        Bella’s eyes widened.  Hamed cocked his head, frowning.  Katia crossed her arms.

        “I mean,” I continued, “I know it was just a hallucination.  But it felt so real, and I’m not schizophrenic, and the thing with Michelle and… I think we should leave.  There’s something really wrong going on here.”

        I’d expected them to laugh at me, or to treat me like a patient in a psych ward.  They did neither.

        “Yeah, this place is starting to creep me out, too,” Hamed said.  “For starters, where are the bloody owners?  Who hands a stranger the key to their business?  Either they’re mental, or they’ve got some ulterior motive.”

        He lowered his voice.  “And I’m getting these sensations.  Like, somebody’s watching us.”

        Bella and Katia nodded in agreement, concern in their eyes.  They’d felt it, too.

        “We can find another restaurant,” I told Bella.  “All we need is the kitchen – we can easily cheat that, make it look like it’s the same place.”

        “I’ll do whatever you want me to do,” Hamed said to her, “but I think we should consider packing up early.”

        Bella looked at Katia, then Hamed, then me.  Her expression softened for a second, then she set her jaw.

        “We wait one hour,” she said.  “No problems, we film.”

        We decided not to tell the crew and the one remaining actress about the agreement we’d come to, fearing they’d panic and make a big deal out of what could have been nothing more than the effect of darkness on a big city.  But several of them were undeniably scared and looking for an excuse to leave.

        As soon as the four of us walked back through the door, Nairi and the nameless 2nd AC walked out.  We were “too immature” for them, Nairi told Katia.  Dante, the sound guy, asked Bella if he could head out early, since we didn’t need any sync sound for the kitchen scene.  Two hours earlier, he’d insisted on staying around for the sole purpose of getting various kitchen sounds.  And when the lights were set and the blocking was rehearsed and last looks were called for, we found that Ming the makeup artist had quietly packed up her kit and left.

        No big loss.  The actress was perfectly capable of applying the simple make-up design herself.  Pete, one of the grips, was fairly adept at pulling focus, and Hamed conscripted me to hold the slate.  And our agreed-upon hour had passed with no new unexplained phenomena.

        Finally, Hamed flipped the camera on, and Bella called “action.”  The actress unenthusiastically smeared mayo onto bread, stacked lunch meat and lettuce, then smiled evilly.  She turned to grab the poisonous cleaning solution from under the sink…

        And then the lights all went off.

        Somewhere in the pitch-blackness, someone shrieked.  There was a bump, and a thud, and then the dining room lamps came on.  Esteban had found the switch.

       “Someone ran by me!” Lisa cried.  “Who brushed against me?”

       “It couldn’t be an outage,” Hamed said to one of the grips.  “The house lights work fine.”

       “Seriously!” Lisa sobbed.  “Who the fuck pushed me?”

       “Hey!”  Esteban yelled.  “Guys!”

        We all shoved our way into the dining room.  The grip crew had plugged the five lights we were using for the kitchen scenes into five different electrical outlets amongst the tables.  The power cables were spread out, lying across the carpet like a spiderweb, so as not to draw too much electricity from any one spot.

        Every cable had been severed.  Sliced down the middle; perfect, clean cuts, as though accomplished with a sharp knife.

       “Who the fuck did that?” Katia snapped, trying and failing to disguise her distress.

Because she knew all ten crew members had been in the kitchen.  And that no one person could have cut all five cables at exactly the same time.

        “Everybody out!” Hamed demanded.  “Now!”

        Nobody needed to be told twice.  We pushed through the wooden door and convened on the sidewalk, under the closed eyes of the blue-haired mural girl.  The Northridge students huddled together, Katia paced, Venna glared with her arms crossed, and Bella attempted to regain control over her compromised film set.

        “We cannot leave equipment,” she told anyone who bothered to listen.

        “Forget this shit,” Venna sneered.  “I’m leaving.”

        She stormed off.  The actress threw Bella a helpless look, mumbled “call me,” and started after Venna.  I looked to the four remaining Northridge underclassmen – Andrea, Lisa, Pete, and Ryan.

        “Miguel was going to give us a ride,” Ryan said.

        “I took the bus,” Lisa stammered.

        “Take them home,” Hamed said to me.  “I’ll stay and help Bella pack up.”

        “I can stay, too,” Katia said.

        Esteban nodded at them.

        “Okay, cool,” I said.  “I’ll come back and help you guys finish up after I drop them off.  Give me an hour and a half.”

        No one spoke the entire way back to campus.  The silence was punctuated only by Lisa’s occasional sob.  Andrea reached over and spun the radio dial, to some Top 40 station, then almost immediately turned it off. The two guys stared out their respective windows.  I left them outside the dorms, turned my car around, and headed back towards the 405.

        I couldn’t wrap my head around what I had just experienced.  Some esoteric party had lured us to Three Friends Diner, left a key with a group of complete strangers, demanded we film today – the third – then hadn’t bothered to show up and collect the suspiciously unsubstantial amount they’d asked as payment.  Why?

        To mess with us?  Were we on some kind of hidden camera show?  Was there a trapdoor we didn’t know about?  Maybe there’d been a projector hidden in the kitchen, creating the disturbing image of dead, decomposing corpses in the freezer.

        But how to explain the smell?  Or the cold?  Or the hooded specter that had produced loud knocks behind the storage closet door that only Michelle could hear?

        On to Explanation B – we’d become victims of the creature the homeless man had called “Bessie.”  She was a ghost, or a demon, and we were trespassers on her property.

        Then why not start with the big stunt – the severed cables?  Why the systematic approach, scaring one person at a time?  And this poltergeist theory didn’t explain who’d led us to the Three Friends Diner, or why.

        Led us there, to scare us away.

        Three Friends Diner.

        As I merged onto the 101, four minutes after midnight, I figured it out.

        One hand on the wheel, I called Bella three times, then Hamed twice, then Katia, then Esteban.  Every single time, I was sent directly to voicemail.  I left messages for them – pleading, screaming messages, begging them to forget the equipment and run far, far away.  Then I called 911, and sobbed to the dispatcher that my friends were in grave danger, at 35 Weller Avenue.  She calmly assured me that help would be there in 10 minutes.

        I got there first.

        The streetlights up and down the block had, at some point, gone out, so I found my way to 35 Weller Avenue with only my phone and the moonlight to guide me.  The dim, bluish beam cast by my cell phone fell on the seafoam-green east wall, then the open and half-loaded grip truck, and finally on Hamed.  He lay crumpled on the asphalt, a pool of dark liquid expanding around him.

        I ran to him, screaming his name over and over.  He didn’t respond.  I saw his chest rise and fall feebly as I knelt beside him, and felt a faint carotid pulse.  I rolled him onto his back.  There was a large cut on the side of his head; his hair was matted with blood.  His left arm hung at an odd angle.  But the most distressing injury he’d acquired, and the one responsible for most of the blood, was a series of five deep lacerations into his right bicep.  The muscle was torn, and shattered bone was visible through the mess of ribboned skin and ground-meat fatty tissue.

        The positioning of the lacerations was consistent with the placement of five fingers, latched onto his upper arm.  Five fingers with very long, very sharp claws…

        I tore off my jacket and tied it around his arm like a tourniquet.  My consciousness had kicked into overdrive; I operated on quick flashes of disconnected logic.  Something had attacked Hamed.  It was gone.  It was gone?  Bella.  Katia.  Esteban.  Where the fuck were they?

        I stood up.  Help was on the way, and there wasn’t a whole lot I could do for Hamed until the paramedics got there.  But the rest of them were still in the Three Friends Diner, and if I’d guessed right…

        I ran to the door.

        But the door wasn’t there.  I was staring at a grey, unbroken wall.

        I dashed to the corner of the dead end, and then to the sidewalk, scouring the length of the wall with my phone.  I ran back and forth again and again, feeling the bricks with my fingers.  Nothing.  The one entrance to the Three Friends Diner was just… gone.

        The street lights came back on.  My terrifying impression was confirmed.  I was on Weller, I was facing the right way, but there was no door.  In the distance, I thought I heard sirens.  I looked up at the mural – the pretty blue-haired girl with closed eyes, standing in front of a citrus grove.

        She was gone, too.

        In her place was a shriveled old woman, skin dotted with sickeningly-detailed moles and age spots.  Her hair was the filthy, stringy, disheveled mane of a homeless woman.  Her open mouth took up the entire length of her cheeks, showing off black, rotten, knifelike teeth, dripping blood.  A lot of blood.  Blood that ran down the seafoam-green wall like rainwater, pooling on the asphalt below.

        Her eyes were open.

        Her bloodshot, yellow eyes.  Her dilated pupils, flashing maniacally.  Those bulging, staring, impossibly-detailed eyes.  This was no spray paint.  Her eyes were real.  Then her foot-long pupils shifted, and I swore her fanged smile grew even wider.  She was looking at me.

        This was Bessie.

        I don’t remember the cops showing up, or the fire truck, or the paramedics.  I didn’t notice them lifting Hamed onto a gurney or loading him into an ambulance.  And I have no recollection of the back of the second ambulance, or the psych ER, or the questions I answered for the doctors, or the drugs.

        All I know is that I woke up twenty-three hours later, in the tiny detox room of the private mental hospital my parents had me transferred to.  I stayed there for the remaining 49 hours I was under 5150 hold, then went home to La Crescenta with my family.

        The last I heard, Hamed had regained consciousness and could speak short words like “hi” or “yes.”  This is a good sign; the brain damage may be less severe than the doctors initially thought.  His memory’s shot, of course.  He can’t remember traveling to America, much less what transpired the night he sustained his injuries.  He was lucky, if such a word can possibly apply to his situation, that his left shoulder had taken the brunt of the impact when he hit the wall.  He’d cracked his head on the asphalt at a lower velocity.  The doctors aren’t quite sure what to make of him.  His wounds suggest something threw him, like a discarded Barbie doll, against the east wall of the club-turned-gallery.

        I told the police everything – from the strange email and the key to the mural’s horrifying transformation.  Except the email had disappeared from both my computer and Bella’s, which had been confiscated by the police as evidence.  The key, too, had been misplaced and never found.  And the mural in the crime scene photos was the same mural it had been before that inexplicable night – the lovely profile of a blue-haired girl with closed eyes.

        They were also confused when I referred to 35 Weller Street as a “diner.”  For no diner existed there, nor had ever at any time in the past.  35 Weller Street wasn’t even a real address – there had never been a side door to the grey brick building at 918 E. 3rd Street, and the building had been completely unoccupied for six months.  I insisted.  I described, in minute detail, the deep red walls and the untouched kitchen and the little vases of flowers on every table.  I begged the cops to look at the footage we’d shot.  But that would be impossible, I learned.

        Our camera was missing.  As was half of our equipment, everything that hadn’t been loaded into the grip truck.  As was Bella Cardone.  And Esteban Serra, and Katia Milicevic.  The three had not been seen since the night I’d been found raving and Hamed, half-dead.  Their credit cards had not been used, their cars were still parked on the street in the Arts District, and their phones were off.

        The cops spoke to the other crew members – I hope they corroborated my story.  They designated Hamed’s assault an “animal attack,” and the disappearance of Bella, Esteban, and Katia as a “likely attempt at visa overstaying.”  They kept a lot of the details from the public.  I’m sure they didn’t want to explain how a mountain lion managed to grow an opposable thumb and pick up and throw a man, at 60 miles per hour, against a wall.

        As for me, I’m now a voluntary inpatient at the Marsdale Psychiatric Treatment Center, undergoing treatment for PTSD and an unspecified mood disorder.  It’s okay here.  They let me smoke, and no one freaks out when I wake up screaming in the middle of the night.

        Too late I understood the significance of the name – Three Friends Diner.  Three friends.  The homeless man was right.  “Bessie” is real.  She can make things appear and disappear – the key, the door, the diner.   She’s something inhuman and evil, something that demands sacrifice.  She lured us there.  She played her little games, chasing away a few crew members at a time, until she had a manageable number.  Then she tossed Hamed aside like a chicken bone and took her prize.

        She only wanted three.  Three friends.  Bella, Katia, Esteban.

*****

To:  Jeremy Fuentes, Ph.D
Professor of Cultural Anthropology
University of California, Berkeley

        Jeremy –

        As a postscript to my last letter, I should add that the three bodies found in the secret room of 918 E. 3rd Street have been identified as the three missing foreign students – Bella Cardone, Katia Milicevic, and Esteban Serra.  The police are still at a loss as to how the unfortunate young people met their end, though the condition of their remains suggests they were mauled by an extremely large, extremely violent animal.

        We have also learned that the building at 918 E. 3rd Street, which supposedly housed “Three Friends Diner,” was previously renovated in the early 1990’s.  According to building plans, the “secret room,” in which the bodies were found, was originally designed as a back office.  But the company later decided to seal the area off completely, likely after three overnight workers were found dead there.  Their deaths were attributed to an “explosion.”  An explosion that no one saw or heard, and one that did no structural damage.

       The three workers were found dead on December 4th, 1994.  Which is intriguing, because the three students – Katy’s crew mates – were reported missing as of the early hours of December 4th, 2014.  According to Katy, the e-mail she received stated that the crew must film at “Three Friends Diner” on December 3rd, after noon.  A typical film day is 12 hours, putting their end time at shortly after midnight, December 4th.

       I believe Katy’s homeless man said something about one day, every twenty years.

       I looked through pictures in books, old copies of the LA Times, slides, news footage, etc.  I have included several of these for your perusal.  In every single one, since the warehouse at 918 E. 3rd Street and the L-shaped building next door first opened in 1920, the mural of the woman with blue hair is present.  No artist has ever taken credit for this mural.  And it’s always the same, never dulled by the rain or the sun or time.

        Well, not exactly the same.

        Sometimes the girl faces west, and sometimes she faces east.

Sincerely,

Larry Schurr, MD

Credit To – NickyXX