Most people believe graves are dug six feet deep, but the fact of the matter is their depth is only four feet, and has been for some time. An outbreak of plague in 17th Century England set the original mandate of burial depth. As disease covered the country, laws were passed regarding how to deal with the deceased to avoid further infection. The mayor of London created a protocol for disposing of the infected bodies in his Orders Conceived and Published by the Lord Major and Aldermen of the City of London, Concerning the Infection of the Plague. Among these instructions was the order that all the graves shall be at least six feet deep.
Roddy Sinclair leaned against the rusted backhoe he’d used to dig the young girl’s grave two days prior and watched the crowd of mourners gather around her shiny white casket. It had been a good turnout. There were tears and hugs and all the things you’d expect from a funeral. He’d seen enough in his day. This one was no better or worse. But the amount of people who came to pay their respects was impressive. He rubbed his dirty hands against his skinny arms and could feel the rough skin on the tips of his fingers scratch him. There was no more plague and no more fear. Over time, with proper handling of bodies and the general advancements in medicine and disease, it made more economical sense to reset the depth at four feet, which Roddy had done with this girl’s plot, as well as countless others over the years he’d been working at the cemetery since dropping out of high school.
The array of colorful flowers sitting atop the girl’s casket looked beautiful against the sky that was beginning to change shades of blue as late afternoon turned to early evening. The preacher stood at the head of the crowd, bible in hand, reading a passage that Roddy couldn’t quite hear. The wind carried the general sound of the old man’s voice, but the details were lost in the distance between them.
The funeral was supposed to have taken place hours earlier, but the procession got caught in Labor Day traffic coming from the church to the cemetery as well as a little bad luck in the form of a multi-car accident that shut down the highway in both directions. Most of Roddy’s co-workers had already taken off for the long weekend, leaving only himself and his boss, Mack, to finish up with the girl. That was fine with him. He had no plans for this weekend or any other. Holiday or not, Roddy spent most of his days off sitting on the porch of his mother’s house drinking himself to sleep. He had no friends. He’d been a loner for as long as he could remember, and preferred it that way.
“Amen,” the crowd said in unison.
Roddy watched the mourners begin to thin out as they each thanked the preacher and retreated toward their cars that were lined on the road atop the hill overlooking that section of the cemetery. He pushed himself off the backhoe and shoved his mop of brown hair away from his eyes. He grabbed a pick and shovel that were lying on the ground next to him and threw them over his shoulder.
“You got this?”
The thick rumble of a voice startled Roddy and he turned around quickly to see Mack standing further down the hill by the work shed, wiping his hands with a rag. Mack was tall and built like a linebacker that had stopped playing years ago and let his muscle turn to fat. He was wearing denim overalls with no shirt underneath. His upper body was covered in dirty matted fur.
“I’m fine,” Roddy replied. He took a few steps toward his boss so he didn’t have to shout. “Just waiting for the crowd to go and then I’ll take the backhoe up and get started. Should be done before dark.”
Mack nodded. “I’m still working on the loader. I think it’s the carburetor. Damn thing’s all fucked up and I need it running again before everyone gets back from the weekend. You can handle this one yourself?”
“Sure, no problem. I’ll stop in when I’m done.”
Mack turned away and disappeared into the shed while Roddy returned to the backhoe. He looked at the gravesite and could see the last of the mourners making their way toward their cars. He tossed the pick and shovel in the cab of the machine, hopped in, and started it up. Fumes coughed out of the exhaust as Roddy put it in gear and carefully began making his way toward the pile of earth he’d need to fill back in.
“Done before dark,” he whispered to himself. “No problem.”
The backhoe was old, but Roddy was a master. He maneuvered the big machine around the existing headstones and parked it with enough distance so as not to damage anything around the new plot, but close enough for the boom and basket to do their job. He put on the emergency brake and climbed out of the cab. The sun was slowly sliding down the sky toward the horizon. It would be night before long, but the day remained stifling. He wiped his brow with the bottom of his stained white T-shirt and walked on.
The white casket hovered over the hole in the ground, suspended by six nylon straps that were attached to the casket lowering device. Roddy leaned over and pulled the mound of flowers off, making a pile that he would later take to the dumpster out back. The flowers were biodegradable, so the cemetery used them in their fertilizer mix once they decomposed. Despite what loved ones thought, they were never buried with the dead.
A gentle breeze worked its way through the cemetery and cooled the sweat on Roddy’s face. He bent down and released the hand brake that was holding the straps in place. The casket began its slow descent into the hole. He watched it go as he’d watched so many others before. When it was finally in place, he disconnected the straps and folded the ends of the lowering device so he could transport everything back in the truck when he was done. As he turned to remove the green tarp from the dirt pile that sat waiting next to the gravesite, he noticed a lone figure walking down the hill toward him. The man was dressed in a plain black suit, white shirt, and black tie. There was no car parked behind him on the road above. He seemed to have come out of nowhere.
The man raised a hand toward Roddy when he was halfway down the hill and Roddy waved back. He grabbed the shovel from inside the backhoe and waited as the man approached.
“Afternoon, sir,” Roddy said. “Can I help you?”
The man stopped at the edge of the grave and looked down, his hands folding in front of him. “I’m not too late.”
“I was afraid by the time I got here she’d already be buried and I’d be too late. There was an accident on the interstate and I was delayed.”
“Yeah, the whole procession was delayed. I was just about to start. Everyone else left. Looks like the preacher’s gone too. ”
The man looked to be in his forties, thick but worn. His green eyes seemed to glow in the approaching dusk. The skin on his face was wrinkled from years of being in the sun. His hair was salt and pepper, but full and thick. It hung over his ears and past the collar of his shirt and suit jacket. “Do you mind if I take a few minutes before you start?” he asked. “She was very dear to me.”
Roddy nodded and backed away. “You take all the time you need. I’m sorry for your loss.”
“Am I what?”
“Sorry for my loss. You said you were sorry for my loss. Are you?”
There was a brief moment when the entire cemetery went silent and there was only Roddy and the stranger. But that moment passed quickly and Roddy shrugged. “That’s what they tell us to say if any of the mourners ever talk to us.”
The man nodded. “I guess that’s sound advice, but you don’t know me and you didn’t know her, so how could you be sorry?”
“I have no idea,” Roddy replied as he retreated toward the backhoe. “I just do what they tell me.”
“Smart move. Doing what they tell you. Better that way, don’t you think?”
“I’ll be over here. Take all the time you need.”
Roddy shuffled along to the backhoe. He leaned his shovel against the door of the cab and turned to sit on the step rail. He didn’t want to pry, but couldn’t help notice the man slowly circling the grave, looking down at all different angles, judging, peering, circling around and around. Roddy watched as the man suddenly stopped, bent down, and stared for a long period of time before standing straight again to continue his odd behavior. It was as if Roddy was watching a cat circling a mouse or a tiger circling a fallen gazelle. There was something predatory about his behavior, and it was frightening to see.
After a few more turns around the plot, the man finally stopped at the head of the grave and sat on the ground with crossed legs. Roddy pushed himself off the step rail and made his way toward the shed. He didn’t want keep leering at the stranger and certainly didn’t want to be hovering over someone who was mourning the loss of a loved one. That wasn’t good form. It wasn’t the guy’s fault he was late to the services. Between the accident and the holiday, the highway was backed up and there was nothing anyone could do about it. He’d give him some time to grieve alone and then he’d get the dirt filled in before sundown.
Mack was working under the frontend loader when Roddy walked in. A radio was playing somewhere in the background. The boss’s thick legs were all he could see. “Yo, Mack!”
The big man slid out from under the truck, wrench in one hand, rubber hammer in the other. “You done already?”
“Nah. Family member came late. I’m just giving him a few minutes. How’s it going?”
“I’m getting there. Should have it running by Tuesday, but I gotta come in tomorrow for sure. Maybe even Sunday.”
“At least they’ll pay you time-and-a-half.”
“I’d rather have the days off.”
Roddy looked out the window, but could only see the tip of the backhoe’s boom from where they were. “Do me a favor,” he said. “If you don’t see that backhoe working in the next fifteen minutes, come up to the site and help me get rid of this guy. I don’t want to be disrespectful, but I ain’t filling in the hole in the dark. I gotta see what I’m doing. You know what I mean?”
Mack slid back under the truck. “Yup. Fifteen minutes. Got it.”
The gravel crunched under Roddy’s feet as he left the shed and walked back along the path and up a slight hill to reach the gravesite. The man was still there, sitting, legs crossed, staring into the hole. Roddy cleared his throat announce his presence, but the man didn’t move. He just continued staring.
Roddy stepped forward. “Excuse me?”
“You said I could take all the time I needed, yet here you are, standing over me, waiting for me to leave.”
“Well, no sir. I mean, yes. But you…you see, I have to get this done before it gets dark and with the procession being late because of the traffic mess, time kinda got away from me and I really need to finish. I don’t mean to rush you, I really don’t. I know this is a sensitive thing, but this isn’t the type of task you can do in the dark and it obviously can’t wait ‘till morning.”
The man reached up and loosened his tie. He unbuttoned the top button of his shirt and spread his collar out, fanning himself with his hand. “It’s hot.”
“Gonna be like this all week.”
There was an awkward pause before the man nodded and finally looked up from the grave. He smiled, but there was something in the way his thin lips curved up and around his face that made Roddy uneasy. “She was a special girl.”
“I’m sure she was.”
“I’ve had other women in my life. She was one to remember.”
Roddy didn’t know what to say so he looked down at his shoes and shrugged. “I know they tell us to say how sorry we are to any of the grieving friends and relatives that come here, but I really am sorry for your loss. I can see that she meant a lot to you. I can see it on your face.”
“Can you?” the man asked. He glanced up to the sky as if pondering Roddy’s observation. “I guess that tells you just how much she meant to me. If you can see it, and you’re a total stranger, then I suppose I really do miss her as much as I say I do.”
Roddy took a few steps closer. He knew he needed to speed things up, and he’d read somewhere that talking things out could be the catalyst he needed to get this guy on his way. “Were you a friend or relative?”
“Then how did you know her, if you don’t mind me asking?”
The man smiled again, this time showing his yellow teeth. He reached into the inside of his jacket pocket and came away with a pack of cigarettes. He pulled one from the pack and slipped it between his teeth. “What’s your name?”
“Roddy, sir. Roddy Sinclair.”
“What’s Roddy short for?”
“Nothin’. My mama named me Roddy and put it right like that on my birth certificate. You ain’t the first person to think it’s a nickname.”
The man reached back into his pocket and came away with a small book of matches. He lit the cigarette, inhaled deeply, and let it go. “Well, it’s nice to meet you, Roddy. My name’s Gabriel. No need to know my last name. It doesn’t matter, right?”
“I guess not.”
Gabriel pointed to the grave. “This is Anna Price. She was nineteen. Can you believe that? Dead at nineteen. She was walking home after working a late shift at the supermarket down on Fester Avenue and she was followed. Made it about halfway between her house and the market when she was attacked. It happened just as she was passing the entrance to the park there on Hudson Lane. You know the park?”
Roddy nodded. “Sure, I know it. Spent most of my younger days playing in them woods.”
Gabriel took another drag of his cigarette. “Yeah, well, this guy who was following her got her right as she was passing the park entrance. One punch to the side of the face and she was out. Hit her in the temple. She never saw it coming. The guy dragged her into the woods, beat her until she was barely recognizable, then strangled her to death. I’d have to imagine she never really woke up given the brutality of the attack. I’d have to imagine she never really understood what happened to her. One punch and she was unconscious, never to be woken again. No pain, no realization she was about to die. As peaceful as you can hope, given the circumstances. But I’d be wrong.”
“How so?” Roddy asked.
The cigarette hissed as Gabriel snuffed it out in the ground next to where he was sitting. “Because I was the one who killed her.”
The words hung in the humid air for what seemed like forever. Roddy wanted to ask Gabriel to repeat himself. He wanted to politely explain that he didn’t quite hear what the man had said, but when he opened his mouth, no words came forth. Deep down he knew what was said. The man’s statement was spoken with such little effort. The calmness of the revelation was the most frightening of all.
“I saw her at the supermarket maybe a week before,” Gabriel continued. “I was just passing through. Not a thought on my mind about much of anything, let alone violence, but when I saw her I knew she was going to be the next one. Her face hit me and I knew. It happened like the others. I went to pay for my pack of gum and she looked up from the register and smiled, and that was it. I knew she’d be next.”
“Why are you telling me this?” Roddy asked. He couldn’t help but notice is voice cracking as he spoke.
Gabriel ignored the questions. “This isn’t my first rodeo,” he said. “There are many other women in many other places. Burned, buried, drowned, and some like Anna here, found and given a proper place of peace. I spent the days leading up to Anna’s death in surrounding towns, careful not to show my face again. A stranger in a relatively small town is what can get you caught. People remember a stranger. I stayed as far away as I could until I knew I was ready.”
“Please, I don’t want to know this. I don’t want to know any of it.”
“When the night finally came, I did nothing more than sit in the shadows across from the market and wait. There’s this self-storage facility across the street, and at that time of night there were only security lights inside the fence. I plopped down next to one of the rhododendrons they have planted that disguises the cable box and that was all it took. I was in the shadows watching her through the window at the register until she was done.”
Beads of sweat dripped down Roddy’s cheeks and back, but he dared not wipe them away. His eyes darted from side to side as he looked for a way out. The two of them were alone in this part of the cemetery. If he saw an opportunity, he would run like hell back to the shed, but for the time being his legs refused to move.
Gabriel’s eyes moved between Anna’s grave and Roddy as he spoke. “Like I said before, I snuck up behind her as we hit the entrance to the park and I swung as hard as I could. The police think I beat her as she was unconscious and then strangled her after she was already dead from the beating. I think that’s their way of coping with this kind of thing in a place where violence of this magnitude is so rare. Easier on your mind when you think the victim never woke after the initial shot. But I waited. In fact, I helped her regain consciousness. I wanted her to look in my eyes. I wanted that moment of clarity when she’s staring at me and suddenly realizes she doesn’t know me, she doesn’t know where she is, and she can feel the danger. That kind of fear is palpable. It’s intoxicating.”
Gabriel reached into the inside of his opposite jacket pocket and came away with a small plastic black case that had a gray top. It looked like the kind of canister you would keep a roll of film in. He fiddled with it as he spoke, passing it from one hand to the next. Inside, something rattled around. “Truth be told, I strangled her before I beat her. The beating was just to throw the cops off a bit. Confuse the medical examiner. I knocked out three of her teeth. Got ‘em right here.”
Gabriel held up the film canister between his thumb and index finger and gave it a little shake. It rattled, and the noise was almost enough to make Roddy sick. But the teeth tapping around the inside of the canister was also enough to get his body moving again. Roddy began to back away, his eyes fixed on the visitor sitting at the head of the grave. If he could make it down to the shed he could trigger the silent alarm under the desk and the police would arrive within minutes. Even if he could get close enough to yell for Mack to trip the alarm. That would be enough. He had to get down to the shed.
“Where do you think you’re going?” Gabriel asked as if reading his mind.
Roddy stopped in his tracks. “I don’t want to hear any more of this.”
Gabriel pointed a gun from his hip, its barrel aimed at Roddy’s head. “Come here,” he said.
“P-P-Please, mister,” Roddy stammered. “I don’t want no trouble. And I don’t want to hear no more of whatever it is you got to say. I don’t give a damn what you did. If you let me go my way, I’ll let you go on yours and no one will have to be the wiser. I’ll bury her and it’ll be over. Please.”
“I’m sorry,” Gabriel replied. “That’s not how this works. I’m here for a reason, as are you. Fate brought us together. In fact, fate has intervened quite nicely if I do say so myself.”
“You see, I killed many women in my day, and I’ve always taken something from them to remember their beauty. The profilers at the FBI got that one right. We love a little trophy from our victims. But in this particular case, with Anna, I didn’t get the opportunity. I had my eye on this necklace she was wearing. It was gold and had a little diamond starfish in the center of a seashell. That’s what I was going to take, but that night I heard someone coming through the woods and I had to split. By the time I made my way through town and back around toward the park, the cops were already at the scene. Some homeless guy was walking through and found her. Can you believe that? All these years of flawless execution – pardon the pun there, Roddy – and a homeless guy living in the park screws me up.”
Roddy lifted a trembling finger and pointed to the black case. “You got her teeth. What more do you want?”
“Not the same,” Gabriel explained. “The teeth represent the violence of the act. I want something that represents what she was before I killed her. I want the beauty of what she was. Her beauty was in that necklace. And that necklace is still around her neck.”
Roddy shook his head. “No way. I’ve seen enough TV shows to know the medical examiner would’ve taken that necklace as evidence.”
Gabriel threw up his hands in surrender. “I don’t know what to tell you. Maybe they did take it for evidence and didn’t find anything and gave it back to her family. Maybe it was her favorite thing in the world and her parents wanted her to be buried with it. I don’t know the details, but that necklace is on her. I saw it at the funeral home when they were preparing the body, but it was a closed casket so I couldn’t make a move at the wake. I knew I had to get it after the funeral, before she was buried. I figured I’d have to come down here and kill a crew of you in the process, but like I said, fate was with me on this one. Between the holiday and the accident that jammed up traffic, all your crew left and now I only have to deal with you.”
“No,” Roddy said. “My boss is in the shed out back.”
“Well, if he comes up here I’ll kill him. Until then, I’ll deal with you.” Gabriel lifted the gun from his lap and aimed more carefully. “Now, come up here.”
“Please, mister. I just want to go home.”
“How’re you going to go home when you still have to bury Anna? She deserves to rest in peace. You’re part of that process.”
“I don’t care about that right now. I want to go home!”
Gabriel shook his head. “Sorry, friend. That’s not going happen. I’m not going to say it again. Come up here.”
There was a split second when Roddy thought he could turn and make a run for it. Perhaps surprise the man with an unexpected move and gain some kind of advantage. But in the end the reality of the gun pointing at him and the steadiness of the man’s voice was enough to make him put one foot in front of the other, despite his mind screaming at him to run away, and walk toward Anna’s grave.
Gabriel reached behind him and came away with what looked like a bent piece of metal. He tossed it to Roddy, and it thumped on the ground.
“What it is?” Roddy asked.
Gabriel smiled that horrible smile again. “You know what it is.”
“It’s a casket key.” Gabriel waited until Roddy picked up the tool to examine it. “At the foot of Anna’s casket you’ll find a small hole. Stick the key in there and keep twisting until you hear the top of the casket pop. Open it up and get my necklace.”
Roddy shook his head. “I can’t do that!”
“I got a bullet in here that says you can.”
“Do it. We’re losing light. Let’s go.”
Gabriel stood and walked over to Roddy. He grabbed him by the arm and, without another word, pushed him into the hole. Roddy fell into the grave and landed on his back. The curve of the casket’s top slid him off to the side where he hit a wall of earth. The grave was cold, and with the sun almost set, so much darker than up at the surface. Roddy turned himself around and saw the man standing over him, his gun aimed and at the ready. He scrambled to the end of the casket and reached his hand over. The crew at the cemetery dug the graves with future real estate in mind, so there wasn’t much room to maneuver around in. Roddy bent his skinny wrist as far as it could go and felt around for the hole with his fingers. When he found it, he slid the key inside and used the tips of his fingers to turn it. After a few turns he heard a faint pop. Anna’s casket was unlocked.
“Please don’t make me do this.”
“Too late to turn back now. You’re doing fine. I’m proud of you. Open it.”
Roddy leaned forward and pulled the top half of the casket open. There isn’t too much a mortician does to a body for glamour when the casket is closed. Anna’s face was still bruised and crushed. Both eyes remained swollen shit. Her lips were split, the gashes unattended and blackened at the edges. Her hair was pushed out of her face with a headband, the lump on her forehead clearly visible. Roddy saw all of this in a split second and finally understood what kind of madman stood waiting above.
“If they hadn’t sewn her lips shut I’d have shown you which teeth I punched out.” There was a certain glee in Gabriel’s voice as he spoke. A misguided pride. “Do you see the necklace?” he asked.
“Good. Take it.”
Roddy reached over and took the diamond starfish in the palm of his hand, closed his fingers around it, and yanked. It came loose without much effort and he sat back on the lower half of the casket that remained closed, staring at the body. “I got it.”
“Excellent,” Gabriel called back. “You’re doing a fine job. Now, close the casket and give me the necklace. No need to lock it back up. She’s not going anywhere.”
Roddy did what he was told. He pushed the security latch back on the casket door and closed away Anna’s horrific face forever. He stood up and tossed Gabriel the necklace. Gabriel caught his trophy, glanced at it quickly, and stuffed it in his pocket. He extended his hand and Roddy took it for leverage to climb out of the grave. When he was halfway up, Gabriel stopped lifting.
“What are you doing?” Roddy asked, his voice cracking with a sudden panic. His foot was planted on the edge of the plot about a foot from the bottom of the grave. The rest of him was hanging from Gabriel’s grip.
Gabriel dropped his gun and pulled a large knife from the waistband of his pants. The blade was double-sided and polished to perfection, glistening in what remained of the sun. “You know that moment I was telling you about before? When the victim suddenly realizes death is imminent and there’s nothing they can do?”
Roddy looked at the knife, then back at Gabriel. Their eyes locked and Roddy, for the first time, could see the void of remorse behind the man’s eyes. There was nothing there. Emptiness. The abyss.
“Yup,” Gabriel said. “That look right there.”
Roddy heard the whistle of the blade through the air, but felt nothing at first. It wasn’t until his shirt was wet did he look down and see blood pouring from the wound in his neck. He used his free hand to reach toward the gash and could then feel the pressure of his heart pumping his blood out of his body. Gabriel released his grip and Roddy fell atop the casket, rolled to the side, and was wedged, facedown, against the wall of earth.
“Guns are so impersonal,” Gabriel explained. “But if I showed you my knife from the get-go you would’ve had these delusions that perhaps you could’ve wrestled it away from me, and so on. I see it all the time. Fight or flight. But guns command respect. When you point a gun at someone they generally do what you say. So I used the gun to get the necklace, but I needed the knife to end you. Quiet, personal, a closeness you have to get to that you don’t need with a gun. I love the knife almost as much as I love using my bare hands.” He used his shirt to wipe the blood from the blade. “Don’t need any keepsakes from you, Roddy. You were a tool that was used and discarded. We’re even as far as I’m concerned. But I do appreciate the help. Goodbye, friend.”
• • •
Mack slid out from under the truck and looked up at the large clock hanging over the tool station at the far end of the shed. According to the time it had been almost an hour since Roddy had stopped in about the late visitor to the burial service. He was supposed to come out after fifteen minutes to check on things, but he’d been so engrossed in fixing the loader. Time had slipped away.
The shed was almost absent of light. He hadn’t noticed while he was working. The sun was set now. Early evening had begun.
Mack walked over to the tool station and grabbed his two-way radio. He pressed the oversized black button on the side. “Roddy, you still out there?”
“Roddy. You read me? You there?”
Mack opened the door and stepped outside where the humidity hit him like a wall. He took a few steps up the hill and could see the boom of the backhoe lifting up into the sky with a pile of dirt in its bucket. No wonder Roddy didn’t answer. He was working the hoe and couldn’t hear him calling. Mystery solved.
Desperate to escape the heat and eager to get a head start on what he could salvage from the holiday weekend, Mack turned back to the shed to shut things down for the night. If he had taken just a few more steps to crest the hill he would’ve seen a man in a black suit sitting in the cab operating the backhoe. He would’ve seen this man burying not one, but two bodies in Anna Price’s grave, then slipping off into the night, never to be seen in these parts again.
But that, most likely, would’ve been the last thing Mack would have ever seen.
• • •
© 2014 Matthew Farrell. All rights reserved.
• • •
Keep your eyes peeled for another story coming in September from Matt and his debut in the magazine this December!