Sunday, 31 August 2014

The Gravedigger's Precipice

The Gravedigger's Precipice

Despite the rain, Matthew whistled while he worked; a lilting, cheerful melody that fled across the trimmed grass, over the stone wall and into the dark, silent trees.  He'd earn a sixpence for the morning's work, and another two pennies when the Priest had said his piece. The town would pay for this one; he might have earned more from a grieving family, but at least he was alone with his work and unhindered by the trouble of being social.

His spade cut easily through the damp turf.  With practised ease he scythed through earth worms and roots, deeper and deeper, watching out for bones and body parts: this was a well-used section of the graveyard.

He paid no attention to the slack body on the cart, though he did glance over to check Bessie every now and then, each time finding her contentedly cropping grass, also unconcerned by the rain or the company.

The rain fell softly with a promise of spring. Matthew, by the nature of his job, worked in all weathers and he preferred rain to ground iron-hard with frost when every strike of the spade sent bolts of agony through his wrists and shoulders, or the soft deadly snow with the bitter cold nipping at his heels like a pack of wolves. He hated the heat worst of all, when the ground set like stone and his days were filled with pain and dust and tears.  

The body lay on the cart, shrouded in a length of old hessian sacking Matthew kept for the purpose. Not that the sight of a body, whatever its state, troubled him, he'd buried old, young, family, friend and foe, but what had been done to this body was not pretty, and sometimes townsfolk would come to visit the graveyard and the sight might offend the ladies. He had a length of good dark cloth he used on other days, other bodies; he was careful not to let family and friends discover their lost ones beneath an old grain sack. A bit of show made sense in other ways, a chance of a better tip and he took care to avoid making enemies. There was no telling how grief might take some people.

It was not just grief made locals difficult. A town this size should not keep a gravedigger so well occupied. Some said it was being so deep in the forest brought a darkness to the place that found its way into folks hearts. Some whispered that it was being so far from other towns let folk so inclined bend the law to suit their fancy, and with no one to gainsay them.

Matthew said nothing. He saw too often what could come of a careless word.

He worked on in an easy rhythm, stopping every so often to ease his back and check on Bessie. The morning passed, the hole grew deeper and the neat pile of earth to one side rose higher.

Matthew was thinking about lunch. He'd bread and cheese on the cart, but if he waited there'd be the last of stew at the inn, thick and tasty. It'd be quiet by then, no one to trouble him.  The bread and cheese would keep for another day. And he'd earned a pint. He licked his lips at the thought then, warned by some sixth sense, raised his head. A moment ago he'd been alone, now a man was standing at the edge of the trees, just beyond the graveyard wall.

"Blood and bones." Matthew jerked fully upright and a shovelful of earth flew astray. He squinted through the rain and saw the man was a stranger. "Good day, friend."

Considering the pleasantries attended to, he was about to turn back to his work when a blur of motion stopped him. The man was across the stone wall in a bound. He came on between new and tumbled gravestones. Tall and pale, his body gnarled with muscle like roots, beneath a long overcoat; dark lank hair crept below a battered top hat. He moved with a speed that left Matthew open-mouthed.

Before Matthew could blink, he was standing chest deep in another man's grave staring helplessly up at the newcomer. He clutched the spade close across his chest. "Can I help you, sir?" he asked with a practised subservient whine. The man was not townsfolk but Matthew had an eye for darkness.

Large brown eyes studied him. They might be kind eyes if you did not see the emptiness behind and the twist of cruelty on thin lips. The man turned away without a word and walked to the cart. Matthew watched, sweat prickled and chilled along his spine. He had a box set close by to aid him climbing out of the hole, but he stood frozen and watched.

The man lifted the hessian sack.

The body beneath had lost an eye and most of the left side of his jaw, slammed to pulp by hobnailed boots. The other side of the face retained its features, though patched and bruised to the colour of ripe plums. The man reached a hand to catch the slack jaw and turn the face.  Matthew knew what the corpse looked like; he watched the man's face.

Releasing the jaw, the man tugged the sack off the stranger's body. They'd taken the boots, belt and trousers. The shirt was bloody and ripped too bad to bother with, but it offered little dignity. It was common practice with strangers who died badly. Matthew had no part of it, this time. Not that he'd refuse the chance of pickings, allowed the opportunity.

"He was wanted." He offered, the whine unintentionally lifting his voice to a plea. "His name's Bad Jim Moresby. There's a bounty."

The man turned from the body, reluctantly, a tree bending before the wind. His eyes were darker, deeper. "No," he said final as the grave.

"There's a poster, with …" Matthew choked off the words, wished he'd never opened his mouth. A likeness. It was not as if this hadn't happened before. A stranger spoke out of turn, looked crosswise at the wrong man, won too often at dice or cards. Maybe not even so much as that. The town collected a lot of bounties.

"Who looks to claim this bounty?"

Matthew clamped his jaw shut and struggled to breathe as briars snared tight around him. A lie would not serve and the truth would see him dead. He'd no doubt of it. The silence echoed, and desperation kissed his tongue to a low form of wit. "You'd have to ask the Mayor, sir."

The man smiled, revealing a maw of gapped brown teeth. "I'm asking you, friend."

"I tell you, you might as well put me in the ground here and now."

"Your choice." The man seemed to enjoy the irony.

Matthew had stood in many men's graves. He'd not thought to dig his own. "Tis not a fair thing you're asking."

The man sucked on a tooth. "Perhaps not," he said. "Come on out of there."

Hardly able to credit his luck, Matthew reached for the box and scrambled up out of the hole. He started forward, but the man waved him back to the edge.

"Stand there and think a bit," said the man.

Matthew opened his mouth to protest and snapped it closed, muddy fingers pressed across his lips to still a tongue that already run too free. Bessie lifted her head from the grass and turned to watch. He wondered what would happen if he ran for her. He couldn't see that the man had any weapons.

A glimmer of silver in the rain, the man tossed a knife with practised ease, four other throwing knives at his belt and a longer blade. "What happens here won't change what happens next." The man glanced back to the body, knife twirling absently between his fingers. "That was my boy."

The knife spun once more and stilled. The tip of the blade rested lightly in the man's fingers, a final warning.

Matthew stood on the edge of his grave. Rain washed the tears from his face and his breath came in whistling gasps. A spurt of piss warmed his thigh and in the same moment names burst between his fingers.

"Joe Summers and Karl Leister."

Matthew blinked and the knife was gone. The man started back through the gravestones.

Matthew sniffed and stepped away from the grave's edge to falter at the edge of another precipice. His eyes followed the man, weighed the darkness and made a choice. "There's more had a part in it," he called.

The man halted, turned back but made no comment. After a moment he smiled. "Tell me, friend."

The fear fell away. "Mart Whiter, Jack Spruce and Ed Forbes helped." Matthew thought hard. "And Si Barrett."

The man nodded once and it was done, a bargain sealed. Matthew watched him leave, then turned back to his work, whistling.


Monday, 25 August 2014

Do or Die

London in the rain: a black-hearted winter morning, heavy clouds inches above the rooftops, pissed off commuters, psycho bus drivers. Monday, 7.00am, too early for this do or die shit.

A black cab shoots out of a side road and cuts me off. The bike slides across wet tarmac, neon puddles shatter and my knee smacks the side of the taxi. "Shit." For a moment I think we're going down, but the impact bounces me upright. Eyeball to eyeball with the girl in the back of the cab, lipstick in one hand, phone in the other as she checks her face, mouth wide open, caught between a scream and having a go at me for ruining her makeup. I can't help grinning at her.

Mistake. Next moment, the driver's door slams and the cabbie is running round to check the damage. I glance down and see the dent. No time for this now. I stand on the peddles, the gear's too high but somehow I get a bit of traction.

"You cut me up, dickhead," I shout without looking back.

The cabbie's curse follows me, but there's no way he can in this traffic. I thread through the multi-lane snarl towards Marble Arch, dodging buses and lorries, still grinning. But retribution is close at hand.

A black Range Rover comes up behind me, rain glistening on the tinted windows. I glance back to check the number plate, certain my luck can't be this bad. But of course it is. Headlights burn across my back as the Range Rover closes in.

One chance, twenty feet away the traffic lights at Marble Arch turn red, it's going to hold the Range Rover for a bit and I get a moment of inspiration. Instead of stopping I slew the bike across the road and onto the central island beneath the Arch. Pigeons rise in clumsy flocks. A sharp left turn, back wheel sliding, and I'm in Hyde Park, weaving through pedestrians and overtaking Boris bikes. I look back, trying to track the Range Rover as it heads down Park Lane.

"Watch out you idiot."

The angry voice whips my attention back in time to swerve and avoid a head to head collision with a Bowler-hatted man on a horse. His foot skims my shoulder and the horse's tail stings my face. An iron shod hoof flicks out. My breath sticks and I miss a couple of heartbeats. Then I'm out onto the road that runs through the park and it's all under control, sort of.

A procession of high-end cars speed through puddles, and a wall of spray leaves me drenched and worrying about the package. It's double wrapped but if it gets wet then I'm screwed. No time to stop and check. But the thought's in my head. Did I wrap it well enough?

Out the other side of the park, round the Albert Hall and I pedal flat out down to Kensington. Another sliding turn and the bike's aquaplaning downhill into the sinister lights of the under building car park.

I chuck the bike in the corner. Both lifts are six floors above me and climbing. No choice, have to take the stairs. Pissed off, I hit the door so hard it nearly breaks my wrist. Dumb and dumber. First two flights, not so bad, by the fifth my breathing starts to get ragged and beneath the layers I'm sweating blood.

Reach the eighth floor and crack the door to check the corridor. Sweat and rain drip off my nose. Corridor looks clear, but my nerve is shot. Deep breath, I slide through the door and make a run for it. The place is an obstacle course of plants and display cases. I slalom between them and skin round corners. Behind me the lift doors ping. A last burst, silent on the inch deep carpet.

With the goal in sight, I misjudge my speed and burst through the glass doors like I'm scoring a touchdown at Twickenham. The outer desk is unattended. I don't know what waits on the other side of the closed office door. I slip the backpack off and reach for the door handle. Do or die.

The office is dark. A shuddering reflex breath and the urge to puke almost chokes me. I cross the room on shaky legs, sliding the package free of the backpack.

It looks good. Holding it away from me so it doesn't get wet, I rip at the wrapping but my wet fingers slide off the plastic. The bloody thing is too well wrapped. It takes a major effort not to rip at it like a madman.

A corner of the plastic gives; at the last moment I look for something to dry my hands. Nothing. Desperate, I bend to wipe them on an oriental rug. I hear voices in the outer office. I freeze, with a mind of its own the report squirms free of the plastic and spills to the floor. I bend to gather the pages as the door handle turns.

"What time is the conference call with Hong Kong?"

"Eight-thirty, sir."

The door opens.

"I'll be at my desk. Buzz me when it's set up, Cora."

Frozen, I just about resist the urge to crawl beneath the desk. I'm dead. It's time to stand up and face the music like a man.

Cora says, "Mr Simon is in, I think he wanted to see you …"

A moment's silence. I hold my breath. A muffled curse and the door snicks shut.

With shaking hands I gather the pages and place the folder on the desk. A last look, my hand shakes as I wipe away a smudge of water.

I walk out making like it's no big deal. She looks up at me. They call her the Pit Bull. The scariest Executive Assistant on three continents.

After a long moment, she looks down. A wet handprint decorates her desk. I wait, frozen, and she winks.

Somehow I don't faint.