by Alex De-Gruchy
Tom switched off the engine and rested his head back against the seat, listening to the ticking noise the van made as it cooled. He undid his seatbelt, reached one hand inside his jacket and pulled out a packet of Marlboro. He shook one out and fired it up with his lighter.
He took a drag and blew out the smoke slowly, in no rush to get to work but knowing he had no choice. Fucking Neil always gave him the shitty jobs, and tonight was no exception.
He got out of the van, his revolver tucked into the waistband of his jeans, hidden beneath his T-shirt. The winding dirt-track he had driven along led into the trees and out of sight, and the small clearing in which he had parked was far enough from the nearest road to give him the privacy he needed. The grass here was long, and rotten remnants of wooden fencing still stood around the perimeter of the clearing. There were no signs of any recent visitors and no sounds of civilisation, just the grass and leaves rustling in the breeze, and the occasional birdcall.
There was a chill in the night air and the sky was clear, the stars bright. Tom smoked his cigarette and looked around at the surrounding woods, his eyes slowly adjusting to the darkness. He couldn’t see far beyond the treeline, but he knew the forest went on for some distance in nearly every direction. He had been out here a couple of times in the past.
Tom took a last drag on his cigarette before dropping it to the ground and crushing it beneath his shoe. He walked around to the pair of doors at the rear of the van and opened them, their hinges creaking.
The body was wrapped in a sheet of thick, blue tarpaulin, with a couple of lengths of electrical cord tied around the legs and upper body. Next to the corpse was a long metal trunk containing a pickaxe, a hand axe, a pair of heavy-duty gloves, duct tape, a handsaw, and a shovel among other things.
Tom stepped up into the rear of the van and squatted next to the body. He was glad to see that no blood had seeped out and onto the wooden floor beneath.
But then, one blow to the back of the head was all it had been anyway. From what Danny had told Tom afterwards, Neil had meant to cave this bloke’s head in, but as usual he’d been drunk and so he stumbled when he swung the ashtray, only delivering a glancing blow. But Neil must have caught the bloke just right, because it was still enough to kill him. Danny had helped Tom get the body wrapped up and into the van, but after that Neil insisted it was Tom’s job alone to make it disappear.
Fucking Neil. He was a mess. With his drinking and his temper, he was going to get them all locked up or killed. Things had been different when Harry was in charge, before the cancer got him. But Neil was the boss now and that was the end of it.
Tom sighed. “Fuck’s sake,” he muttered, and then dragged the body out of the van and onto the ground. He withdrew the pickaxe, shovel and gloves, closed the rear doors and locked the van.
Tom looked off into the woods. They were dark and unwelcoming. He put on his gloves and got to work.
Tom took one gloved hand off his shovel and wiped the back of it across his forehead, the thick, rough material darkening with his perspiration; he was sweating despite the chill in the air. He had removed his jacket, which now lay folded on the ground next to his pickaxe.
He had chosen a spot about a ten-minute walk from the clearing, one nestled amongst some large, overgrown bushes. The hole was long and wide enough to accommodate the corpse which lay next to it but not yet deep enough. Tom’s arms were aching, and his hands were hot inside the gloves but at least the ground here was fairly soft and free of rocks and roots.
He looked at the mound of soil piled up at one end of the hole and spotted a fat, half-buried worm wriggling there. He was watching it when there suddenly came a noise from somewhere far off in the distance, deeper in the woods: a sharp, metallic clang.
Startled, Tom looked in the general direction of the sound, straining his eyes and ears and quieting his breathing as its echo gradually faded.
For a time, there was silence. Then the noise repeated.
Tom put down his shovel, removed his gloves, and reached for his revolver.
What are the fucking odds? Tom thought.
He was hunched behind some bushes on the edge of another small clearing in the woods, one that was little more than a patch of bare earth and scattered clumps of grass amongst the crowding trees.
The man with the shovel in his hands was thin, looked to be in his forties, and had dark, slightly curly hair. He was breathing heavily and occasionally wiped his brow with a handkerchief which he kept in the chest pocket of his shirt.
He stood in a hole about two feet deep, a freshly dug mound of earth piled next to it. That metallic clang rang out again as the thin man, grunting with effort, once again brought his shovel down onto something at the bottom of the hole. By the sound of it, that something was a rock.
Tom moved his eyes from the man in the hole to the body lying next to it. It was a woman, nude, her skin pale, her blonde hair tousled and spread out on the leaves and dirt. Tom couldn’t see her face clearly but at a guess she seemed to be in her twenties or early thirties. Her right arm ended in a ragged, red stump at the elbow. There was no sign of the rest of the limb.
The scene was illuminated by the bright light of a large battery-powered torch which lay on the ground a few feet away from the edge of the hole.
Tom shook his head. It wasn’t just the fact that the two of them happened to be burying bodies in the same woodland on the same night, he also couldn’t believe just how fucking blatant this bloke was: making loud noises, leaving a mutilated corpse on display, lighting the place up like a fucking Christmas tree, all as if he had nothing to hide.
Whatever the deal was with the man in the hole, Tom couldn’t ignore him, not when he had work of his own to finish not far away. This had already been a shitty job, now it was a complicated one as well. Fucking Neil.
Tom rose to his full height and walked out from behind the bushes, covering the space between them and the grave in quick strides, his right arm outstretched as he pointed his revolver at the man’s torso.
Tom came to a stop a few feet away from the edge of the unfinished grave, and the thin man turned to face him. Rather than displaying any surprise or alarm, he simply looked up at Tom with a curious frown.
Tom saw that sticking out of the earth at the man’s feet was a large rock, one he had obviously been trying to dislodge or break apart in order to continue digging.
The man in the hole smiled. “Hello,” he said.
Now that he was closer, Tom got a better look at him. He was average height, his hair greying at the temples, his cheekbones clearly defined. He wore a tie, a long-sleeve shirt, a pair of navy-blue trousers, and black shoes, his clothes spattered with dirt. He looked like he had come straight from the office.
“Put the shovel down,” Tom said.
The man did as he was told then stood there with his hands down at his sides. “My name’s Paul,” he said, still smiling.
“Have you got anything else on you? A knife? A gun?”
“No. What’s your name?”
Tom didn’t answer. This bloke, this whole situation, it was fucking weird. It unnerved him, and the knowledge of that annoyed him in turn. He had nothing to be afraid of here.
“Shut up,” Tom said. “Is anyone else out here with you?”
Paul looked at the corpse and his smile disappeared as–with surprising suddenness–tears fell from his eyes and ran down his cheeks. “Just my sweet Helen,” Paul said.
Tom glanced at the dead woman and it was only now that he saw the deep gash running across her throat. Her eyes were open and staring, and there was a rag stuffed into her mouth. Even with the woman’s amputated arm and cut throat, Tom noticed there was no blood around either wound, or anywhere else on what he could see of her skin.
Paul wiped away tears. “I’m sorry,” he said. “My grief got the better of me for a moment.”
Tom stared at him. Eventually he said, “You’re fucking mental.”
Paul looked at Tom, his eyes shining with tears and torchlight. “I don’t expect you to understand. No one else could. You don’t know what real love is.”
Shoot him, said a voice inside Tom’s mind. There’s something very wrong with this guy and it’s how this has to end anyway, so just get it over with now.
Tom had killed two men in his life, both for work reasons, and hadn’t enjoyed doing it either time. But that was the life. He knew how far the sound of a gunshot would travel out here but he also knew he really needed to get back to work, especially since he would now have to bury Paul and the dead woman as well. He couldn’t just them leave out to rot; eventually they would be found.
Paul looked over at the corpse again and fresh tears spilled from his eyes as a bittersweet smile appeared on his lips. “She’s so beautiful when she dances,” he said sadly.
As Tom looked at the woman, something in his gut told him he was making a mistake by taking his eyes off Paul again, and that was when a spray of moist earth flew up from the direction of the grave and hit him in the face.
Tom recoiled, his eyes closed and stinging with the earth that had gotten into them. “Fuck!” he said as he pulled the trigger of his revolver twice, blind-firing at the spot where Paul had been standing, the booming gunshots shattering the stillness.
Tom took a couple of quick, unsteady steps away from the hole, wiping frantically at his face with his free hand until he was able to open his eyes again.
Although his vision was blurred he could make out Paul, who had climbed out of the hole and was now running off into the trees. Tom aimed his gun and fired two more shots and missed both times. A piece of grit in one of his eyes shifted suddenly, jabbing him painfully, and he cursed and wiped at it with his free index finger.
It only took a moment but when Tom could see again through his sore, watering eyes, there was no sign of Paul. Although Tom’s first instinct was to chase after him, he wasn’t keen on the idea of running through the woods in the dark only to get lost or break an ankle or worse.
The night had started out shitty enough but now everything was just fucked. Tom knew this was a mess he couldn’t sort out alone, and so as much as he hated the idea, he knew what he had to do: call Neil and tell him what had happened. Neil would go spare whether he was drunk or not but fuck it, he was the boss, let him make the decisions.
Tom had left his mobile in the glove compartment of the van. He wondered if he could get a signal out here. He couldn’t remember having ever checked during his previous visits.
He walked over to Paul’s torch, bent down and switched it off. The darkness around him abruptly deepened. He took one last look at the dead woman–“my sweet Helen”–and briefly wondered about her. Then he set off towards the van.
The back room at the Black Dog served as Neil’s office but Danny was the only one in there at the moment. He sat in a ragged armchair, his feet resting on an empty beer keg, sipping a glass of Teacher’s and flicking through that day’s Daily Mirror.
He heard the jukebox in the main room, the music muffled through the wall but still clear enough for him to recognise the current song as Radar Love. It was a Thursday night and the pub was fairly quiet, just some regulars and a few people starting their weekend early.
Danny had been alone in the office for over an hour, since Neil had left to go and see his cousin about some potential business. Neil had gotten through almost half of a bottle of vodka before he picked up his car keys and said he was going out. Danny didn’t waste his breath trying to stop him. Besides, if the wanker ended up ploughing into a wall at seventy miles an hour, Danny wouldn’t lose any sleep over it.
Danny looked up from his newspaper as the phone on Neil’s desk–a battered, old-fashioned model with no caller display–began to ring.
Danny swung his feet off the beer keg, put down his drink and newspaper, and walked over to the desk. He picked up the handset mid-ring and said, “Hello?”
No one spoke on the other end of the line. Danny waited but all he could hear was some rustling and grunts and gurgles. The sounds were distant and could have been anything.
“Hello?” Danny repeated.
There was no reply beyond the same distant, indistinct noises. Danny was about to hang up when those noises were suddenly replaced with the sound of someone breathing.
“Who’s this?” Danny demanded.
“He won’t be alone,” said a man in a hushed, emotional voice. Then the line went dead.
Danny moved the handset away from his head and looked at it for a moment, then set it back in its cradle. The thought of dialling 1471 occurred to him but he couldn’t be bothered, it was obviously a wrong number or someone messing about.
Danny walked back over to the armchair, picked up his newspaper and drink and sat down again. The jukebox was playing a different song now. Danny took a sip of whiskey and turned to the sports section.
Paul dropped the mobile phone and it landed on the grass with a soft thud. He looked down at the man sitting on the ground, his back propped up against the front wheel of the van. He wouldn’t be getting to his feet again, not with the blade of the shovel buried in his belly, its handle resting on the ground between his legs.
Paul got down onto his knees before the dying man, his eyes unblinking as he looked at the face before him: a stranger, but Paul’s now, forever.
The man was fading fast as blood gushed from his wound, soaking his crotch and thighs and the grass on which he sat, his breath coming in short, sharp gasps. His eyes were wide and glazing over. Paul stared at the fading light in those eyes, that thing of which he was so envious because no matter how many times he looked in the mirror he never saw any light of his own.
One final, choked gurgle emerged from the man’s throat, and then nothing more. He was dead.
Paul realised he was crying again as he leaned forward and gently stroked the man’s face. He wasn’t ashamed of his tears, he would cry for this one as he had for all the others.
Paul took hold of the shovel with both hands. Then he stood up, planted the sole of one shoe against the dead man’s chest, and pulled. The blade emerged, caked with earth and slick with blood. Paul watched as the man’s entrails crowded the hole left by the shovel, partially spilling out into his lap.
Paul positioned the man’s right hand on the ground, the palm facing downwards. He raised the shovel then violently brought the blade down, severing the four fingers but leaving the thumb attached. He collected the fingers, wiping the bloody stumps against his trousers before pocketing the digits. Keepsakes were important. Being forgotten was a terrible thing that Paul wouldn’t have wished on anyone.
Paul looked at the dead man again. He wasn’t Helen, of course. Paul knew that was absurd. Just like the girl he had come here to bury tonight hadn’t been Helen. Although she had been close at first, even if only briefly.
Helen had been gone a long time. But that was alright. It’s the journey, Paul thought, not the destination.
He stretched, wincing at the stiffness in his lower back. He thought of the time and effort involved in burying not just the girl but now the man as well. He was tired and hungry, and wanted to get home and clean up before it was time to wake up the kids and get them ready for school.
Paul shrugged, dropped the shovel, and walked off into the woods.
About the Author
Alex De-Gruchy is a writer and editor of fiction and non-fiction whose work has covered the mediums of comic books, radio, videogames, and prose. His upcoming projects include two comic book series, a videogame and his first non-fiction book. He was once bitten by a lemur. Sadly, it wasn’t radioactive.
Twitter: @AlexDeGruchy Portfolio: alexde-gruchy.blogspot.co.uk