Prey on the flesh of the dead…
Ghouls lurk among the dead, preying on them for sustenance. I’m pleased to return to the world of speculative fiction publishing with this piece of my own creation. Ghouls came to me all in a rush. The story wanted to be written. Allow me to introduce you to Abner and the burial grounds he presides over.
by Nat Thompson
“God damn it!” Abner cursed as he banged his shin against another headstone; the third one in the last half hour. Even after twenty-five years as caretaker for Memory Hills cemetery he found it difficult to navigate at night. New headstones sprang up everyday. Worse yet, he hated the commemorative monuments that jackasses erected in the most inconvenient places.
Not the big mausoleum monuments; he could spot those from a distance. The statues did not bother him all that much either, even though they tended to throw a fright into him when he came on one he wasn’t expecting. No, the monuments he hated the most were the marble benches. The ones with “In loving memory” or some other sentiment chiseled on the side.
Those bastards stood knee high and hurt like hell when you slammed your shins against them. What’s more they made mowing impossible. He could just squeeze a weed eater into the gaps they left. This doubled the time it took him to trim the acres of grass that covered the cemetery. He fantasized about catching the man who built the benches and stuffing him into one of his fresh dug graves.
Right now though, all of his ire and ill thoughts centered on Pepper. Pepper who never refilled the damn gas cans. When the tractor ran out of gas this evening Abner found that neither can contained so much as a drop. Of course it quit on the far side, a good two miles from the equipment shed and the big drums of gasoline behind it. Abner considered carrying the cans with him, but decided against it.
He would make Pepper go get them in the morning. “And he’s not taking the golf cart either. If an old man like me can hoof it so can he,” the old caretaker grumbled. Abner’s wrinkled lips spread into a smile as he thought of Pepper trudging back and forth lugging the heavy gas cans. The thought dulled some of the pain in his aching feet and bruised legs.
The equipment shed loomed in the darkness ahead. Abner could only make it out from its shape; the halogen lamp that used to light the front of it burned out two weeks ago. He didn’t trust the steadiness of his legs enough to climb the ladder and fix it himself. It would have to wait on Pepper and Pepper never got in a hurry to do anything. Abner doubted that light would be fixed by the time Armageddon sounded.
He started to hike up the last hill towards his car when he thought he heard voices. He stopped and turned towards where he thought he heard the sound. His ears, like the rest of him, had known better days. They played tricks on him so he took extra time listening. After a moment he decided this was no trick. The voices spoke in hushed tones but they spoke.
Abner started a slow walk towards the sound. He crouched and extended his arms in front of him, feeling for any obstacles like a blind man with a cane. Whoever the voices belonged to shouldn’t be here after dark. The main gate closed at dusk, opening only to let traffic out. These folks could be trouble and Abner didn’t want to announce his presence by stumbling over a head stone.
In his years as caretaker he had seen all sorts. Most often kids from the local college liked to hang out and drink themselves into a stupor. Once he had even run across a group of would be devil worshipers holding a séance. He used to confront trespassers himself. The typical response was for them to high tail it out of there.
That tactic had stopped working about ten years ago. That’s when the dope dealers arrived. They liked to sell their goods in the cemetery after dark. The cops had busted some of them and warned Abner not to confront them. “These guys are so hopped up you don’t know what they’re liable to do. They’d just as soon shoot you as run.” The cop had told him. That settled it for Abner. He got his fill of being shot at in the service. From then on he called the cops on anyone trespassing after dark.
He wanted to get a look at these folks. He liked to be able to tell the person who answered the phone how many there were and what he thought they were doing. He didn’t know if that helped the responding officers any; didn’t even know if the information was passed on, but he hoped it gave them some kind of tactical advantage.
Abner slunk in close to a large marble headstone with angels carved into the face. He crouched behind it and poked his head around for a look. What he saw made his breath catch in his throat. Running lights from a black van illuminated the scene with a dim light. Two men with shovels dug at the loose dirt of a fresh grave. A third stood above them watching. A cigarette, its tip glowing red in the dark, hung from his lips.
One of the diggers, a skinny kid with dark shaggy hair, said, “How much you getting for this one Ray?”
The smoker took the cigarette from his mouth and flicked at the butt with his pinkie. Glowing bits of ash fell to the ground. The smoker said, “Five grand.”
“Cripes! We should dig up a few more. We could buy a yacht!”
“As slow as you two dig we’ll be lucky enough to get this one out and the hole filled back in before daylight. Now quit jabberin’ and get to diggin’.”
“Cool it Ray, he’s just nervous is all,” the other digger said. This one was huge, six foot four at least. He had on a sweat shirt that bore the mascot of the local college. His hair stood out from his scalp in a uniform length buzz cut. Abner pegged him as a football player.
“Listen, I’ve done this plenty of times. We dig ‘em up. I call the number I’ve got stuck on the dash. They ask how many and tell us where to deliver ‘em. I get the money and you two get your cut. Simple as that.” Ray explained.
“Yeah, simple. No reason to get jumpy,” the football player agreed.
“What do they do with the bodies?” the skinny one asked.
“Jesus kid! Who cares what they do? All I know is they pay me good to deliver and I deliver. Now dig!” Ray barked.
Abner had heard enough. These were the first grave robbers of his career. He had plenty of ideas of what was done to the bodies. He got a constant flood of faxes from the funeral industry association: info bulletins on best practices, cost saving ideas and a few crime warnings. Over the past few years the number of grave robberies climbed at an alarming rate.
When the cops busted a couple of the rings they found out two main reasons for it. It seems that cadaver donations to medical schools had all but dried up. In response a black market sprung up to fill the need. Greave robbers would raid fresh graves and sell the corpses. The second reason disturbed Abner even more. Using cadaver tissue in transplants of cartilage and bone helped lots of people lead fuller lives. But organ and tissue donation happened less often than people donating their bodies to science.
The stolen corpses filled that gap as well. Problem was the corpses the grave robbers stole had already been embalmed. Formaldehyde soaked the tissue and bone of these corpses, and it was a known cancer causing agent. The folks who got the transplants never knew they traded their aching joints for the possibility of getting the big “C”.
Abner backed away, his plan to get to the phone and call the cops. His heel caught on a brass foot marker and he fell hard on his back. The air rushed out of him with a groan. Before he could even sit up the three grave robbers had him. The football player jerked him up and pinned his arms behind his back. The skinny one shifted from foot to foot saying, “Oh shit! Oh Shit! Oh Shit!” over and over again. Ray just stood there taking deep drags on his cigarette and exhaling smoke through his nostrils.
“Shut up,” Ray said and the skinny one stopped his chant. “Take him to that shed over there. We’ll finish up here and be over in a minute.”
The football player nodded and said, “Come on old man.” He held Abner’s left bicep in a powerful grip and forced him to walk. Behind them the others went back to the grave. Abner could here the blades of shovels cutting into the dirt.
Halfway to the shed the football player shrieked. Abner felt himself jerked to the left then his arm was free. His captor had vanished. Looking down, Abner realized what happened. The football player lay at the bottom of an open grave, his neck bent at a sharp angle to his body. “Guess your gridiron days are over buddy,” Abner whispered. The others were calling out to their partner. Abner made a bee line for the maintenance shed and the phone.
He didn’t look back until he reached the shed. At first the darkness hid everything from view, but then he saw the amber glow of Ray’s cigarette coming towards him. Abner ducked between the partially opened shed doors and watched as Ray pointed to the shed. The skinny one headed his way while Ray moved off to the left.
Abner looked around for something, anything he could use as a weapon. All of the hand tools were locked in a closet at the back of the shed. He couldn’t get to them in time. An idea struck him. He climbed up into the seat of the back hoe they kept in the shed. The keys were in the ignition, just like always.
The skinny one stopped at the doors to the shed. He squinted, trying to see inside. When that didn’t work he pushed one of the doors further open along its sliding track. He took a couple of cautious steps into the shed. That’s when Abner turned the ignition and switched on the backhoe’s lights. The kid put his hand up to shield his eyes, frozen in his tracks. Abner worked the scoop control. The bucket flicked forward and smashed the skinny kid in the face and chest.
The blow knocked him through the air, out of the shed onto the concrete pad. He hit and slid a couple more feet before coming to rest. He didn’t so much as twitch after that.
Abner climbed down from the seat and walked over to where the skinny kid lay. He wanted to make sure the kid wasn’t going to follow when he headed for his car. Using the toe of his work boot, Abner rolled the kid onto his back. His face was bruised and bloody, his eyes open but not seeing anything. Abner had seen enough combat to know a dead man’s face when he saw it. He was about to turn around when he felt the barrel of a gun press against the back of his head.
“Hold it right there old man,” Ray said, digging the steel into his scalp. “Put your hands up where I can see ‘em.”
Abner raised his hands. He could smell the smoke from Ray’s cigarette. “Guess you got me. Now what?” Abner asked.
“Now, I take care of you and make a phone call. Fifteen grand all to myself, that’s a good chunk of change.”
“You mean you’re going to sell your buddies?”
“They’ll only get me in trouble leaving ‘em here.”
Abner heard the hammer of the gun click as Ray cocked it with his thumb. Panic gripped him. His heart pounded in his chest and everything started to spin. He staggered forward catching himself on the metal legs that supported the tank. In a flash his panic was gone. Supporting himself with his left hand he reached around the side of the tank with his right. The whole time he let out great wheezing gasps that he hoped sounded right.
Ray laughed, “What’s this? You having a heart attack old man? Hot damn! My luck just gets better and better. That’ll be a lot easier to explain than a gunshot wound.”
Abner continued to wheeze and grope. After a few seconds he found what he was hoping for. He clutched tight in his hand and dropped to one knee. Just as he thought he would, Ray stepped closer. Ray wanted to see him check out. When he got within two feet Abner slumped forward and rolled to his right. Ray grinned and said, “That’s it old man. Time to go!” He was still grinning as Abner raised the nozzle and directed a stream of gasoline at his face.
The gasoline drenched Ray from head to toe. A moment later his lit cigarette ignited the fuel and Ray burst into flames. Abner skittered away as fast as he could, afraid the blaze would set off the tank. It seemed though, that he was the one with all the luck. Ray staggered a few steps away from the tank and then collapsed on the concrete pad. Abner watched as he writhed for a few minutes and then lay still.
A u-haul truck sat at the end of the alley. Abner backed the van in and stopped a few feet away. Two men got out of the truck; one went to the back and opened it. The other walked up to Abner’s window and tapped at the glass. Abner rolled it down. “Where’s Ray?” the man asked.
“Sick,” Abner replied, “told me he was ‘burning up’.” The man nodded in agreement and handed Abner a grocery sack.
“How’d you manage to get three at once?”
“Car wreck. Two got thrown clear; the other one’s a little crispy.”
“Shouldn’t matter where they’re going.”
“I don’t want to know,” Abner said, holding his hand up in a shielding gesture. The man laughed and went to the back of the van. In five minutes all three bodies were transferred to the U-Haul. The man with the sack gave Abner a wave from the cab as they pulled away and Abner returned the gesture. He waited a few minutes and then pulled the van out of the alley back onto the main street.
When Pepper came strolling up to the shed Abner was sitting on the golf cart waiting for him. “Hey Ab! How’s it goin’?” he asked.
“Well Pepper, it would be going a lot better if the tractor weren’t stuck on the other side of the property.”
“Stuck? Why’s it stuck?”
“Same damn reason as always Pepper, you forgot to fill up the gas cans.”
Pepper slapped himself in the forehead. “Sorry, Ab,” he said.
“Be sorry later. I went and got the gas cans this morning and filled them up. Haul ‘em over there and bring the tractor back.”
“Sure Ab. You taking the golf cart?”
“Yes I’m taking the golf cart. I’ve got a hundred pounds of mulch to get out today. How you expect me to haul it around?”
“Sorry Ab. I’ll get back as quick as I can to help.”
“Hmmph! Guess I’ll see you around lunch time then.”
Pepper started to walk away then stopped. “Hey Ab! I just remembered.”
“There was a burned up van out front when I drove up. Did you see it?”
“Yeah I saw it. I called the cops and they’re sending a wrecker to haul it off. It’ll only cause trouble if we leave it there.”
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