by JEREMY SEALS
ven with the truck mounted winch, bringing up the coffin was nerve wracking. It groaned, creaked, bumping gently against the grave’s sides. Each time the latter occurred, Elise’s breath caught briefly in her throat. Jones was experienced, though. He carefully monitored the casket’s progress, stopping frequently to shine a bright light on the muddy box and checking for cracks or leaks.
If water had broken through the seal, no one made any money. Their buyers didn’t want moldy bones and tarnished jewelry.
“So far, so good,” Jones muttered. Elise knew from years of working with the man that her de facto boss was talking to himself. “Yup. Nice, tight, and all right.”
Bushes parted, making Elise jump. Mikey, the junior member of the crew, emerged, zipping up his fly. He was twenty, freckle-faced, and had a perpetually tousled head of bright red hair, making him look like an overgrown Chuckie doll. Though she’d been skeptical at first on working with someone so young, the kid had won them both over by being an extremely good digger.
Unfortunately, Mikey also had a significant crush on Elise. It was annoying, but she tolerated it. She was thirty, too thin, and had no other romantic prospects. Compliments were few and far between. Being treated to a meal was an even rarer occurrence. She was very careful not to lead the boy on. Breaking hearts wasn’t something she liked to do.
A snort of laughter escaped her. It was a bad joke. Did you hear the one about the grave robber with a heart? She got it from the widow Perkins last night!!! Yuk! Yuk! Yuk!
The coffin finally cleared the hole. Jones expertly manipulated the crane’s controls. Soon it was sitting on the grass beside the grave. Elise and Mikey undid the heavy duty cargo straps.
“Okay,” Jones removed a scrap of paper from his breast pocket. “We have one Miss Liv Marius. Died 2002 at the ripe old age of 38. Our interested party believes that she practiced witchcraft, which makes this somehow valuable to our client. We are to collect the skull, spinal column, and both hands, all finger bones. Everything else we find belongs to us. Clear?”
“Cool with me,” Mikey smiled a bit. “Who wants to crack it open?”
“I will.” Elise flicked her headlamp on, examining the seal on the coffin. Cheap silicone stuff. She clucked her tongue disapprovingly. “Undertaker was a corner cutter. Lucky for us.”
From a shoulder bag of tools she selected protective gear and a spray can labelled “Dissolve-Ex.” Crab walking, fully aware Mikey was probably ogling her butt, Elise squirted a generous coat of the noxious substance around the lid. Goop ran, making thick streaks through the mud caked onto the sides.
Jones seated a crowbar into a crack. He grunted. The concrete protested, but slowly came open. A fetid wave of air rushed out to greet them.
“Oh man!” Mikey groaned, waving a hand around to disburse the smell. “Do you ever get used to that stink?”
“Nope,” Jones began working on the other side of the coffin’s lid. “It’s a dead body. It’s going to stink. All you can do is work through it.”
“Or wear a mask,” Elise gestured to her respirator. “Like I keep telling you to.”
“Jones doesn’t,” Mikey’s brow furrowed. “What’s the trick?”
“Menthol rub,” Jones grinned as the other seal broke. “Coat my upper lip with it.”
Conversation stopped. The now exposed body was wrapped head to toe in a dark purple shroud. Mikey pulled a pair of heavy duty shears from his tool pouch and began to carefully cut through the thick fabric over the corpse’s head. Jones did the same from the feet.
“Skull looks good,” Mikey reported. “Necklace here too. Yellow gold with purple stones on the pendent.”
“Bangles on the left ankle,” Jones said. “Brass, probably. Careful of that spine now, Mike. The buyer wants it intact. Elise, get closer with your light. Keep young Michael on the straight and narrow.”
She crouched beside the boy, noting his slight flush of pleasure, even in the shadows the headlamp cast over Mikey’s face. Kid had it bad all right. Flattering, but she was going to have to put a stop to it. His crush would eventually make for rougher working conditions and create friction in the group.
Mikey was beginning to work through the ribcage to get at the prized spine when something growled from the underbrush. Elise shined her lamp at it, revealing a pair of bloodshot black eyes.
“What-“Jones began, straightening up. A small furry creature burst from cover. Shiny teeth chomped down on Mikey’s wrist. He howled in pain, flailing about wildly in an attempt to dislodge the monster grinding its fangs through his skin to the bone.
“Hold still!” Jones thundered. It cut through the confused, panicked haze enveloping Mikey’s mind. He instantly obeyed. One hard swing of the crowbar later, the young man was free. The skittering beast rolled about, squalling in enraged pain.
Elise had produced her reliable little .380 automatic. She was drawing a bead on the twisting creature. Jones pushed the gun up and simultaneously smashed his tool into the animal’s head. The fearsome noise stopped.
“Holy crap!” Mikey gasped. “What the hell was that? My arm hurts like a mothersucker!”
“Raccoon,” Jones was looking closely at the bludgeoned body. “Rabid too. Bad luck for you, Mike.”
“Don’t worry. We’ll get you to the hospital after we finish up. Get you some shots and stitches.”
“Stitches!” Mikey almost wailed.
“Yup,” Jones walked back to the open casket. “Fifty-five of them, at least.”
Elise tried to hide her smile. The kid was so darn gullible. Mikey sat down heavily, one hand clamped to his wound. His blue eyes were so big she was sure they might topple out of his head.
Quickly and carefully, the duo removed the requested components. Elise was carefully placing the finger bones in a small padded box. Jones was nearby, examining some odd writing he’d found on the underside of the coffin lid. He gasped. Began to hiccup. Stopped.
“What’s up Jones?” Elise asked quietly. “You okay?”
“Did you see this?” Jones’ voice was odd. He was subdued, all his usual confidence gone. “It’s a warning.”
She looked. It was several lines of text written in some language she didn’t recognize. “So what? We’ve seen stuff like this before. Anyway, how do you know it’s a warning? You can’t read that any better than I can.”
“No, no. This is different. This is serious. We should put it all back.”
“Come on Jones! Snap out of it. We have what we need. Let’s put the rest back and go.”
Mikey stood uneasily. “What’s wrong?”
Jones was transfixed by the script. His arms were folded over his chest. He was rocking slightly, mouth working silently. Elise was slightly disgusted as drool began to run slowly from the corner of his mouth.
She exchanged a worried look with Mikey. He shrugged slightly, moving away from Jones slowly. Dealing with one crazy animal was enough.
“I’m sorry,” Jones said softly. “We’re all sorry.”
“Who are you talking to?” Mikey whispered.
“Her. She’s mad. We need to say sorry and put the stuff back. Say you’re sorry, okay guys?”
“Who’s mad? Dammit, Jones, we paid off the people we needed to,” Elisa was looking about, gun out and ready. “Is someone else messing around here?”
“The lady’s very mad,” Jones' voice was that of a child. “We shouldn’t have defiled her. We have to put it back. Gotta put it back and hope she won’t be mad anymore.”
“No,” Elise said firmly. “I don’t know what’s come over you, but we’ve got what we need. Let’s go and get our fee. Just like always, right Mikey?”
“Right,” Mikey said confidently. “Just like always.”
Violently shaking now, their boss was moaning. He pointed into the forest beyond the weathered headstone. His normally olive skinned complexion was draining away. The neat goatee he affected was whitening before them. Dark blood began to run down one nostril.
“Witch! It’s the witch!” Jones screamed. “It’s too late now! The witch is here!”
Following the pointing digit into the dark woods, Elise and Mikey yelled in fear and surprise. Before them, trailing a long gown behind her, a twistedly beautiful apparition floated towards the trio. She was not pale, like a movie ghost, but glowed a light green. Her face was long, flawlessly smooth. The eyes were hard, glittering diamonds. Two monstrous dogs trailed behind her. Easily as tall as Elise herself, twice as broad. The each wore wide collars of thick ebony leather. Bright tanzanite pendants hung from the middle.
“My name is Liv Marius,” the apparition growled. “You have violated my slumber. Why have you done this? Why have you defiled my body?”
“We’re sorry!” Jones cried, falling to his knees on the muddy ground. “Oh please, don’t hurt us! We’ll put it back! We promise!”
One hand raised. The man’s frantic apologies ceased. He made a guttural whining sound. More blood began to flow, from both nostrils now. Slow at first, the thick crimson picked up the pace. It positively dumped out, punctuated here and there with some gray matter.
Elise’s throat convulsed, gulping in air. She let loose an ear-piercing wail. Her arm raised the small handgun. It seemed to weigh a ton now, but she managed. She squeezed the trigger rapidly.
Liv’s shade barely noticed. She was completely focused on watching the gory mess pour from Jones’ face. A beautiful smile was spread across her plum colored lips. Perfectly straight, yet yellow stained teeth appeared. Even the hounds began to grin in a doggy way, long violet tongues lolling from their mouths.
Mikey stood agape, rooted in place by the gruesome sight. Silent tears poured down his cheeks. A rapid, disjointed prayer ran through his mind. What was this? What had no one bothered to tell him that these things could happen?
Jones’ life ended in a final hiccupping belch. He flopped down on his belly, head rebounding gently before coming to a final stop. The ghost lady giggled. She clapped enthusiastically at the vile display. Once her glee had passed, she turned to the pair standing nearby.
“Now,” Liv purred. “What shall I do with the two of you?”
Unwilling to wait and find out, Elise took off. She didn’t look back to see if Mikey would follow. The kid was old enough to take care of himself. Though she would never admit to it, the thought occurred that she might get away while the ghost was killing the boy.
The specter’s ethereal dress flowed out around the still frozen form of Mikey. He did not protest as the white, flower-specked material wrapped itself around his arms and legs. Urine ran down his limbs. He opened his mouth to plead with the evil spirit. Nothing came out except for a flat croak.
“Shhh!” Liv whispered, drawing close to the terrified young man. She placed one hand on top of his head. An unsettling warmth began to flow through Mikey. Intense pain followed it, mercifully stopping at the base of his spine.
“A mânca cu poftă!” She called to the hound on her right.
Ground shaking at its approach, the giant canine stepped before Mikey. He tried not to cry anymore, tried to be brave in the face of his certain doom, but the flashing jaws that closed around his entire head were too terrifying for courage. A racking sob was the last sound he made.
The dog pulled Mikey’s head and spine off his shoulders. It sucked the vertebrae down intact like a spaghetti noodle. Moments later the hound began to heave. With a final deep huff, the ghostly animal regurgitated the bony snack, sans meat and skin.
At Liv’s gesture, the cleaned skull rose to float in the air. Mikey’s blue eyes peered lovingly up at his new mistress. She smiled benevolently at him, placing one long-fingered hand under his chin, stroking lightly.
“Find the thieving bitch,” the ghost woman said. “Bring her to me alive.”
Howling, the gristly seeker took off the way Elise had fled. The dogs looked to their owner, who nodded approval. They returned the cry and stormed off, flanking what remained of Mikey.
Their quarry was hiding in a mausoleum close to the grave. A huge cramp had gripped the back of Elise’s right leg soon after she sprinted for the exit. Knowing that the witch woman would be on the hunt, she stifled a scream of frustration and denied the urge to give up. The lock on the gated tomb door was easily picked, even with hands that quaked in terror.
Inside, breathing the dank, mildew-ridden air, Elise clutched her reloaded firearm. She was trying to listen over the wild pounding in her chest. The hamstring spasm was slowly going away. Stretching it as best she could, Elise knew that running was going to be the only option for escape. If she hid here, they’d eventually find her.
Something outside screeched through the air. She edged to the entrance, risking a glance. A skull, whipping its tail around madly, bobbed around the general vicinity, a sickening marionette looking for Elise. The dogs were close as well. Their noses were to the ground seeking her scent. One’s head lifted, causing her to retreat back into the deeper shadows.
A bat, attracted by the activity, swooped down. The hound with the lifted head snapped it out of the air mid-flight. It crunched the flying rodent up, swallowing it down in a single gulp.
Shivering, Elise felt her heart drop. They were going to find her if she stayed here and running was absolutely crazy. The monsters would easily catch up. Her pistol might be useful against the floating skull, but the dogs were another story.
The hound closest to her abruptly stopped sniffing. Its sharply pointed ears perked up. A sharp, echoing bark alerted the others. Elise whimpered, closing her eyes and covering her ears with sweating, quivering palms. She hoped it would at least be quick.
Long moments passed. Nothing happened. Perspiration beaded up on her forehead. She was now shaking uncontrollably.
Bright light penetrated Elise’s eyelids. Unable to help herself, she let loose a high scream, kicking out with both feet wildly. Fists followed suit. The firearm was all but forgotten in her fear.
“Whoa!” An older male voice hollered in protest. “Stop it!”
Breathing hard, the terrified grave robber opened her eyes. A lanky man in a worn pea coat stood there, powerful flashlight in hand. The caretaker, who’d cheerfully taken their bribe without any problem at all.
“I thought you guys were working outside,” he asked, rubbing a kicked shin. “What are you doing in there? Is everything okay?”
“No,” she answered between gasps. “We need to leave; now.”
Rising to her feet, Elise ignored his confusion and slowly exited the tomb. No sign of the creatures. She walked quickly towards the cemetery gates, resisting the urge to break into a full-bore run.
“Hold on!” The caretaker protested, following closely.
“Shut up!” Elise hissed. “We can talk all you want once we get out of here. Until then, keep quiet and move!”
“I said-“the man stopped short. A high pitched keening split the air. He swung the light around. “What the hell is that?”
Mikey’s disembodied skull was barreling straight at him, mouth wide as it shrieked. His bright eyes burned out of the fleshless face. Somewhere behind this gruesome remnant, the dogs bayed encouragement.
The bony attacker slammed into the caretaker’s chest. He hit the ground hard, flashlight rolling away. Elise began to approach when a sound infinitely more awful than Mikey’s battle cry started. A wet, ripping, snapping noise, punctuated by the victim’s uneven, warbling shrieks.
Tail of vertebrae lashing furiously about, the skull was attempting to burrow its way into the struggling man. He tried to push it away. Unfortunately, his hand got too close to its gnashing teeth. Fingers came away, dropping through the hole in Mikey’s jaw.
Elise could watch no more. She sprinted away, unwilling to subject herself to watching what was left of her friend drill into the caretaker’s solar plexus. Two perfectly synchronized howls preceded the heavy thumb of eight massive paws. The dogs were on to her.
Willing her legs to move faster, she choked down the scream that threatened to steal valuable oxygen. Elise could see the gates. No matter that the careful caretaker had locked them behind him. The tall bars could be climbed.
Concrete splashed against her back. Small pebbles, thankfully. She risked a look back. The hounds were close, plowing through tombstones like they were Styrofoam yard decorations. Their eyes burned red with hateful madness. An alien voice whispered in her mind, commanding her to stop. To Elise’s horror, her legs were obeying.
“No!” She bellowed, breaking the trance. Pushing the tired appendages harder, fueled by adrenaline, Elise crossed the last twenty yards in record time. She sprang at the fence like a wild ape.
The bars were rounded dowels of wrought iron, too slick to climb. She cried out with what little breath remained, scrambling and jumping to find some purchase on the unforgiving surface.
Powerful jaws clamped on her belt. Elise was lifted bodily. The dog flung her up quickly, getting a new hold on her slim waist. She expected the hell beast to bite right through and squinted against what was sure to be an agonizing few moments before her brain disconnected.
Instead, the hound turned and rushed back towards the violated grave. There it dumped her, scraped and slightly soggy, but otherwise unharmed, before Liv. Mikey’s skull, bloody and chipped from its efforts, circled slowly around.
What remained of Elise’s partners lay in the bottom of the hole, smashed under the replaced casket. The lid was closed. Hope, albeit weak and unreasonable, blossomed in her chest. Maybe the ghost wouldn’t outright killer her. There could be a slim chance to walk away from all this.
“No,” the specter said, voice full of false pity. “You’re not escaping punishment. I was dead, free from the misery of the world. Yes, I practiced sorcery while alive, knowing that anyone who disturbed me would damn me to a second life. I chose a quiet corner to be buried in, where the chance of being disturbed was small. Thanks to you, I now have to haunt these grounds forever.”
She curtly gestured with her head. The flowing cloth restraints from Liviu cruelly snapped around Elise’s wrists and yanked her arms to point straight out, palms down. The dogs came around to face the thief. They positioned themselves so that their mouths were nearly touching Elise’s outstretched fingers.
“Hand for hand.” Liv whispered, snapping her fingers.
Though Elise screamed, it did nothing to mask the sharp, carroty snap of the demon hounds severing both hands neatly at the wrist.
Jeremy Seals is a horror fiction writer from Ohio. Previously, he has been published in issue 41 of Sanitarium magazine and has self-published two collections of short horror stories titled Trauma and Torment, which are available on Amazon.com. Jeremy is married and lives with his dog and two cats.
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