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Five guys - four guns and a wheelman; several bodies; a sedan full of cash. Maybe as you're escaping down that twisty road out of town to your hideout, you think you're home free. But justice comes in many forms. Sometimes, it’s the law. Other times, it emerges from the night, shovel in hand.

—o—

ABOUT “THE GRAVEDIGGERS”

Set in the wilds of upstate New York, this is new mythology; as far as I know, there’s no such marauding band of criminal avengers, and if my grandmother knew of one, she kept it to herself. Instead, this springs from a dream I carried around for forty-plus years. In the dream, I was riding down the highway with my folks. We stopped by the side of the road for some reason - in dreams, who knows why? - and an old, dark sedan stopped across the highway from us. From inside, like a circus clown car, suited man after suited man emerged, each with a shovel in hand, until there were some fifty of them. In the dream, they had faces, all of them rugged, craggy, the sort of face that belied their finery. They proceeded to undertake a massive dig by the side of the road, making the ruckus you’d expect fifty people digging at once would make. I shouted out the car window, “What’re you digging up?” They stop as one and look at me, and one says “We’re not digging up. We’re digging to put someone down. Would you like to see?” They start approaching the car, a sort of menacing shamble and I start shouting for my father to go before they can drag the whole car into the crater they’re making, and that’s when I woke up.

I won’t say remembering that dream has kept me on the straight and narrow, but it can’t hurt to have a healthy respect for people who make a living digging holes in which to place bodies. 

The Story Stash is a place where I’ll drop work from time to time - pieces from the trunk, reprints, even new fiction that hasn’t ever found a home. Stories will be here for a random time (at least a week, probably longer) before they get replaced by the next in line. Typically accompanied by some insightful story notes. (Insightfulness not guaranteed.)

        They whoop when Marco's bullet strikes rubber on the chase car's tire. The black and white veers sharply into the ditch, rolls once, twice, dirt and steel making shadow puppets before the dome and headlights wink out and the siren dies. Night slides into place around them again, songs of cricket and katydid beneath the engine's roar.

        Marco pulls back through the window, an acrid halo of gunpowder lingering around him. "That shot! How about that shot!"

        The boys murmur agreement. It doesn't cost them any of their cut, and Marco appreciates agreement. 

        He doesn't sit, instead lords over the take. "Well? How much did we get?" 

        "I'll count it at the hideout," Willet says.     

        Marco cuffs him, a bear's open paw. "I wanna know now!" 

        Willet's tune changes. "Gimmie a minute." He starts a quick, rough tally, muttering as he goes. The back of the sedan is a crowd of worn leather and cloth satchels, former property of the Saratoga First National Bank. Some of them bear the stains of victory. Back in town, a half-dozen dead litter the bank inside and out, including the old lobby bull and another cop, plus two now-former employees of the armored car company. Add in any cop in the rollover who failed to hold on. All sorts of math to be done.  

        Up front, Nickel drives. Not his name, Nickel. They only call him that because that's his cut. He's a last-minute drop-in for Donny MacGregor, who was dumb enough to get pinched for something completely unrelated two nights before the job. Nickel is new to the big score. His stock in trade is odd jobs--a snatch here, a break-in there--but he's been driving since before his growth spurt. Someone had to be responsible for Ma after the old man floated his liver away. He was eleven the first time he had to navigate crosstown traffic to get her to the doc. Now Ma is on the slow downhill herself, more broken than the row house where they've nested Nickel's entire life. He's come to grips with it. He can't stop her dying, but he can ease the pain of the slide. A nickel from this job will go a long way to feathering her meager bed. 

        As the wheelman, he kept the engine running by the curb. He heard the shots inside, watched the finale of the bank job from behind the wheel, anxious to put leather to pedal. There was more blood than he expected when Marco brought the Tommy gun to bear on the armored car guards. Nickel wasn't accustomed to wet-work, but kept quiet. He was there to drive, not to grouse about technique.

        Willet grins. "Son of a gun. We hit 'em for almost three quarters of a million!"

        They serenade Willet with more whoops and whistles. Only Marco seems unfazed. "Did I tell you? Did I? The railroad, the brick works and the track! Three payrolls in one grab!" He slaps Plunkett on the back, maybe because it’s too hard to reach his own. "That's how you plan a job!" 

        They congratulate themselves, begin negotiations over the division of wealth, barter adjustments based on who shot whom and contributed more to their success. Marco and Willet are bickering over who put the killing slug in the old bank bull when a fresh set of headlights pop into view half a mile behind them. Plunkett notices them first. "Is that more screws?"

        Marco gapes. Barks at Nickel, his joy soured like old milk. "I thought you said you could drive!"

        "I am!" Nickel's running all-out, pedal flush with the floor, needle past sixty on the speedometer. The steering wheel horse-bucks with each rut the tires find.

        "Go faster, you little bastard!"

        Nickel glances in the rear view. Rough as his ride is, the car behind glides as if on a road of glass, the motion strange and unsettling. He spots an odd glow between the headlights. Crimson. The shape of a spade, faint but growing brighter as the car closes the distance between them. Nickel's heart is a fist in his throat. "Sweet baby Jesus."

        "What?" Minsky cranes to peer out the back, nearly gets bounced off the roof.
        "They're real." A whisper of disbelief.

        "Who's that?" 

        "The Gravediggers."

        "What's your yammer? It's cops!" Marco stares out the back window at the lights. "Gotta be. They musta got their car goin' again."

        Plunkett shakes his head. "After that accident? You're nuts. They'd be lucky to be drawing breath." 

        "Then it's a second car we didn't see."

        From beside Nickel, Minsky's voice is smaller than his frame. "What are you talking about? Who are the Gravediggers?"

        Nickel forces his eyes forward, trees flitting past on both sides in the headlights like phantoms. He tries to ignore the following car; if it's what he believes, hitting an oak at high speed might be faster and less painful. "My gramma told me about 'em when I was little. She caught me filchin' an apple from old man's McGruder's cart. Read me the riot act. Told me to stay on the straight and narrow."

        "You listen really good, kid," Plunkett interrupts as he reloads his .38 revolver. 

        "If you break the law--really break it, she told me, not like snatchin' an apple from a cart or a pack of smokes from the drugstore--and the cops can't catch you, the Gravediggers will."

        "Your gramma must have really liked her liquor." Marco leans out the window again. His pistol barks. Slugs spark against the grill of the approaching car. 

        The red spade is more pronounced to Nickel's eye, a declaration of war. Nickel tries to push the pedal through the floor, swerves to avoid a hard dip.  

        "I ain't ever heard about these Gravediggers. If there are tougher screws than the regular ones, I'd know it." Willet carries a stretch at Eastern State on his sheet. He knows from screws.

        "They're not cops. They're not even men."

        Marco's gun pops three more times. He drops it inside. It lands with a plop on the bank satchels. He beckons with his empty hand. "Gimmie the Tommy!" 

        Plunkett presses the machine gun into Marco's hand. Marco slips out the suicide door, onto the running board.

        Nickel almost has his eyes split, one on the road, the other in the mirror. "They come out of the night in black suits and top hats. Fancy, like they walked out of the symphony or somethin'. But they got no faces. Just darkness." The chop of the Tommy gun punctuates Nickel's sentence. "When they catch you, they drag you into the night and bury you alive."

        "That's some campfire story, kid." Willet is unimpressed.

        "Yeah? Gramma says they're what happened to Grampa Mickey. Right out of the alley outside their place, they plucked him like a flower. She heard 'em drive off. Never found his body."

        "If they're not men, why do they even care?"

        The chase car is four, then three lengths away. Nickel would shrug if it wouldn’t roll the car. "Gramma said that's what they chose to be."

        Marco rips off another dozen rounds, ducks inside again. "They're not stopping! Faster!"

        There is no 'faster.'

        The chase car slams the rear bumper, breaks Nickel's grip on the wheel. It spins as if it's come to life. The sedan leaves the dirt road with a bone-rattling thud, bounces. Nickel gets palms on the wheel again in time to wrestle the car to the left of an elm grove. He pumps the brake, a cowboy trying to crush a snake under his boot. The sedan bounces again, threatens to tip as it goes sideway, and skids to a halt. 

        The follow car rolls to within a foot. Red light bathes the sedan's interior.

        Marco retrieves his pistol and thumbs the hammer, ready to tangle. "These dirty bastards just made the biggest mista--"

        The side glass shatters and swallows the rest of his sentence. Six hands fall on Marco in unison. Before he can answer with bullets, he's ripped screaming through the jagged shard mouth. Willet is removed in the same fashion. Plunkett ducks, dodges, but in the end his grip on the suicide door is short-lived. Minsky bolts out the passenger door, gets four steps before Nickel sees him yanked from his feet in the crimson light. 

        Nickel freezes. He listens to the worst radio program never broadcast, the screams of terror in the darkness from grown men, mingled with the noise of shovels splitting the ground--a gang of workers excavating a basement, digging a tunnel, trying to cash in on a cheap detour to China. Nickel couldn't run even if he could conjure movement. Where could he go? He doesn't want to try to eclipse Minsky's record four-step run. He closes his eyes, waits for his fate. Feels his heart thudding in his chest and prays for it to burst. Hears his gramma clearly and too late. Bad boys face a bad end. That's why you should always be a good boy.

        A voice issues from outside his door, an echo from the bottom of a cistern. "Step out."

        Nickel steps out.

        One of the Gravediggers stands before him, a scarecrow just as Gramma described: thin, tall, dressed in top hat and tails like a Park Avenue dandy. Below the hat is a void that might have long ago swallowed his face. Somehow it's darker than the night, consumes everything, even the red glow of their car's unique headlight. Behind him, a dozen of his kind work in a grim tableau of shovels and open plots, throwing impossible avalanches of dirt atop the other four crooks. All four flail in their respective graves. Nickel can only see Marco's face in the glow of the full moon that slips through the trees, and only for a moment, the hardcase's left eye shocked wide by the naked reality of death. He strangles on the earth. They all do, their cries buried as swiftly as their bodies, until the Gravediggers stop moving dirt and begin tamping it. They might be beating down the last of the mens' sounds, until finally the graves are filled, silence replacing the voices of the dying. 

        One after another, the faceless dandies approach Nickel, their finery as clean as when they began their task. They form a loose knot around him. Nickel can't help but think of the hangman. 

        He stutters, his act of contrition a spill of gibberish. He knows they don't care if he's sorry or why he did it, that Ma is ill, how he just wanted to drive, didn't expect the bloodshed. Reasons are immaterial in the face of a reckoning. But they're his sole confessors, and Nickel thinks--hopes maybe--God is somewhere behind them in the darkness, listening with an ear towards mercy after his death is done.     

        The Gravedigger who beckoned him from behind the wheel places a finger on Nickel's lips, nearly a bone. "The worst of them are measured for life. Found wanting, they are measured again for the grave. The least of them is spared to tell the tale." 

        From the crowd, other voices join in. 

        "So evil may know."

        "Know the righteous path."

        "Know and respect."

        "Know and fear."

        The one directly in front of Nickel leans close, speaks again. There's the faintest trace of breath on Nickel's ear, colder than anything else in the night or on the earth. "Return to your life and sin no more. There is no second chance."

        Nickel nods. For a moment, he thinks his knees might buckle from relief as the group around him withdraws, Gravediggers walking away with dirt-caked shovels in hand. He watches their multitude pile impossibly into their lone vehicle. The engine roars with the authority of a judge. The car with the crimson spade headlight reverses to the road. Nickel feels no relief until they are one again with the night.

        He leans against the sedan and slides to the ground, adrenaline coursing through him. He dry-heaves. He stares at the ground between his feet until his heart has slowed again. Nickel knows he can't stay there. Eventually, the cops will roll past, spot the sedan. The electric chair is the ultimate answer to every question about four fresh graves and a car full of stolen money.

        His eyes dance over the stolen cash, decorated with shards of glass like angry diamonds. Three quarters of a million, Willet said. Nickel thinks about Ma. Even one satchel would offer relief: a better apartment, a smarter doctor, a nurse to look in so Nickel could work a real job, steady, get them back on their feet without guns and blood. As he muses the future, his gaze returns to the Gravediggers' handiwork under the moon’s cool eye, the night redolent with the scent of freshly-turned earth.    

        Nickel leaves the cash, the sedan, the dead behind. Pockets turned out, he starts up the winding road back towards town. The ground is hard under his shoes. It’s nowhere near as hard as dying.


—o—

THE STORY STASH