Old Man SuttersDragging the corpse of a full grown man was awkward. Even in life, the beer-bloated Mr. Sutters hadn't been fond of moving, and apparently not even death could change his ways. The cocooned body made a horrible slithering sound as the unwrapped feet scraped the frozen ground, and Horatio was reminded why he hated his job. In warmer months, Sir would help him carry the corpse and the shovel, but alas; Sir’s arthritis thrived in cold weather, leaving him useless and Horatio dragging the fat body alone using his own, disproportionately slim weight. The clouds that occasionally drifted over the half-moon didn’t help either.
Sir was grinning at him, Horatio could see, Sir’s long yellow teeth glinting gold in the light cast from the lantern he held in his craggy hands. “Don’ hurry now, sonny, but the doctor’s a waitin’.” He told Horatio, pointing a crooked hand at the outskirts of the graveyard.
Sir’s boney finger pointed true. The wagon was a walk off, but Horatio could see the misty breath of the horses curling in the moonlight.
“And” Sir added, walking ahead. “Honest men like Dr. Furst don’t like to be kept a waitin’.”
Horatio exhaled, let thing his chilled breath steam in front of him and gave the dead Sutters an extra hard tug, stumbling as he did so. The night was deeply dark and difficult to navigate through without tripping on tombstones. The light from Sir’s flickering lantern hardly helped and Horatio was much more afraid of a misstep and twisting his ankle than being caught desecrating the dead. He had long since stopped fearing any punishment for grave robbing. Graveyards were such a taboo among the city that people gave it a mile wide berth even in daylight. Except, of course, for funerals. Few people had come to Old Man Sutter’s funeral.
He was so preoccupied with dragging to body that he failed to notice the carriage until he nearly crashed into it.
That was Dr. Furst, shrouded in light from his own lantern. He was fidgeting and clacking his teeth, and not just because of the cold. He was a nervous man, nervous as one should be when hiring morticians to dig up cadavers.
But this time, Horatio noticed, Furst was not alone.
Sir pointed a gnarled finger and the stranger and barked his displeasure.
“An’ who’s this?” he spat, looking up at both men with obvious displeasure, holding his lantern high. “You don’ usually like strangers in your business, and I don’t like ‘em either. You’d best have a mighty good reason for hauling him along, because I may be bent, but I’m mighty good with a shovel.”
Sir was, Horatio admitted, “mighty good with a shovel.” The old man’s body was hunched from digging with his craggy hands constantly curled is if he was grasping the hilt of a long, heavy-headed shovel. Horatio could feel his own back straining under the weight of Old Man Sutters, and even after four years grave digging, Horatio shuttered.
The strange man, featureless in the darkness, helped Horatio lift Sutters into the back of Dr. Furst’s carriage. The stranger was tentative in touching the shrouded corpse. Horatio was too, even after four years of experience.
They only one who seemed calm was Sir, and was waiting Furst’s answer. The doctor eyed Sutters’s round body and spoke. That meant Furst would stop chattering his teeth in the cold, saving Horatio further annoyance.
“I didn’t ask for a bloater.” The Doctor said, finding the gall in him to complain. “Stiffs are hard enough to find these days.”
Sir snorted. “You wanted a carcass, that’s what you get.”
Horatio leaned against the wagon, propping the shovel next to him. The tall stranger joined him and spoke for the first time while the Furst argued with Sir concerning his fee. He gestured to Sutters.
“So,” he said quietly, directing his words to Horatio. Horatio looked up, surprised. He was rarely ever consulted during one of Sir’s business transactions.
“How long as he been dead?”
“About three days.”
It would have been longer had Horatio not come across the town drunk in time. Many people saw old man Sutters lying face down in the gutter. It was typical of him. Horatio was just the first one to recognize him as dead.
The man continued. It was difficult for Horatio to determine what he looked like despite the bright half-moon that hung above them as a cold, haloed angle-ghost flying between heaven and hell.
“You gave the funeral services, didn’t you?”
“It must be frustrating digging up something you just buried.” The man was trying to maintain eye contact and seemed as if he was prying a specific answer that neither of them could place.
“It’s all right.” Horatio was cold and stiff, not in the mood for talking. The man gestured to Sutters who was barely illuminated by the moon in the black of the carriage.
“Is he really bloated?”
“No, he’s just fat.”
Even his four years of experience, Horatio still felt irreverent when talking about the dead so casually.
“Hey.” The stranger called out, clearly bored with Horatio’s terse answers. “Are you done arguing? We don’t have all night.” He rubbed his hands together for warmth and stepped forward to answer the question Dr. Furst had not.
“My name his Earnest Harrington, and I have a proposition for you.” He extended a hand to Sir who inserted his strong, craggy fingers. Harrington seemed quite unnerved that Sir wasn’t letting go.
“Yes, tell us yer business dear sir, we need to know whether or not you’re goin’ to give us to the gallows. I find that important.”
Horatio flinched at Sir’s tactlessness. If any phrase would condemn them, that one would. Harrington didn’t seem to care other than that he was visibly trying to pry his fingers loose. Hard from gripping thousands of shovels, Sir’s hands were more than a match and held with a vice like fervor.
“I wish to offer you a job.” Harrington snapped, yanking his trapped right hand with his left to no avail. Sir let go, sending Harrington stumbling back a step.
Horatio gritted his teeth willing himself to remain silent.
“Well, if you’re paying, let’s hear it.” Sir quipped, clasping his hands.
“You’ve heard of the Cortina family, haven’t you?”
Sir wrinkled his long nose. “You’re not from around here are you?”
Everyone in Drevesta knew the Cortina family. They were just a little more famous than their charity soup kitchens that served watery soup with enough insincerity for the whole city.
“No, I’m not.” Harrington looked displeased with himself revealing the information. “But rumor has it that they buried their dead quite richly.”
“Rumors, eh? You’re awfully gullible for someone so desperately educated.”
Shut up. Horatio took a deep breath and hoped Harrington would have some pity on Horatio if he decided to turn Sir in. Sir had a point, though. Everyone in Drevesta had heard those rumors along with a thousand of others swirling around the illustrious Cortina estate.
A long stream of misty breath streamed from Harrington’s mouth revealing he had joined Horatio in taking a deep breath.
“I’m not so stupid as to bypass research, sir.” He paused as if remembering something. “What is your name again?”
“Eh, I’m just Sir.”
Harrington glanced at Horatio, confused. Horatio just shrugged.
Harrington continued, turning back to Sir. “Very well, Sir. I have evidence suggesting that this is true. I could show you the evidence and perhaps you could be persuaded to…”
“I work for money. Persuasion won’ help you and I don’ whant some pretty gems. You’ll have to dig it up for yourself, laddy.”
Sir pivoted to Furst. “You’d best pay up tomorrow or I’ll leave your next body for the worms. Spring is comin’, and they’ll be crawlin’.”
Furst snorted and sprang into the driver’s seat. The horses stamped their heavy feet and tossed their heads as their breath rose above them like ribbons of smoke dyed gold in the lantern light. Harrington was left to sit in the back of the carriage with the piece of flesh once known as Old Man Sutters. He looked loath at the company but said nothing more. He didn’t bother to give a parting wave as the horses leapt forward, and he closed the door.
Sir and Horatio were left watch the carriage ramble off beyond the soft, gold halo of their lantern, disappearing into the moon-ruled blackness.