My fingers were numb and tight in the cold night air, but I held the rope and leaned back with all my weight. Up at the top of the stone wall, Cy and Jude crouched to drop down into the cemetery. Augie was already scouting inside, to make sure the stiff’s family hadn’t bought night watchers. They do that sometimes, if they can afford it, for the first few nights after burial when the flesh is best and most useful to the likes of us.
Good news is they usually can’t afford it.
Not around hear, least ways. Around here’s where they put the plagued and poor, the homeless and the free colored. Lucky for us, the doctors and their students don’t give a crap what kind of body we bring them so long at it’s fresh. Jude heard yesterday some Irish lady bled all over her kids after cutting her own throat. I said that takes balls and we should leave her in peace, but since Nathaniel got himself arrested and Jude took over I should be keeping my jaw shut because Cy liked nothin’ better than to see blood on my face. Besides, Jude said, when they go to grave without blood, they last longer and she’ll be in such condition maybe we’ll get extra coin from the physicks.
I heard Jude hit the ground on the other side, barely crackling the fallen leaves. Then Cy slammed with a thud and muffled grunt. I clenched my jaw against a snort. The bastard. Just because he was bigger and meaner he thought he got to enforce his own set of rules. A couple of months and twenty more pounds and I’d be able to hit back and mean it.
Wind gusted at my back, throwing dead leaves to slap against me and scatter against the cemetery wall. I dug in my feet and gripped the rope. My palms itched and burned. I grimaced at the strain stretching across my back and shoulders. Then the weight was suddenly gone as one of them lowered the bundle to the ground. Three tugs, and I let go of the rope. It snaked up and over the edge of the wall with a rough hiss.
I scrambled up and over, dropping as quietly as Jude had. Cy slammed a shovel into my shoulder, hard enough that I staggered.
"Quiet," hissed Jude from the bush where he was hiding our ropes and the burlap we’d wrapped the tools in.
Inside the cemetery walls sounds were muffled, as if the sticky smell from inside coffins seeped up through the ground and held all noises down, like the real gravity of death or something. I could feel it press against my face, pricking over my cheeks to my ears, and down the back of my neck. I shivered.
"Scared, Philly?" Cy sneered, pushing at me again. I jammed the end of my shovel handle into his stomach, but he dodged in time that it barely brushed the torn leather of his vest.
My mouth exploded in pain as a blow from nowhere knocked me to the cold earth. The shovel blade cut against my side. I sucked at my bloody lip and Jude rolled me over with his boot. "If you keep causing trouble," he whispered, "I’ll take that shovel and rip open your guts, drag you down the cholera tunnel and sell you to Doc Rathers. You’ll be so fresh he won’t mind your shit ropes are dragging behind you. Got it?"
Over his shoulder, Cy grinned. I bit back a complaint that Cy’d started it, because I was afraid Jude wouldn’t gut me, but give me to Cy.
Jude kept his foot on my ribs for another moment, then with a disgusted look, took up the wood and rope stretcher and stalked farther into the cemetery. Cy followed, and if I hadn’t rolled fast enough, he’d have kicked me in the stomach.
I hung back only a bit, to give myself time to stop being angry. If I didn’t calm down, it would be harder to pry up the coffin lid – and that was always my job, being the youngest and smallest. Climb down into the grave Philly, and get all those nails up.
Flickering light from the chapel caught my eye. We always bribed the city night-guard with a bit of our takings so he’d look the other way. Usually he left all the lights off for us. I wondered if Jude had noticed. But that’s why he sent Augie up ahead to scout.
The grave we aimed for was along the south wall, in three hundred feet and four wood cross-markers west of a skinny sycamore tree. All of us could see just fine by the half-moon, used to moving through much darker city streets at night. Out here, despite the death weight in the air, it was almost nice and decent.
A scattering of crackles alerted us someone was coming before we saw his shadow running through the crosses. All three of us ducked before Augie’s voice said, "Jude, man?"
"Shut up, Augustine. What’s wrong?" Jude stayed crouched, tipping his cap back from his eyes to look up at Augie.
"Some cock’s diggin’ at our grave, Jude!"
Jude thumped his crow bar into the dirt. "Well, then, maybe we’ll deliver the doctor two bodies."
"This is our cemetery," whined Cy.
I kept quiet, glad some unlucky fool was gonna distract them from being irritated at me.
"It’s just one," Augie added. "We can take him easy."
We fanned out, to encircle the trespasser, and I thought, Just one? How can one man dig and deliver a body on his own?
When I saw him, I didn’t know any clearer how he was managing. The man knelt beside an open grave. No shovel, no stretcher, no crowbar or anything we needed tonight. He wasn’t any older than Jude either, and there weren’t any dirt on his face or the dark coat he wore like it was fitted to him. A rich bugger I’d have thought, but no reason for somebody with their own money to take bodies. Then I noticed the coffin just sitting high in the grave – like it had only been buried a foot deep. The earth around it rolled and waved like it had just washed back from the grave, but it’d been drier than Africa all week and the ground should’ve been hard and chunky.
Jude stepped out and smacked the crow bar against his left palm. The slap cut through the whispering night.
The man paused, his hand flat on the coffin lid, and then stood slowly. He turned to face Jude, and I could see that his coat was tattered at the bottom. His hands were dark with dirt. Had he dug with his hands?
"Leave now, and I won’t have to shove this through your throat," Jude said quietly, like it was a common polite way to greet a stranger.
The graverobber only tilted his head to the side and frowned.
"It’s ours!" Cy grunted, lifting his shovel. Augie joined him, baring his teeth like a rabid dog.
I didn’t move.
"The body belongs to the earth," the graverobber said.
Jude laughed. "That’s why you’ve dug it up?"
"No. I’ve brought it to the surface to use it, but I know it does not belong to me."
"Crazy ass!" Cy stepped forward.
I closed my eyes and thought of the hot pie I’d fill up my stomach with after we got the cash from the doctor. I hadn’t had hot anything in a week. This was our cemetery – we worked it. We did. I stood up, too, and hefted the shovel in my hands with the blade over my head.
The graverobber bent and put his hand to the ground. He grabbed a handful of… gun. He had a rifle – it must have been hidden in the darkness.
I froze, but Jude laughed. "You can shoot one of us, but not all of us."
"If I discharge this," the graverobber calmly took aim at Jude’s face, "the guard will hear it, and likely neighbors, too. Your evening will be ruined, too."
Jude grimaced. "So will yours."
Cy added, "We’ll just have to take you down with us, preacher."
That was the coat! It was an old cassock like the father wore at the asylum where my mom died.
The graverobber lifted his shoulders. His dark coat rustled like dry old wings. "Very well." In one smooth motion, he turned the rifle to me.
A flash and thunderous crack, and I was flung backward. I hit the ground and couldn’t breath. Stars dazzled in front of my eyes and a roar like the earth was tearing open to devour me filled my head. My middle was on fire, painful flames licking up my chest, rushing out to my hands. I – could – not – breathe. And I couldn’t feel my legs.
Freezing panic sucked at my eyeballs and I strained to move my arms. To push up, to scramble at my chest because if I could get the weight off I could breathe again. I could… I
I opened my eyes and the graverobber’s face filled my vision like the half-moon itself had lowered in the sky. He touched my lips, and I cracked open my jaw to drag in a huge chunk of night air. My lungs swelled and the earth shifted under me like a rocking cradle.
Wind whispered over my face and ruffled the graverobber’s pale hair.
My body shook once. Everything tingled and I felt whole. But weak, like I’d been puking for days. I tried to say something.
"Hush, boy," he said.
"Wh – wh?"
"They’re gone, and they won’t be back." His voice was soft like a woman’s. "Why did you stay with such wicked men?" He pressed his lips into a little frown and continued, "No, you needn’t say. I know how this world works."
"Who… are you?"
"I’m the Deacon, little brother."
He said it like Mr. Madison got to say he was The President. Like I should understand. I nodded, happy that I could. Hadn’t I just been shot? Hadn’t the Deacon just shot me? I blinked and wasn’t sure. I was cold and tired and hungry. The ground stopped shifing under me, but the wind continued to blow and darkness remained. "I need – I need to go."
"Wait." The Deacon propped the rifle against his shoulder. "You have powerful blood, little brother. I saw it on your face the moment you stood." He nodded at my mouth and I remembered that Jude had hit me.
"Why aren’t I dead?"
"I told you: because of your blood. I wove you back together with it, as I knew I could."
"My blood." I should have pushed up and run. I should have gotten as far away as I could.
But when the Deacon smiled, it reminded me of my mother’s smile before she was crazy – not after. Certain of himself, but not mean like my gang. He said, "We should go before the authorities arrive. It was a loud gunshot."
I didn’t move.
"If you come with me, brother, I will teach you what you can truly do with bones and blood, with graveyard dirt and faith."
The Deacon stood. He was small, but loomed over me like an angel. And he held down for me one of his bloody hands.