by Ed Lynskey
Frank Dinkle propped his work boot on the top edge of his garden spade. "Ainít no two ways about it, Milo. Perched on that backhoe, youíre prettier than King Tut himself."
Milo fielded the quip in his effortless manner. "And if you worked that damn spade a quarter much as bumping your gums, weíd be finished this business, huh, sheriff?"
The sheriff folded his hands into his armpits and spat. "Put a sock in it," he said. "The both of you."
Scowling, Doc Thomas let his red-rimmed eyes appraise the deceptive lay of the cemetery plots around them. "Have to get a move on, gentleman. Old Lady Grimes' funeral procession is in two hours."
The three mounds of wet red clay veined with blackjack shale represented all that Milo had excavated since dawn when they'd started work. He wasnít worried. Pay was the same. Twirling the backhoeís keys on their ring, he retained a deadpan expression. He neither advanced nor advertised an opinion on their present quandary unless asked. And he hadn't been asked.
"A bloody casket is supposed to lie underneath its tombstone just where it was interred," said Doc Thomas.
Frank cut in like he was the brains behind this exhumation. "Truth be told, caskets tend to migrate under the earth. Iíve seen it happen time and again in my professional experience as a gravedigger. Any buried coffin's location is at best an educated guess."
"Better listen to him," said Milo.
"Relying on those six-foot tap poles doesnít afford any better insight," Frank went on. "As for using those electronic gizmos -- what are they called, ground piercing radar? -- in this iron-rich soil, well, better forget about it. Can I have an amen, Milo?"
As they waited for a reply, Milo matched himself up a Marlboro Lite and spoke as expelled bluish smoke wreathed his black mesh hat. "Amen. Yep, Frank kids you not. And Iíve heard, too, that coffins assume a mind all their own. Itís like they grow a brain inside those dark recesses."
"Hogwash." A humorless snort from Doc Thomas dismissed the notion. "Itís no mystery how the dug up ground might shift and settle into its more natural state. In the process, a casket may be squeezed and tweezed about a trifle. Thatís all. Well, coffins can collapse, too. Thatís why weíll start using cement grave liners come next summer."
With a deft flick of his wrist, Milo jostled his family jewels into a more natural state. "Well, naturally, I defer to your learned expertise, Doc. Iím but a mere backhoe jockey trying to earn a living wage."
"Itís quite all right," Doc Thomas grumbled back, either missing or ignoring Milo's rich sarcasm.
Grunting, Frank lowered himself into the pit that came about up to his waist. With idle interest, the three others watched him chunk the six-foot tapping rod into its bottom. Tapping its end with a sledge hammer, he drilled down but like the previous trials, but didnít hit any large obstruction such as a coffin. Frank repeated the same action at four other random sites. The clangs had the spectators flinching shoulders and clacking teeth with each fiercer hammer strike.
Frustrated by his ill luck, Frank stopped.
The sheriff went into a cowboy crouch, stabbed his hand down to fetch up a clump of red clay. Broken bits crumbled between his blunt fingers. "Why not let the dead rest and rot in peace? I mean is all this rigmarole necessary, Doc?"
Doc Thomas sputtered with indignation. "You bet, it is. Let me ask you a question, sheriff. Are you content with permitting a cold-blooded murderer get off scot-free and rove on our streets?"
The sheriff arose, his joints stiff. "Iíve always enforced the laws of the land. That encompasses murder when the physical evidence warrants it. The thing is, I just donít see that as the case here. Mrs. Ryder, ancient at age 86, expired of natural causes. Period."
"Wrong. I say she died of poisoning," said Doc Thomas. "Arsenic. Iíve always nursed a suspicion. Her son Phillip is more than the odd egg. Heís a killer. New advances in forensics science will prove me right beyond the shadow of a doubt."
"Righto, Doc," said Milo.
"Thatís right," said Doc Thomas. "Beyond a shadow of a doubt."
Milo nodded with a sly smirk. "Whatever you say."
Doc Thomas bridled. "I've attended seminars, some as far away as Richmond. Youíll be laughing out the other side of your mouth once I prove my case."
Exhaling in a huff, Milo flicked his sparky butt into the pit, causing a grinning Frank to dance aside. "Doc, youíd better sample the soil hereabouts," he said. "Arsenic is one of our more common heavy metals. I wager this here dirt will taint your lab findings."
"Iím well aware of that fact, Mister Backhoe Jockey. Did you learn it on the Discovery Channel?" asked Doc Thomas.
Miloís head wagged. "No sir, it was in Weird Stories."
"Ha! A sci-fi pulp mag," said Doc Thomas. "An even more authoritative source."
"Letís keep it real," said Milo.
The sheriff stuck out a paw for Frank to grab and elevate out of the hole. "Well, Iím still game to keep searching a bit longer," the sheriff said.
Milo slotted the key in the backhoeís ignition. "The sheriff put it right. Mrs. Ryder shriveled up from old age and died. Guarantee it. Happens to us all. And the devil with your new forensics science, Doc."
"Your opinions are duly noted," Doc Thomas said. "Now earn your daily bread by pulling Mrs. Ryderís pine box out the dirt. Sometime before sundown would be nice, too."
Only the red knots at Miloís jaws betrayed his flash of anger. Just as quickly, he shrugged and cranked over the machineís diesel engine. "No freckles off my ass," he muttered under his breath.
* * *
Twenty minutes prior to the calvacade of vehicles, their headlamps on, arrived at the cemetery for Old Lady Grimesí graveside rites, Frank hit something. It came as a hollow thud. Milo with the backhoeís scoop chipped and scraped away dirt, inch by inch, exposing the copper-plated coffin. Frank brushed off loose particles.
The sheriff threw his chin to point at it. "That jives. Only one copper-plated box in this bone orchard according to town mortuary records. Itís Mrs. Ryderís."
"Easy does it, gentlemen." Doc Thomas barked out commands, his voice shot with excitement. "Hand me that extra shovel, Frank. Donít nick up the coffin. Milo, hop down and give Frank a hand here. I canít. Bad back. Anyway, I have to shoot this video. Leave nothing to chance. Sheriff, hustle in there, too . . . okay, lift on the count of three . . . good, good. Wheel up the hearse, sheriff. Hurry now. My spanking new morgue holds the answers, gentlemen. Itís all in the science. I tell you, itís always in the science."
"Doc, when I want to hear an ass, I'll fart," Milo said.
"Careful, Milo," the sheriff cautioned him. "Plenty of other gravediggers whoíre a lot less lippy can be hired."
"Yeah, but none of them own a premo backhoe," said Milo. "Unless you figure on breaking your back digging a hole every time someone dies."
"Enough," said Doc Thomas. He hopped between them. "Thereís plenty of work to be done here."
After the black hearse was loaded with its human remains, the sheriff and Doc Thomas departed. With sober dispatch, the hearse crunched over the pea gravel lane and through the wrought iron archway topped with cherubs and lambs. Stripped to their wife-beaterís T-shirts drenched in sweat, Frank and Milo slouched against the backhoeís giant rear tires. Their burly chests heaved to gain a second wind. Milo coughed.
"This ainít right, plain and simple," he said. "No matter what signed paper Doc Thomas wheedles out of a judgeís chamber. Digging up dead people and defiling their graves. It just ainít right or normal."
Frank wagged his shaggy head. "Aw, quit your grousing. For fifteen dollars an hour, itís the easiest money weíve ever pulled down. Weíll even earn money waiting now on Doc. And Iím down to my last two dollars."
"Money has nothing to do with what Iím telling you. The Sanctity of the Sepulchre, leaving the dead in state, transcends Doc Thomasí half-assed suspicions. His new science can be hanged, too."
"Fine. Your five-dollar words convince me," said Frank. "Come on. It being a breezy day, Iím going to relax over yonder. Relax and ogle Old Lady Grimesí foxy granddaughters in their short funeral dresses. No telling what will blow up. I like looking at their legs. That and those sweet, round asses swinging high and tight like airborne cannonballs . . . ouch!"
Milo had reached over, swatted Frank above the ear. "Simmer down, Romeo. Youíre starting to froth at the mouth. Your trouble is you leave a slime trail where you go. Be a man for a change and not a slime-ball"
"Jeezum, Milo, that smarted."
"I did it for your own good, Frank."
"Sure, sure. Youíre always putting my best interests front and center."
"You bet your sweet bippy," Milo replied.
* * *
"These skeletonized remains arenít Mrs. Ryderís," Doc Thomas announced. The HEPA-filter respirator was cupped on his chin like an ugly growth.
The sheriff, his skin a greenish, sickish hue in the morgue lighting, growled. "Whose are they?"
Doc Thomas peeled off his oversized latex gloves. "I don't know, but this bone structure and height tell me this one is a man's."
"A manís!" The sheriff's face flushed with growing dismay. "Whose?"
"Don't know. That falls in your domain, sheriff. I just report what the dead body tells me. These remains can't be Mrs. Ryderís."
"Mrs. Ryder went into the ground," said the sheriff. "I know it for a fact. Phillip Ryder asked me to go up, crack the coffin, and fetch off his mother's ruby ring just before interment. Said he couldn't bear to part with it."
Doc Thomas zippered up the pale blue body bag. "Phillip wasn't interested in its sentimental value, I assure you. It's a better than even bet he hocked it in some out-of-town pawnshop."
"What now?" asked the sheriff.
"Well, I can't make a case against Phillip Ryder with the wrong body," said Doc Thomas. "Ironically enough, we have a different murder investigation on our hands."
Shaking his head, the sheriffís voice turned low and sinister. "Baloney, too. I say this body goes back into the ground. Damn straight. I can't be bothered with all the public flack itíll stir up. This is an election year. Law and order is why folks put me in office. Understand me?"
"But sheriff," said Doc Thomas. "My new morgue can crack this homicide case with ease. No bragging either. It's all in the science, my man, it's all in the science."
"It's all in who I first cast a hard eye on for desecrating this grave," the sheriff declared. "You were the last, besides myself, around the coffin, eh? You know what I have to ask myself, Doc? How much do medical schools now pay for fresh cadavers?"
"For Peteís sake, sheriff. How can you think such a thing? Besides which, any enterprising reprobate can peddle a new cadaver to a medical school."
"Yeah, but even the hint of such a scandal could wreck a certain M.E.ís career. Close down his new morgue. Run him out town on a rail."
"Whoa. I catch your drift," Doc Thomas said. "All right, all right. You win. No more disruption to this grave. The coffin goes back. Itíll give Milo yet another chance to gloat."
* * *
Milo scraped the last of the red clay over Mrs. Ryder's final resting place. Whistling, Frank tamped it down using the back of his spade. Doc Thomas and Sheriff Pettigrew, tight-lipped and tense, had delivered the coffin after being gone for only an hour. Despite Frank's questions, they'd divulged no information about their autopsy.
The sheriff had finally snapped: "Give it a rest, Frank. This was a false
alarm. Hear me? A false alarm. Mrs. Ryder, like we suspected, died of her
advanced years. Our verification dispels any further doubt."
"B-b-but sheriff, what about Phillip Ryder?" Frank wondered.
"He's no longer a suspect," said the sheriff. "Now get cracking and put this cadaver in the dirt. Itís giving me a case of the heeber-jeebees."
"Will do, sheriff." Milo hopped up on the backhoe, but not before whacking Frank hard across the back of the head. "Weíll do just like we're told, huh, Frank?"
Frank nodded, rubbing his stinging head. "Yep, I reckon we will at that."
Milo poked a wad of greenish Skoal between his cheek and gum, gunned the backhoeís engine. "Another day, another dollar," he shouted to Frank.
Everyone by now had left the cemetery. Frank shook his head. "You were right all along about Mrs. Ryderís grave. Why? I mean how could you be so all-fired sure?"
"I use this backhoe for lots of gigs," Milo replied. "Some perhaps more nefarious than others. Let's just leave it that I had good reason to know all along."