John wasn’t terribly pleased with his new job, but with the onset of the plague he didn’t have much of a choice but to seek work; with both of his brothers and his father now dead and his mother and sisters falling ill, feeding the family fell to him. But being a boy of merely eight years, there were only so many jobs he could do. The fields needed planting, to be certain, but he wasn’t strong enough to move the plow nor capable enough to control the oxen. Being a street cleaner was always an option, but it had become the job of choice for many of the orphans of Paris, making the earnings slim and the hours long. So when he heard of this job, he quickly made certain his sisters were tucked into their cots nice and tight, put his mother to bed, and left under a moonless night sky to seek an interview for the one job nobody wanted.
Walking through the befouled streets with a linen cloth covering his face like a bandit’s mask, John watched on in horror as men pulled emaciated bodies from buildings, piling them high in the back of a cart while jotting down the corpses’ names from the grieving family members. Even through his covering, he could smell the foul stench of their rot hanging heavy in the air, the hot summer night making the foul odor all the more intolerable.
John hastened his pace, weaving through the alleys and side streets, making his way to the Holy Innocents Cemetery, the one place in all of Paris benefit from the onset of the plague. A vast sea of dead grass and knotted trees, dotted with small mausoleums and statues of weeping angels, as well as the occasional headstone, the cemetery was by far the oldest and most used cemetery in all of Paris, having been in business for a little over two-hundred years now.
The great iron gates hung open limply, aided by only their great weight to keep from swaying in the warm summer wind, the pillars holding the two giant pieces of wrought iron bearing twin statues of blindfolded angels, swords raised high overhead while their other hands were extended holding lit torches.
“Huh, the lantern lighters must have seen to these,” John mumbled, looking past the well-lit opening at the entrance to the darkened graveyard.
Pulling the crumpled piece of parchment from within his jacket, he looked over the writing carefully once again.
This is Jeannette’s boy Leonard, a young lad in need of work to support his family. He will be a good worker if given the chance, and I know you could use an extra pair of eyes in that graveyard of yours.
John frowned at the parchment, knowing how much it had cost his family to obtain from the owner and operator of the Warhound, the local tavern where the lowest dregs of Paris went to drown their sorrows. A rotund man by the most gracious of descriptions, Paul never offered his help for free, and he wouldn’t put it past the man to charge a dying woman the last few copper pieces she had to slide between her fingers.
“A job is a job,” Paul had said to John earlier in the night, passing him the folded leaf of parchment, “And this one will do you right, if’n you have the stomach for it. Just make sure you don’t surprise Leonard, he tends to get jumpy after dark.”
“Great advice…” John muttered to himself as he walked into the graveyard, looking at the wide stone entrance. A small fountain bearing a woman with a tilted urn poured water slowly, her frame ill-kept and covered in verdigris and moss; a small shack of a building sat just to the left of the entrance, where a man in a dark ankle-length coat was busy locking the door with a wide ring of keys.
“Excuse me, sir?” John called, some fifteen feet away. The man jumped and spun around, eyes dancing wildly in his skull as he scanned from left to right, never truly focusing on one point for any length of time. “Sir?”
He finally seemed to calm down as he looked at John, panting slightly. His tongue danced over his lips, wetting them before he spoke up in a raspy voice. “And who’re you then?”
“My name is John sir, I came-” John began before being cut off by the strange man’s hoarse laughter.
“From the Warhound, yes. Yes, I remember now.” The man pulled a silken kerchief from his pocket and wiped at his sweaty brow, chuckling to himself as he patted his coat down, looking for something. “You have the letter I presume?”
“Oh, yes. Here you go.” John said after a few moments of silence, walking up top the man slowly and handing him the letter. The man took it, pulling a small flask from his coat pocket as he flipped open the letter, eyes roving over the words slowly.
“Jeannette’s boy, eh? How is your Mother then?” The man, Leonard, asked while his eyes lingered on the page.
“Sick sir, very sick.”
“Oh yes… the plague. Been seeing a lot of that around here, I have.” Leonard said with a grimace, moving to the bushes beside the door and reaching into them, dragging out a pair of shovels. “Well here’s how this process goes son: we each take turns digging graves in the far corner of the graveyard over yonder while the other stands guard and keeps watch for anything that might be a threat.”
“A threat? Like grave robbers or something?” John asked, looking at Leonard as if he was a little mad.
Perhaps he was. “Grave robbers?” He laughed, taking a long pull from his flask before wiping his mouth on his sleeve. “I wish we’d get a grave robber, might liven the place up a bit.”
John’s stomach fell at the bad pun but fell even lower when he realized the man was serious.
Walking out into the darkness of the graveyard with the twitchy caretaker, a hooded lantern in one hand and a shovel propped over his shoulder in the other, John could safely say he wouldn’t mind being a street cleaner right about now. The older man had, on three separate occasions, asked John if he had a holy symbol on him, giving him a smile when John showed the simple wooden cross he wore around his neck. He’d usually follow up the question with random babbling about the various people that they would meet tonight, wondering if they would be offered tea this time around, and other such nonsense.
John couldn’t decide which he was more afraid of, the shadowy sepulchers of the graveyard or the demented gravedigger that he now served. After waiting for several minutes, standing by a twisted tree, he heard the old gravedigger grunt in satisfaction.
“You done?” John asked, eyes staring ahead in space in order to prevent him from catching an eyeful of something unpleasant.
“Christ almighty it burns when I have to piss!” Leonard grumbled, walking around from the other side of the tree, tying off the length of rope he used as a belt. “You see anything while I was taking care of business?”
“I told you I wasn’t going to look,” John said, closing his eyes and trying to fight an oncoming headache.
“No, not like that you little pervert!” Leonard growled, eyes darting about as if the devil were on his back. “I mean did you see anything, you know, lurking around out here?”
“Just the ravens circling overhead and the gnats in the air, you know, typical summer night in a graveyard,” John said, swatting at his neck as one gnat grew particularly daring. “God I hate these things!”
“Oh, just you wait…” Leonard muttered as he snatched his shovel from where he’d left it, leaning against a kneeling statue of the Holy Virgin. “You’ll find plenty of things to hate before the night is through.”
“I am willing to bet you’re right about that,” John replied, eyeing the back of Leonard’s head while shaking his own.
“Well come on then! We got fourteen graves to dig before morning, and the night isn’t getting any brighter for us, now is it?” Leonard said, an unusually chipper tone entering his voice.
I’m working for a madman… “Right behind ya boss,” John said, doing his best to keep his distance from the unsteady gait that Leonard kept while crossing through the middle of the graveyard. “Isn’t it bad luck to walk over someone else’s grave?”
Leonard half turned his body as they walked, waving a hand in the air as if waving away a bad notion. “No, they’re already plenty angry as it is. This shouldn’t do anything to make them any worse.”
“Oh, alright… wait, what?” John said before catching on to what Leonard had said, jogging to catch up to the tall man’s strides. “Who’s angry?”
“A lot of people I suppose.” Leonard quipped eyes locked straight ahead.
“No, I mean who in this graveyard is angry at us. You know, walking over the graves and whatnot?” John asked, looking up at the strange man as he dropped the shovel from his shoulder, taking it into a double handed grip.
“Hold on a tick,” Leonard said, nodding to John, before lunging forward, shovel held high over his head. John was just able to catch sight of the gray-skinned man, flabby and old before Leonard caved in his skull with the flat end of his shovel.
John screamed, dropping his own shovel and backing away from Leonard and his victim, looking wildly around him in hopes he could find someone to report this crime to.
Sadly, no police were present in the graveyard at midnight.
“What’re you yelling for?” Leonard asked, peeling his shovel away from the wet mess that was the fractured remains of the man’s skull, wiping the blackened gore onto the dead grass in order to clean his tool. “I got him, didn’t I?”
“You killed him!” John bellowed, shaking his head. “Oh god, please! Please! Please don’t kill me, please don’t!”
Leonard blinked owlishly at him for a moment before letting out a bark of laughter, patting his distended belly happily as he laughed. John failed to see the humor in all of this and thought of making a break for the gates. No… he thought bitterly with those long legs of his he’d catch me before I even got halfway there.
Leonard wiped at the sides of his eyes as if rubbing away a tear. “Oh Lord, Paul didn’t tell you what you’d be doing here with me, did he?”
“N-No sir, not at all,” John replied with a stutter, hoping to not set the man off once more.
“Well…” Leonard started with a smile before his face folded into a grimace. “Damn, another one. Here kid, earn your keep!”
And with that, John was forced to drop his lantern as Leonard tossed his shovel to the young boy, who barely caught it in time between his hands. The haft was much thicker, the head much wider and heavier than the one he’d been carrying. Looking down at it, John looked up to Leonard, a question at the tip of his tongue when he heard it.
Turning to the strange sound, all color drained from Johns already pale demeanor as he looked at the statuesque blonde woman, dressed in naught but a burial shroud, walking slowly towards him.
On a broken ankle, with a gaping wound in her abdomen, that seemed to be full of some fluid that made a dripping noise with every shuddering step she took. One hand, veins black and skin flaking and gray, held the edge of her burial shroud up over her torso and breasts, the rest of the blessed sheet billowing against her lithe frame in the hot summer wind. Her face, slack-jawed with glassy black eyes, was focused on John, her other hand reaching out plaintively towards him as if asking for help.
“It’s best to aim for the head lad,” Leonard said from over his shoulder, “Otherwise you just make more of a mess that you’ll have to clean up later.”
John gazed in morbid fascination at the shambling woman reaching out for him, her skin gray and pasty. The lady moaned out, low and wet, as she stumbled closer to John. The shovel in his hands suddenly felt as if it were made of lead, his entire body gone numb. The open wound just below her right breast seeped black fluid with every movement, her ankle crackled with every step.
“Ma’am… you need to stop. Back away and we can get you some help,” John said, slowly backing away from her as she advanced.
She only groaned in response, swiping at the air with her bare hand.
“She can’t hear you boy; she’s far too gone to be reasoned with. You need to make sure she can’t hurt you or anyone else,” Leonard said from behind, moving closer to John as he spoke until he was standing a few feet behind him. “She’s not sick or confused, she’s dead. Just like everything else in this happy slice of Paris. Unfortunately, she’s decided not to stay that way.”
“What the hell do you mean?” John asked, eyes never leaving her shambling frame.
“You know exactly what I mean. The woman in front of you is one of the ones we have to bury tonight, bury and bless before she could become… this. Sadly, she woke up before we could put her in the ground where she belongs.”
“So you’re saying she’s dead?” John asked, head pounding with the very thought of the walking dead. He’d heard the stories in the Old Quarter, about how the sick had become ravenous, murdering fiends; but he’d just ignored the rumors, figured they were just stories about how the sick would react as they were dying.
“Yeah, she’s a real piece of work this one,” Leonard says analytically, standing by John’s side as he looked the woman up and down. “Looks like someone put her down when the fever made her delirious but didn’t do a good enough job. Guess we have to finish what they started.”
“You mean kill her?” John said incredulously, looking at Leonard with a glimpse of horror.
“Not really, seeing as she’s already dead.” Leonard quipped, pulling his flask from within his coat, unscrewing the top. “Go on then, before she gets all… bitey.”
“This is so messed up…” John muttered as he steeled himself for what he has to do. The woman, now merely a few scant feet from him, pulls back her lip in a hideous snarl. “I’m sorry!”
He lunged forward, swinging the shovel into the side of her body, the sharp crack of iron on softened flesh letting him know he’d broken several ribs with the blow. The woman’s wound gushed black ooze, squirting high into the air and over John’s face, but she stumbled, dropping to the ground with a pitiful gasp. Even as she hit the grassy earth, her hand reached out to pull her closer, her moans now rising in tenor as they slowly became snarls and growls.
“Holy Christ, what is she?” John asked, backing away from her clumsy hand grasping at his boots. “You weren’t joking were you?”
“No, and the longer you take to actually finish this the greater the chance that others will rise up and come looking.” Leonard angrily replied, stepping forward to look John in the eyes. He took a swig from his flask and screwed the cap back on, gulping down the whiskey in a single shot. “Now crack her skull like a melon so we can bury her!”
The woman, while Leonard had been ranting, lunged forward, abandoning her hold on her burial shroud and using both hands to grasp at Leonard’s legs. Black spittle pooled from her mouth as she bit into his boot at the ankle, tearing away a strip of leather with her yellowed teeth.
“Dammit!” He cursed, kicking away her grasping hands and stumbling behind John, just as the boy hefted the heavy shovel high above his head. “Please do your job and kill her for me!”
“I’m sorry,” John muttered as he brought down the heavy shovel, slamming it into her face with a sickening crunch. Her body fell limp with a sudden jolt, limbs splayed out about her in an obscene pattern, crooked and unnatural.
“There! Was that so hard?” Leonard growled, walking up to the corpse and kicking it once with his torn boot. “Daft bitch ruined my best pair of boots!”
“What in the world was that?” John demanded, brandishing the shovel at Leonard. Leonard looked rather amused at this, using a hand to push the shovel down and away from his face.
“That,” Leonard said with a drawl, “was an unclean one, a living dead. Hell, you can make a name for what it is if you’d like but that doesn’t change the fact that they are multiplying, and they need to be killed once again and buried in a rather specific way to prevent them from rising in any other fashion.”
“Ghosts. Spirits. Specters, phantoms, allips… all words for what they can become should we not deal with them correctly.” Leonard said with a sense of finality. “Now be a lamb and take her feet while I take her hands, so we can carry her to where we are going to dig the first grave of the night.”
“What about him?” John asked, looking back at the dead man, his fractured skull oozing away black and red slime from beneath a head of white hair.
“He’s not going anywhere and we can’t cart to corpses around as easily as we’d like. We’ll just dig the grave and bury these two together.” Leonard said with a huff, picking up the lighter shovel and holding it out to John as an offer to trade.