I work for the disposal sector of my city’s Department Of Public Works; at least, I used to, before it all went to shit.
It was an easy enough job, although not particularly glamorous, unless scraping flattened raccoons and dead deer off the highway makes you feel fancy. Any time someone needed an animal corpse disposing of I got the call to retrieve it, mostly roadkill or vermin, although occasionally I’d find a stiff cat or dog with a collar still attached to its neck and have to make that dreaded call. I could have been a grief counsellor with all the bawling pet owners I talked down over the years, but I’m not sure I have the constitution. I’ve never been the biggest fan of people; I guess that’s why I liked the job so well.
Apart from dispatch calls and the odd briefing from distressed civilians who’d witnessed the death in question there was little contact to be had with the living, nor the dead, come to that. After loading Fido or Fluffy’s remains into the back of my truck it was just me, the road and the voice of whichever audiobook narrator I’d gone for that day- Stephen Fry, mostly; the guy has a voice like velvet.
It’d stay that way until I delivered the body to its final destination, of which there were quite a few options. There was burial for deceased pets, landfill for smaller casualties, incineration (increasingly less popular in post global warming) and composting, the newfangled, environmentally conscious direction. Occasionally some science types would turn up at base and ask if we’d got any large carcasses in storage, offering enough big bucks in exchange that the Department always kept a few does on ice, ready to sell. Who knows what Frankenstein shit they did with the bodies; we handed them over, no questions asked. Until last year that was the only shady activity I ever encountered, and even that was legal, more or less.
Then I got the call. The one I never should have answered.
Hell, I wasn’t to know. Working overtime I’d often get dispatched as late as 7pm, so the lateness of it wasn’t a problem. I was only thinking about the extra beer money, a few hours tipping cam girls, the little luxuries in life. The distance of the job made me raise my eyebrows a tad, but not much. I was being sent to a barn on the outskirts of town, where there was apparently a dead mare no one else was willing to take. Another one to go on ice, I thought; the mad doctors pay better than the glue factory, nowadays.
It took me an hour or so to reach the barn, it being several miles further out that dispatch had suggested. My SatNav wound me round half a dozen hilly roads, making me feel slightly nauseous, until at last I pulled up at what appeared to be a derelict farm, not a single living animal in sight. Feeling edgy I pulled my flashlight out of the glovebox and trudged across muddy ground towards the barn.
The stink of death hit me in the face before I even put my hand on the double doors. Whoever owned the horse clearly hadn’t noticed it was dead for some time, or else it had been phoned in by a concerned stranger too spooked by the incident to stick around. Putting my sleeve over my nose I elbowed the doors open and aimed the flashlight around the barn. It was filled with dirty straw and animal bones, whatever had been housed there having kicked the bucket long ago. At the very end was a wooden stall, the door hanging open in its hinges. I knew from the stench that this was where my target resided, and I hoped the thing would be underweight enough from neglect for me to collect it now rather than having to return another day with back up.
Grimacing I approached the stall, knowing the rot of death was going to stick to every fibre of my clothing. I heard something squelch underfoot and looked down. The straw was soaked with blood, too thick and fresh to properly dry. Alarmed, I jerked the flashlight forward, spotting a lumpy horse-blanket uunder the white beam. Whatever lay beneath it was far too small to be a mare, yet too large to be a sheep or any other farmyard animal.
I hovered, wondering whether or not to abandon ship. But curiosity got the better of me and I knelt down, twitching the blanket off with the tips off my fingers.
I stumbled back, grunting, falling on my ass in the filthy straw. Scrubbing my hands on my pant legs I kept making the same low, throaty cries of disgust, unable to look away, certain the bile I’d felt brewing on the journey down was going to jolt up and choke me at any second.
“I’ll tip you plenty to get rid of her,” said a voice, casually, from my left.
I whipped round, scrambling to pick up my flashlight so fast I nearly dropped it again. There was somebody standing behind the stall door, someone I could only see by shining, black patent boots and a black apron, gleaming in the torch beam. By the voice I pinned it as a man in his thirties from out of town, way out of town going by that almost gentle country drawl.
“Who are you?” I managed to choke out. “And who… who’s she?”
I gestured back at the lump beside the blanket, what was left of a girl, her eyes and organs cut out with a blunt instrument that left so many holes she looked like one of those lotus seed pods people freak out over on the internet.
“You don’t need to know,” the man said, in an almost comforting tone. “Ain’t your business. I’ll give you ten grand to make sure nobody finds her. You can have the money right now.”
A black plastic trash can liner sailed through the gap in the door and struck me on the calf. With shaking hands I opened it, thumbing through the contents in disbelief.
“Ten grand ain’t much to get rid of a body, man,” I said, trying to control the quiver in my voice.
“There’ll be more. Much, much more. Besides, if you don’t take it I’ll just have to find somebody else, only they’ll have two bodies to pick up instead of one.”
My stomach felt like a rock of ice inside me. Whistling a breath through my teeth I closed the liner and nodded, watching the black boots for even the slightest movement towards me.
“There… there will be more, you say?”
“Sure thing. Can’t tell you when, can’t tell you how many, but they’ll come by, sure enough. And I’ll make sure they come to you specifically. I’m awful friendly with that dispatcher of yours.”
I kept nodding, glancing from the hole-riddled corpse to the black boots as if watching the most grisly soccer match in the world.
“A-alright,” I said. “Sounds as good a deal as any.”
“Glad to hear it, sport,” the man said, and the boots retreated from the door.
I waited until I heard his slow footsteps leave the barn, then a few more minutes after that, until I was sure he’d long gone. Then I leaned over the straw and threw up, surprised when only a small string of puke made its way out of me.
Shaking like a crackhead I folded the blanket over the dead girl again, throwing the puke-stained straw in for good measure. Only the dispatcher and Black Boots guy knew I’d been there that night, and since neither of them were likely to be telling the least I could do was take any evidence away with me.
I put the bag of money over one shoulder and the folded-up corpse on the other. The poor thing barely weighed more than a small dog; I guess that’s what happens when someone siphons the organs out of you. Feeling the cold flesh on my shoulder even under the blanket made me want to hurl again and I stopped to lean against the stall door, breathing hard, thinking of the threat, of the money.
Once my dinner settled again I marched across the yard as fast as I could, staring purposefully ahead in case the Black Boots guy was hiding somewhere, judging my resolve. I put the girl in the back of the truck and threw tarpaulin over her, not wanting to think about the weeping holes in her body, the vast, staring uselessness of that face. Although there wasn’t much of it left to judge by she looked young enough to be any of those ladies I cammed with on lonely nights, and that bothered me far more than if she’d been a man, or even a much older woman.
I got into the truck and shoved the money into the glovebox, slamming it shut so hard I nearly lopped the ends of my fingers off. That done I started up the truck and took off, trying to ignore the still-present wavering of nausea. There was only one way I knew would make this particular specimen vanish the way Black Boots wanted it to, and that was the incinerator. Luckily I knew the operator well enough that he wouldn’t question what was under the blanket, tossing it in in the metal death machine as he did any of the deer or dead dogs I brought in day after day.
But I’d know what it was, and that was bad enough.
The whole drive there I grappled with myself over whether I’d made the right choice, or if I should have just laid down to die next to the girl. I imagined a shining black glove emerging from behind the stall door, gripping a knife poised to scoop my guts from my belly like a melon baller. Moaning under my breath I wondered who the victim had been, how she’d managed to piss off a guy like that. Maybe she hadn’t. Maybe like me he’d simply picked her out of the blue, or perhaps he had a type, petite, pretty girls barely over twenty.
I wasn’t an exception. I was an accomplice, and I’d take that money and keep my silence without a word of complaint, whether I liked it or not.
Somehow I managed to play it cool as I took the girl out of the truck to the incinerator. The operator, who’d stayed up knowing I was out on call, greeted me, tired-eyed, and wrinkled his nose.
“Phoo-wee, how long has this one been at the side of the road, a month?”
“Well, it is August,” I said, forcing a smile. “The heat turns ’em faster than usual.”
I hung back and watched as he hoisted the girl into the incinerator, wincing as smoke billowed up into the sky.
It was two months before I was called out by the Black Boots man again. In that time I was plagued by nightmares, not of the dead girl as I’d found her, but how she might have been when she was alive: red-headed and smiling over her school books, hitting a mall with her friends, a dozen ordinary things she’d never do again. In my mind I called her Ellie, and although I hadn’t killed her the thought that her friends and family would never know what had happened to her made me almost dizzy with guilt.
I spent a good portion of the money on drink and cigarettes, although never enough to interfere with the job. The rest I funnelled into my savings, not wanting to touch it, barely able to think of anything material in life I’d wanted, before all this. I felt like the guy in the Edgar Allen Poe story with a beating heart under his floorboards, only mine was a bank account, pulsing with the memory of a dead girl.
Many times I tried to tell myself I’d turn the Black Boots guy away if he ever got back in touch, but I knew I wouldn’t. I didn’t have the guts, even if death was most likely a better option than the restless, conditional life I was now keeping.
At the beginning of fall I was called out on another nightshift, this time to collect a dead dog from a church yard. The church had been closed up for renovations, and seeing the doors and windows covered up I knew with that same old slithering nausea exactly what I was going to find. Rubbing my sweat-slicked hands together I stepped between crumbling tombstones until I saw a pale, naked mass stretched out across an overturned statue of an angel, this time with only the heart torn out. I reached out to turn the girl’s still, cold face towards the moonlight, swallowing a sob as a mass of maggots fell from between lips still rouged with red gloss.
“You did a good job with the last one, friend,” said the silky, Southern voice from behind me.
I glanced over my shoulder. Somebody was sitting behind a grave, only a pair of shining black boots visible, crossed comfortably at the ankle. Licking my cracked lips I said, “What did they ever do to deserve this, huh? They ain’t much more than kids.”
The Black Boots guy laughed, a soft, guttering laugh that made me want to put my hands over my ears.
“That’s for you to guess and not to know,” he said, and again I heard the thump of a bag full of money landing beside me. “Treat yourself to something nice, you hear?”
I closed my eyes as the man stood up and walked away across the church yard, whistling a tune under his breath. Something country, a genre I never liked before but hated now, sickened by it. I crouched down in the grass and cried silently, knowing that I was going to take the money, knowing that the girl and her memories were going to burn.
Alison. That one I called Alison.
My daily work continued as it always had, though I didn’t have much of a stomach for it, anymore. The loneliness of the truck I’d once relished was like a private hell, the quiet leaving far too much space for me to think about what I’d done, what I’d continue to do until Black Boots decided I was finished. The girls turned up in the strangest places- an empty water tank, a rented office building, an overgrown backyard, each more desolate and more awful than the next. I repeated the names I’d given them like a prayer before sleep at night-
Ellie, Alison, Dina, Rhona, Pia, Lorraine, Lacey
-but I never saw a word about them in the newspapers, not even a whisper. The girls had obviously been brought to the city from out of state, so far from home that their disappearances were as insignificant to the rest of the country as a grain of sand in a desert.
Still, that didn’t stop me fretting about being caught.
Every pick-up I was a jittering mess of nerves, certain that someone would slide out of the shadows to apprehend me or scream, stumbling across me by accident. Each time the Black Boots guy would quietly praise me, hand over my money and walk away, leaving me to rapidly stuff the latest dead girl into the truck and fire away towards to incinerator in a cloud of dust. Even then I was a ball of paranoia, glancing into the wing mirrors convinced that someone was following, pointing, accusing me.
It only happened once, on my nineteenth collection. Kendra. Like the others she was thin, red-headed, full of holes. She’d been left in a bush on a back road, her slender body splayed so obscenely that for the first time I wondered what other horrors had befallen her besides her obvious murder.
As I rolled her into tarpaulin Black Boots guy emerged from behind a tree, the branches casting his face and upper body into shadow.
“I don’t know how many more of this I can take,” I said to him, weakly.
I still hadn’t been able to bring myself to spend the money on anything of use, gathering enough interest on it to make your eyes water.
“I hear you, friend,” said the Black Boots guy, as if he understood, as if he cared. “Hear you, loud and clear. Just a couple more, now, and I’ll let you go. Do us both good to try new things, new faces, I reckon.”
“Sure,” I croaked.
I couldn’t stop looking at the thin, freckled visage staring up from the tarpaulin, like the head of a child’s doll.
“You get her away safely, now,” said the man. “Or I’m sure I’ll hear of it.”
There was a strange scuffing sound, then movement by the tree, and I figured he was scratching a knife against the bark, driving the point home.
“You know I will,” I said, my voice even hoarse than before, and the man was gone, sliding away soundlessly, as he always did.
Before starting up the truck I put the stash of money under my seat on a whim, feeling thrown by the man’s unprovoked threat. I made off towards the highway, keen to get ‘Kendra’ disposed of as quickly as I possibly could. A few miles down the road I saw flashing lights coming up behind me and nearly pissed my pants, forcing myself to stop and smile thinly at the police officer flagging me down as he approached the vehicle.
“You got identification?” he asked, eyeing me with an unreadable expression.
“I… I do, just a second,” I babbled, scrambling for the glovebox.
Thank God I hadn’t put the money there; the cop would have seen the bulging carrier and asked questions. He stared at my driver’s licence for far longer than necessary, making me squirm violently in my seat. Then he said, coolly, “You want to hop out here a second?”
Oh God, I thought, climbing robotically out onto the side of the road. This is it. He’s gonna ask to look in the back of the truck. He’s gonna find Kendra, and think I killed her. Or, just as bad, I’ll start gabbing and tell him I’ve been burning corpses for a pervert in black patent boots. I-
“You up for doing a breatherliser test? And walking in a line for me?”
I blinked, not registering the words for a moment. Then I said, “Of course. Sure. Anything you say, sir.”
I went through the motions, choking on relief, knowing I’d have to play along until the last second to avoid the officer growing suspicious and taking a look in the back of the truck. When it was all done the officer looked me in the eye again and said, “Well, you’re sober as a judge, but you sure were driving a little crazy back there. If you’re tired pull over, got it?”
I said I would and got back in the truck nodding and smiling until the officer was out of sight. Then I really did piss myself, the sheer exhaustion of the night making me lose all control.
After Kendra was safely in the incinerator I drove around for a few more hours, not wanting to go home to my cold, empty house. Back to my thoughts. I had to throw in the towel at work, give the man in the Black Boots an excuse to release me from his services a tad early. First thing the next morning I called in and did exactly that, having more than enough money to fall back on between jobs. My boss sounded surprised by the news, but let me go without complaint.
The Black Boots guy, however, was far from happy.
I don’t know how he found my address, but somehow or other he did. One night while smoking fretfully on the front porch, unable to sleep, I heard the tap of unmistakable footsteps heading down the street towards me. I didn’t dare turn my head, knowing that if I did and saw his face he’d have a reason to kill me. I didn’t dare go indoors, sensing that trying to run or hide would end badly. I just kept on smoking my cigarette, staring at the ground ahead of me until the space was filled by a pair of glossy black boots.
“Guess we aren’t partners no more, huh?” said the man, almost sorrowfully. “Seems a shame, come to think of it, but that’s the way of life, ain’t it? All things end gotta end eventually.”
“That’s the truth,” I murmured.
I don’t know when I started crying, but I saw a tear strike the man’s boot and knew it wasn’t his.
“Well, then,” said the man. “I guess this is goodbye. I can trust you’ll keep business to yourself, confidential, that right?”
The man sighed, then said, “Would you be neighbourly enough to give me a drag of that cigarette before I go my way? I’m jonesing bad.”
I nodded, held it out to him. I saw gloved fingers pinch it from mine, heard a coarse inhale, then the cigarette was back in my hand, the white paper soggy with blood. My whole body began to shudder with raw fear, and under my breath I whispered to myself, willing with every molecule of my sorry being that I’d be left alone.
Ellie, Alison, Dina, Rhona, Pia, Lorraine, Lacey, Melanie, Wava, Lily….
“Thank you, friend,” the man said, and walked away, whistling, whistling. That same damned, happy country ballad. The one whose name I could never remember.
I threw the soiled cigarette to the floor and crushed it until it was nothing but dust under my shoe.
WRITING PROMPT BY AISLING DEE