Alex swung open the door of his car and stepped into the mud. “Damn it,” he said as his patent leather shoes sunk into the wet ground. Shaking his right foot and then his left, he tried to kick the mud from the shoes with no success. He grumbled with frustration, reached back into the car to get his briefcase, closed the car door, and walked to the decorative black gate. Looking up to the sky he said, “Why can’t I have an office like everyone else in the world? A nice desk. A comfortable chair. Maybe a secretary to answer the phones. Is that too much to ask?”
Pushing open the black gate, Alex stepped into the graveyard. The cemetery contained a little over four hundred headstones. Some were large and decorative, others were simple. Some were worn by weather and time, others were new and untouched. Despite their varying appearance, they had the same basic information: first name, last name, date of birth, date of death, and maybe some small saying or scripture reference. When Alex first started doing this work, he used to love walking the rows and reading each one, but now he barely noticed them.
Alex made his way to a family plot of seven graves that contained a small white bench. A crowd had already begun to form. It looked to be about twenty today. As usual, they were forming a small mob around the bench Alex had to step through to take his seat. As he sat down, he complained, “Can’t you guys figure out a better system than ‘Let’s all crowd around Alex.’ Is it so hard to form a line? That’s kindergarten level stuff, people.”
An elderly heavy set man with round glasses and a thick white mustache grunted. “What exactly do you need a secretary for? Who do you think is going to call you? We’re dead. We can’t use phones, you moron.”
Alex pointed at the old man in anger. “Pipe down, Cletus. I don’t remember what you asked for, but so help me, I’ll skip you and make you wait another week.”
Cletus crossed his arms and huffed in disapproval.
“Excuse me, Mr. Alex, sir,” a thin mousy woman in a black dress said as she raised her hand.
“Damn it, Doris,” Alex said as he used a stick to scrape mud from his shoes. “I didn’t actually mean you needed to act like this was kindergarten. You don’t have to raise your hand.”
“Oh, I’m sorry, dear.” Doris laughed with embarrassment as she put her hand down. “I was just wondering if I could go first today. I’m really anxious to hear what you’ve uncovered. I’ve been thinking about it all week and I was just hoping you found something.”
Alex pinched his eyes closed and sighed. “Doris, you know the procedure. Just give me a minute,” he said.
“I’m sorry,” Doris said, looking down at her shoes. “I’m just really anxious.”
“We go in alphabetical order, Doris,” Alex said as he laid his briefcase on his lap and opened it. From it, he removed a manila folder stuff with papers and pictures. He then closed the case and set it to the side.
“I’m just anxious,” Doris said again with a shrug.
“Alright,” Alex said as he selected a page from the folder. “Anderson, Michael.”
“Here,” a thin, elderly man said as he waved a cane in the air. His back was hunched and his voice was squeaky with age.
“You asked me to check on your old store, which I did, again. So what’cha got for me?” Alex said.
“I was over on Old Bosley Road a few nights back and I saw the guy in the brown house on the corner looking through his neighbors’ mail,” Michael said with a smile.
“You got an address?” Alex asked.
“1842 Old Bosley Road. I watched him do it a few nights in a row. I think it’s a regular thing,” Michael said.
“That’s good work,” Alex said as he made notes. “Your store is fine. Your great-grandson is still thinking about selling, but he doesn’t have any offers yet. I took a look at the books and he’s in the black this week, but just barely.”
“That’s good news. Thank you, Alex. Same thing next week, please,” Michael said. Then he slowly drifted off toward his end of the cemetery, mumbling to himself about how proud he was of his great-grandson.
“Next. Baker, Jamal,” Alex called as he thumbed through the file for the next page.
“Present,” an elderly man with a large beard said.
“What’cha got for me, Jamal?” Alex asked with his pen at the ready to make notes.
“You know that nice family that lives at 1515 Pot Spring Court, the mom’s doing speed. She gets it from an overseas distributor. Has it delivered in little brown packages. Her husband thinks she’s taking anti-anxiety medication, but really, she’s using it to keep her weight down.”
“That’s good,” Alex said as he scribbled notes. “Everyone take note of Jamal. This is the kind of stuff I’m looking for.” Alex finished his last note and then turned the page. After reading a few paragraphs to refresh his memory, he looked up at Jamal and said, “I broke into your old house and looked in the cabinet over the stove like you asked. The envelope wasn’t there. You have somewhere else you want me to check?”
“Maybe my brother has it,” Jamal said. “He lives at 13 North Charles Street.”
“13 North Charles,” Alex said. “Got it.” Thumbing through the folder again, he said, “Fletcher, Doris.”
“I’m here, dear,” Doris said, raising her hand again. “Did you, um. Did you find my husband?”
“What’cha got for me, Doris?” Alex said.
“Oh, um,” Doris said as she rubbed her hands together. “I walked all over the neighborhood. I promise I did. I just didn’t find anything. Not anything worth mentioning, anyway.”
“Then I didn’t find your husband,” Alex said.
“But wait,” Doris said. “I thought that, maybe, since you looked for him, you’d tell me what you found anyway?”
“I’m not running a charity here, Doris,” Alex said. “This is a trade. You give me info. I give you info. If you don’t have anything to trade, then neither do I. Alright? I’ll be back next week. You want to know about your husband, you better get to work.”
“Okay, Alex,” Doris said. “I’ll try harder next time.”
“She can have my turn,” Cletus said. “I was poking around the school this week. The Principal’s been getting it on with two different teachers behind his wife’s back.”
“Nice, Cletus,” Alex said. “Doris, I found your husband. He’s buried across town next to your daughter and her husband in Reisterstown. The ghosts at the site said his spirit moved on last month.”
Doris’ smile filled her face. “Thank you, Cletus. Thank you. And thank you, Alex. That’s such good news.”
“You want anything for next week?” Alex asked.
“Oh, um. No,” Doris said, wiping a tear from her eye. “I think I’ll try to move on now. Now that I know where Charles is. Thank you again, Cletus.”
“Cletus,” Alex said. “It doesn’t look like I had an order from you this week. Is there anything you want for next week?”
“Nope,” Cletus said.
“Alright, great,” Alex said. “Next up is.”
“It’s me,” a young boy in a black suit said. “Isaiah Johnson. I’m next.”
A wave of warmth and sorrow came over the crowd when the boy spoke. Even Cletus seemed to soften at the boy’s enthusiasm.
“Alright, kid,” Alex said, smiling at the boy. “What’cha got for me?”
“The boy named Billy who rides his skateboard in the street put spray paint all over the wall at the school last night. And the girl with yellow hair who likes the boy with red hair? She was smoking. And the man who lives down there,” Isaiah said pointing across the street, “got in a fight with the woman who lives over there,” he said pointing in the other direction, “because she’s a, um, ‘a stupid bitch who doesn’t pick up her trash cans.’ That’s what he said to her anyway. Was that good enough?”
“That was perfect, kid,” Andy said with a smile. “So I tracked down your dog. Your parents gave him to your cousin, Elena. I drove by her house and they seem happy together.”
“But Elena’s a cat person,” Isaiah said with a disappointment. “How’s she going to take care of Buster? He’s not a cat.”
“It’s alright, Isaiah,” Cletus said. “Maybe Buster is such a good dog he’s going to make her into a dog person.”
“Yeah,” Doris said. “Buster is probably really going to help her.”
“I guess,” Isaiah said. “He is a really good dog.”
“Well, he had a good owner,” Cletus said, giving Isaiah a wink.
Isaiah smiled and nodded with pride. “I used to take him on really long walks and then I’d pet his belly.”
“I bet he loved that,” Doris said.
“You want anything for next week, kid?” Alex asked.
“Um,” Isaiah said, biting his bottom lip as he thought. “Could you see who Jimmy’s been playing with? Jimmy and I are best friends and I want to make sure he’s got a new friend now that I’m here.”
“You got it, kid,” Alex said as he made a note.
“I’m sorry, excuse me,” a middle-aged woman said. She wore a blue dress with a matching hat and carried a matching handbag. “What’s going on here?”
“Fresh dirt,” Cletus said with a knowing grin.
Alex looked up from his notes and said, “Name?”
“Crystal. Crystal Lewis,” the woman said. “I’m new here and I was just wondering what this is all about.”
“Date of birth?” Alex said as he took a fresh piece of paper from the back of the file.
“March 3rd, 1965,” Crystal said. “I’m sorry. Who are you?”
“I’m Alex,” Alex said. “Date and cause of death?”
“I’m not sure,” Crystal said.
“July 9th, 2017,” Cletus said. “You died of an aneurysm. It was sudden. You went quick.”
“How do you know that?” Crystal said, clutching her purse.
“We all watch each other’s funerals, dear,” Doris said.
“You had lots of people come,” said Isaiah. “And they were all crying. All of them. They must have really loved you.”
“I guess that’s good, right?” Crystal said.
“It’s great,” Doris said. “It means you lived well.”
“Well, Crystal Lewis,” Alex said. “Welcome to the cemetery. While you’re here if you need anything: information about the living, or you want something found that you lost, or you need something done you didn’t get to finish before you died, then I’m your guy. I’ve just got a couple of rules. I won’t kill anybody. I won’t steal anything that wasn’t yours when you were alive. And I won’t travel more than an hour-and-a-half away. I don’t like being in the car that long. So don’t ask. Besides that, I’m at your service.”
“Thank you, I guess,” Crystal said. “How exactly is it that you can see us and hear us?”
“I’m what some called, special,” Alex said with a smile. “I’ve got the gift.”
“You’re special alright,” Cletus mumbled.
“What do you know, old man?” Alex said. “A guy’s got to eat. I’m just using the tools God gave me, okay? So just back off me. Now, Crystal,” Alex said, turning his attention back to the woman in the blue dress. “In exchange for my services, you need to spy on your neighbors. The juicier the details the better. You give me info. I give you info. That’s how this works.”
“What do you do with this info?” Crystal said.
“Don’t bother yourself with that,” Alex said. “What do you care anyway? You’re dead.”
“That’s true, I guess,” Crystal said with a shrug.
“Alright. So think about what you want and I’ll come back to you at the end.” Thumbing through his pages again, Alex found what he was looking for and said, “Next up. Matthews, Malachi.”
“Morning, Andy,” a large man in a brown suit said. He had a yellow rose tucked into his lapel that looked as fresh as the day he was buried. “237 Sandringham Road is about to go up for sale for twenty thousand more than it’s worth. The contractor doing repairs is cutting corners. The house looks good on the outside, but behind the walls the electric is crap and the pipes aren’t code.”
“How do you know that?” Crystal said.
“I used to be an inspector for the county,” Malachi said. “I like hanging out at construction sites during the day.”
“We can do that?” Crystal said.
“I’ll fill you in later, dear,” Doris said, putting her arm around the newcomer.
“That’s great intel, Malachi. Keep that stuff coming,” Andy said as he made notes. “I checked in on your granddaughter. She was accepted to two medical schools: Hopkins and the University of Michigan. She has to make her decision next week. You want me to stay on it?”
“Please. I just want to know where she ends up,” Malachi said.
“Up next,” Andy said, looking for his next sheet, “Stevens, Sarah.”
“Did you do it?” a woman in her late twenties said.
“What’cha got for me?” Alex said.
“The guy at 63 Rocking Horse Lane is stealing cable from his neighbor. Did you do it?” she said, holding her arms out wide.
“That’s crappy intel and you know it,” Alex said, looking up from his notes. “So I shouldn’t tell you anything. But, I enjoyed the job too much to keep it to myself.”
“So you did it?” Sarah said with a smile.
“Yes, I egged your ex’s car, just like you asked,” Alex said.
“And the note?” she asked with a grin.
“I left a note on the windshield that said, ‘Are these eggs good enough for you, asshole?’ just like you asked.”
“And what’d he do?” she asked.
“He freaked out,” Alex said.
“Yes!” Sarah said, raising her hands in victory and doing a celebratory dance. “That’s right! Fighting back from the Grave! Yeah!” She wrapped up her dance with a laugh and then said, “So this week, I want you to scramble some eggs and put them in that asshole’s mailbox.”
Alex laughed and shook his head as he made notes. “You got it, but you better bring me some real info this time.”
“Cross my heart and hope to die,” she said.
“Smart ass,” Alex said. “Okay, that’s all I’ve got from last week,” he announced. “Any new orders?”
“Hey Alex, it’s Martha Thompson,” an elderly woman in a pink dress said.
“Hey, Martha,” Alex said. “You want me to check on your son again?”
“Yeah,” she said. “Just see if he’s asked that poor girl yet.”
“Will do,” Alex said.
“I thought it was so nice of them to come visit your grave last week,” Doris said.
“It’s been six years,” Martha said, turning to Doris. “How long do young people date these days? I don’t understand. In our day, we’d have cranked out a couple of kids by that time. Six years? What’s he waiting for?”
“No telling, dear,” Doris said.
“Any other orders?” Alex said as he surveyed the faces of the ghosts gathered around. “Going once? Going twice? Okay then,” he concluded. As he put the folder back in his briefcase and locked it, he said, “That concludes our business this week. I’ll be back at the same time next week. So get out there and find me some good stuff.”
Dan Coffey says
I really enjoyed your piece. The little details like “fresh dirt” and how it seemed so routine for most of the characters was awesome. Also, Alex has almost no sentiment, strictly business. The reader is left wanting more. I can easily see this turn into a novel. So many possibilities! An Alex-ghost romance. A case he gets over involved in (maybe the boys). Maybe he dies and is experiencing it from the other perspective.
Jeff Elkins says
Thanks, Dan. I love that idea. I intended it to be a “one off” but when I stepped back from it, I thought, “That might work.” I was in the same line as you with the romance angle. I also thought that maybe Alex is one member of a family business and he’s upset that he’s been forced to work the rinky-dinky suburban cemeteries while his cousins get the massive city ones? Then maybe something big happens in his neighborhood that brings life and death consequences to his work? I don’t know. Still kind of working it out.
Gretna Bohn-Hayden says
Oh the possibilities, I Love it! Can’t wait for more.
Cindy Stewart says
I loved it. I hated to see that your picture was showing up because I knew it meant that I was near the end. Looking forward to the novel. 🙂
This is really great, I love it. The bit with Isaiah actually made me tear up a bit!
Loved it!Please do let me know if you make this a novel.