From the author: A Christmas story with some bite!
Rafa disliked graveyards. He especially disliked graveyards at night. He particularly disliked graveyards at night, in the cold.
It was not a good disposition for a grave robber, but needs must and he certainly needed.
He was standing in one now, freezing half to death and totally unconvinced that there was any merit in this particular endeavour tonight.
"The ground's hard, why are we digging when there's snow in the air?" he hissed, hands under his armpits. Greyfriars wasn't his favourite graveyard, it was in the city centre and people could come through it quick, no warning for them to scarper.
"Because we need money and we get money through bodies. So quit complaining and take your turn digging," Hamish sighed, passing the shovel over to him. Hamish wiped the sweat off his head with his handkerchief and glanced about, watching the mist for signs of any zealous family members. Family got very particular about the dead for some reason. Not like the person was there to complain themselves, but there were all sorts now – great massive cages to go around the grave, people keeping watch for the first few nights until the rot set in, alarms built into the coffins. A lot of nonsense really.
"Seems like a stupid idea at Christmas Eve," Rafa huffed, setting the blade into the soil. He pushed down, putting his whole body weight onto it and grunting as it came flush with the ground. The digging was the worst bit, especially in the cold. Rafa had no issue with the bodies, the dead weren't going to do anything to him, but he ached with the cold and the air burned his lungs with ice.
"There's no one here to guard them now," Hamish retorted. "They don't pay them enough to guard at this time of year. We can get them lifted and sold quick."
"And we're splitting it like normal?" Rafa asked, getting into the rhythm of hefting the dirt. The older man had been good to him so far, but he never trusted it too much. People would screw over incomers like him, and while Hamish had never called Rafa any of the names he heard in the pubs you could never tell.
"Course we are, we might even get a bit extra with it being the cold season – they'll still be fresh."
"Good point," Rafa hummed, speeding up his swings. They used a wooden spade for the graves, quieter than a metal one, but you had to be careful not to clip larger stones or it would crack. They dug at the head of the grave and pulled the end of the coffin off, meaning they could lift the body out without drawing suspicion to the turned earth. It wasn't a perfect system, but it was quicker than trying to dig up a whole plot and they managed it well.
"Hold a minute," Hamish said, clapping a hand on Rafa's shoulder, "I hear someone coming."
Rafa stilled, hunching down in the hole they'd made. It was plenty dark still, the moon was barely visible and the lamps weren't making much through the fog, but no point being obvious.
Hamish vanished into the swirling cloud with their lantern and Rafa held his breath, toying with the idea of keeping digging. No point in wasted effort, and they could still scarper with the body if he got to the coffin.
"Rafa, get over here." He heard Hamish's voice carry over and pushed himself out of the hole. He trotted over, spade held close to his chest, peering through the fog. Hamish was stood at a headstone, with a grin as wide as the river.
"What is it?" Rafa whispered.
"Get closer lad, it's opportunity!" Rafda frowned, not understanding until he was next to Hamish. The grave in front of them was fresh, not just turned earth but open with the pile beside it. It would only be a half hours work to get the coffin out, if that, and no one would wonder at the digging when it was already so deep done.
"How did we miss that?" Rafa hissed.
"There's no other burials due here today, I checked the death notices. This is either someone moving in on our patch or it's an official thing," Hamish hummed, sucking his teeth.
"Worth taking it?"
"Course it is. I haven't heard any of the police about and we're not giving some pissant a chance."
"I'll dig here, you watch out at the other one," Rafa nodded, dropping into the waiting pit.
"Aye, right you are," Hamish agreed, setting the lantern down at the edge of the grave. "Whistle if you need me over."
"Will do. Keep your ears open for anyone else digging."
Hamish nodded and disappeared back into the darkness of the mist. Rafa didn't mind being alone in the grave, the dead weren't that talkative, but he minded if someone else was going to be getting into their business.
He pushed the thought aside and began digging anew, moving methodically along the grave.
"You're quite good at that," he heard above him and froze, shoving himself into a long wall of the grave. A man stood on the opposite one, lantern in hand and an amused look on his face. He was a tall one, wrapped up against the cold in a dark wool coat and his hair a straggly mess around his face.
"Comes with practice. Can I help you, sir?" Rafa asked, letting his accent out. He usually flattened it but he could pass as a labourer if he tried.
"No need for that friend, I know what you're up to."
"I'm just following orders," Rafa shrugged.
"The city doesn't issue wooden spades," the man chuckled, crouching down at the edge of the grave, perching on his heels like a grotesque on a church roof. "I've no problem with it, there's more than enough dead in the ground already. I'm John Sutherland." He inclined his head rather than offering a hand and Rafa had to admire the sense in that.
"Rafael," he responded, resting his spade blade on the soil.
"Italian, I like it," John grinned at him hungrily, a raise to his brows Rafa didn't like. "You here a lot Rafael?"
"Sensible choice, it's jolly busy." The man's voice was plump with the Edinburgh accent, the words falling from him like he tasted them.
"Can be. The dead tend to stay put."
"I bet they do," John chuckled, his chest bouncing in his coat, "Unless you get a hold of them, I imagine you have to be quick for them to be any use."
"You know how it is," Rafa smiled, hoping Hamish was going to do something soon. He must have heard them.
"It's a nice cemetery really."
"It is too flashy for me," Rafa laughed. "All these monuments like houses, for the rotting bodies of the rich. They have big houses in life, why do they need it in death as well?"
"A valid question Rafael, one that I'm sure the minds at the university pay no attention too."
"I try," Rafa said, the back of his neck itching. Why wasn't Hamish doing something? Had the old git run off and left him?
"Those big tombs do offer other uses though, you know. Great for sleeping in over winter."
"You sleep in a mausoleum? Can' be a good mattress."
"Hell of a crick in the neck," John laughed. "The homeless do it though, break in to keep the cold off. Better than some of the poor houses."
"Those are bad places," Rafa nodded, his heart starting to quicken in his chest. John was keeping him talking, and the cold of the earth was starting to seep into Rafa's bones.
"Not half. Still, you've got to do what you have to for survival, don't you Rafael?"
"Most do," Rafa said slowly, watching the light move over the man's face. Something about it didn't sit right to him, the skin the wrong colour in the flames. Those eyes still looked hungry.
"And this is where we reach an issue, you and I."
"I have no quarrel with you," Rafa interrupted, leaning his spade against the wall of the grave and holding his hands up. "If you want me out of here I can go. I'll just have to take my friend with me; he's over at another grave."
"Oh yes, older fellow, white scruff of a beard?"
Rafa nodded, his hands coming down. He slipped one into his pocket, fingering the knife he had there. They'd never murdered someone for a body, but he would defend himself.
"Not any more I'm afraid. We had a bit of an introduction earlier."
"I didn't hear anything."
"That's because I'm very good at what I do for survival," John laughed, his mouth opening to show black teeth.
"I don't have any quarrel with you," Rafa repeated, starting to edge towards the foot of the grave. He hadn't dug too deep there yet, he could heft himself up quicker there.
"Nor does the cow with the farmer," John shrugged, dropping down into the grave in one smooth movement. His coat flapped behind him and Rafa saw the wrongness in the man then, the skin wax thick and mottled.
"I don’t need to tell anyone I saw you," Rafa blurted. "I can say Hamish came here alone and didn't come back."
"Well only half of that would be a lie," John laughed, springing forward to cage Rafa against the hard dirt wall. Rafa fumbled in his pocket but John grabbed his wrist, pinning it hard against his side.
"Do you know what I dislike most about graverobbers Rafael?" John hissed, close to Rafa's ear. Rafa could smell the rot of him this close, the mouldering of his coat and the mossy greenness of his hair. John squeezed his wrist, prompting, and Rafa shook his head.
"No," he squeaked out.
"You always steal my best meals. We have to eat the newly dead, you see, nothing that's been rotting too long. Too long and it's not really any good, it doesn't satisfy the hunger that just itches, deep down."
"You're a cannibal," Rafa chocked out, his anxiety burning his lungs brighter than the cold air now.
"No, no," John laughed, pulling back so Rafa could see him. His eyes were almost milky now, his face sunken in and the lips peeled back off those black teeth. They looked sharp in the half light the lantern now gave.
"What are you? Demons aren't meant to be able to get in here: they have rowan trees for that."
"I'm a ghoul you little idiot, not a demon. We're not evil. We just need to feed. We hunger. Really we clean up after you carless louts, digging the earth up and stuffing your rotting mess in there."
"Please, John, I have family, I was just digging for the doctors, they pay us for the fresh ones. I just wanted to have a good meal at Christmas, I didn't know this was your patch," Rafa blubbered, tears spilling down his face. He knew the stories about ghouls, creeping things that fed on the flesh of corpses. Back home his grandma had told him about them, how they would live in the catacombs like they were palaces.
Rafa didn't want to die.
"Family?" John paused, teeth bared.
"My mother, and my sister," Rafa stammered. "They work in the day but it's barely enough for our rent, and I wanted us to have a good meal. We didn't know this place was yours, we wouldn’t have come in it if we did, I swear."
John pulled back a little, frowning. He leant in again, sniffing over Rafa like a dog scenting. John nosed over his jaw and down to his neck, little puffs of air making Rafa shiver despite his coat.
He was brought away from that by the lancing pain of a bite to nape of his neck, just behind his ear. He cried out, flinching but being held fast by John. He felt the teeth pull back, his blood black on John's chin.
"There's your Christmas present, Rafael," John said, swiping his hand over his mouth and spitting the blood away. "That's a mark; any others like me will know what it is. You come back in stealing my food and I'll make you my meal, but no other ghouls will feed on you. You're my morsel."
"I won't come here again, I swear it."
"Alright." John stepped back, pacing back towards the discarded spade. "I'm keeping this, and your dead friend. Run off now," he said, plucking it up. "Don't let me catch you here again."
Rafa nodded, his voice choked into submission by the stinging at his neck. He lifted himself out of the grave, sprinting the moment his shoes had purchase. He stumbled, tripping over the legs of a body and flying into the sodden grass. He pushed himself up on his hands, glancing back to meet the dead eyes of Hamish, his head at an ungodly angle on his neck.
Rafa swallowed his scream and made himself get up again, running out of the graveyard and back along the streets, his hand up to stem the singing pain in the bite wound. He would go back to labouring, he would dig ditches, he was good at digging, he could do that forever if it meant he never had to go back there.
This story originally appeared in Unfading Daydream (vol 3) .