Estimated reading time: 5 minutes —
The morning of the next day was quiet. Sarah resumed her routine of climbing to the rooftops and surveilling the town. She woke up early and wandered the desert areas, making sure there was nothing unusual out there. From the top floor of the old company building, Sarah could see the whole town. There was smoke coming out of the café’s chimney. Carter was busy.
Andrews came out of the theater, stretching his arms in the air and looking quite content with himself. As a kid, she often sneaked inside to hide in its darkness. The stage curtain was closed now, its bright red contrasting sharply with the decaying wallpaper and the rotting lining of the chairs. They still stood aligned, side by side as an army of well-trained soldiers ready for battle, but they had seen better days. She never paid, nor did the other kids back then. Andrews would let them watch from the aisle, as long as they promised to be really quiet, and they were. A gathering place for rich and poor alike, the theater slowly lost its importance when the sandstorms became more frequent.
Palmer was nowhere to be seen; he only showed up for meals, and vanished for hours. He seemed to have the ability to become invisible in that cemetery. Sarah could almost swear that, one day by the cemetery building, she heard him laugh yet she couldn’t see him anywhere. She would discover his hiding place, Sarah was sure of it, if she tried hard enough, but the last thing she wanted was to find herself in the gravedigger’s lair, alone with him.
As she walked down towards the café, Palmer suddenly ran past her, grinning. “Oh, this is going to be fun! Come on.”
“What is it?” asked Andrews, standing at the entrance, looking annoyed.
“Well, lady and… gentlemen, good old Faulkner is dead.” Palmer looked extremely amused.
“Told you he would die of the cold,” whispered Sarah.
“Oh, no. No, Sarah. He was shot.” Palmer continued to chuckle. “He now has his own ventilation system.”
The ill-timed attempt at being humorous didn’t make anyone laugh.
The cook mixed the ingredients of the day’s stew in a gurgling pot furiously. He mumbled and grumbled a few unintelligible words. The theater manager prudently pulled the jacket flap over his holster.
“It seems we are now all suspects, huh,” retorted Palmer emphasizing the word now.
“Shut up,” growled the cook. “You were a suspect before too. But no one ever mentioned the fact that you chop up your bodies with an axe. Or do you do it with a knife? That’s a lot of work.”
“Now that we mention it,” replied the gravedigger snickering. “How do you cut your pieces of meat and where do they come from, Carver? Do you have a secret stash somewhere of beef and pork? Or are you dropping by my place and grabbing a few juicy bits, huh?”
Carver grabbed one of the butchering knives and in a split second he was near Palmer’s table grabbing his neck with one hand and pushing the knife into the gravedigger’s chest.
“Stop that,” yelled Andrews, pulling them apart. Sarah took a mental note that he was stronger than he looked. “Carver, get back behind the counter. Palmer, sit down over there.” He pointed at the table in the corner where Faulkner used to sit. “This has gone way beyond the acceptable. I think we must call for help.”
“Help?” Sarah hadn’t moved from her chair during the whole upheaval. “Help? Who’s going to help us? The last time we called for help, remember what happened? And it was a serious situation. Did they come over to help us?”
“Yes, Sarah, I remember. Mrs. Benjamin ended up dying…”
“Gallbladder. Ridiculous. They’ll never help us. They are probably thinking, let them kill one another. Then the problem will be solved for good.”
Andrews nodded. “We must do something. It wasn’t Faulkner who was killing everyone, obviously.”
“It was Sarah,” slashed Palmer from the corner, after an uncomfortable silence took over the room.
“What? Sarah? Why do you say that?” asked Andrews incredulous.
“I don’t like her…” Palmer’s sibylline look reminded Sarah of a snake sliding surreptitiously to assume a position from which it could strike the fatal blow.
“Well, Palmer, liking, or not liking for that matter, is not exactly the best way to establish guilt, is it? Let’s focus here. We all carry guns. None of us can be cleared from being a suspect simply because we were all by ourselves throughout the night, right?”
No one replied. Carver walked from behind the counter to the record-player and started cleaning the dust off of the buttons. “Where is your ring, Palmer,” the cook asked.
“I… I left it at my place,” replied the gravedigger, himself surprised by the fact that he had lost his ring.
“Really? Interesting. And where is Faulkner now?”
“In the mine.”
“Mine? Didn’t we leave him in the manhole?” asked the theater manager agitated.
“Yes, but I went there to check on him and the manhole was open. So, I walked around the area and ended up in the mine. That’s where I found him.”
“Really? Well, that is interesting,” continued the cook. “You were the only one who could move that huge boulder when we stuck Faulkner inside the manhole and now you find him in the mine.”
“I… I didn’t do it, Carver. I swear.” All the hilarity was now gone from the gravedigger’s face.
“And… you lost your ring. I wonder if we will find your ring in the manhole or in the mine,” said Carver scratching his head exaggeratedly. Ok, first things first. Let’s go bury Faulkner and look for that ring of yours. We’ll eat later.”
Ben Faulkner’s burial took place around midday. A sandstorm was starting and they hurried things up. No ring was found.
As the afternoon drew close to an end, Sarah perched up on her hut by the hillside. She was tired. She needed to stay away from these guys as much as possible. They were dangerous. As the last few people died from the virus, she was left alone in town with these six men.
Many times, she thought about evading the quarantine. She even found a way to do it. The mine had a tunnel, very narrow, barely visible, that the authorities forgot to close. Sarah had crawled through the tunnel for hours and, much to her surprise, it led to a neighboring city where the people who didn’t test positive for the virus were moved to, during the early days of the quarantine.
Still perched up on her hut and while she considered her chances in the city, Sarah spotted a shadow bouncing on and off the rocks with the waves, at the bottom of the lighthouse. It looked like a sack filled with something.
She walked down to the beach and over to the water. The shipwreck was stuck in the same place. This used to be a wonderful beach, but it was now covered with garbage and debris.
She moved past the surf and climbed onto the rocks. As the sack got closer, she tried to seize it, but it was too heavy. She tried again and this time she managed to grab hold of it tighter. When the wave came in, she pulled it up. It was Mr. Andrews.
“Where the hell is Palmer?” grunted the cook. “When I find him, I’ll kill him, I swear. I’m sick of this. What an animal. I’m sure he’s hiding, the coward weasel.”
Sarah looked at him. This could be a very big problem. She didn’t want to be left alone with the cook. His stained and sweaty undershirt was covered by an apron similarly stained and sweaty. This man had once been a successful cook. For some mysterious reason, he left the city to open a small town café where he was also very successful at first.
“Let’s go find him, Sarah.”
They roamed the whole quarantined area, the town, the desert, the mine, the cemetery, the road, even the mining offices. Nothing.
“I want to check that place of his,” he said, determined.
So, they went back to the cemetery. Palmer’s laziness drove him to bury people in shallow graves. The winds blew the dirt away and the silhouettes of the bodies were clearly visible in some of the most recent mounds.
By the roadside, a small hut rusted and crumbled. It was empty. Sarah walked inside, stumping her foot where the ground seemed stirred.
“What are you looking for,” asked Carver. He stood by a pile of wood, ashes and bones outside the hut.
“His hiding place. It must be around here.”
“I heard him laugh a while back, but I couldn’t see him. He must have a trapdoor somewhere.”
“Have you checked the building on the other side?”
Sarah nodded. The sandstorm was picking up again. She would let Carver walk about and get tired. In case it came to that, she wanted to be fresh to fight Carver off, but it didn’t take the cook long to find something.
“Sarah, come over here.” He pointed to a gap on the floor. “There’s a ladder inside.”
Sarah looked around. The walls were so dark that she couldn’t find the switch for the trapdoor. She slid her fingers on the wall, making sure to keep an eye on the cook. Suddenly, the trapdoor opened.
“What did you do?”
“Nothing, Mr. Carver. I was trying to find the switch.”
“Good grief, Sarah. Let’s go in.”
And they started climbing down the wall ladder. It was a long way before they reached the lower level and they weren’t prepared for what they saw.
The structure was impressive. It resembled a temple, the ceiling a few stories high. At the top of the room, the pulpit made of a dark stone could be accessed by two ramps, one on each side. Sarah walked up. A book in Latin, two black candles, incense and a dagger on a piece of cloth. A bad omen, she thought.
“What is going on here,” asked Carver. “Did you know about this?”
“No, Mr. Carver, I didn’t. It’s the first time I’m here.”
The tough cook was visibly shaken.
“I don’t know about you, Sarah, but this Palmer…”
“Yes, Mr. Carver.”
“Let’s get out of here…”
“Yes, Mr. Carver.”