Billy McCutchinson let loose with a string of blue words that did not end with ‘In Jesus’ precious name, amen.’ He wore a pair of tattered gloves on bony hands he wrapped around the brittle handle of the shovel they lifted from some old guy’s shed. His friend, Alvi Zdancowicz, crouched down under the boughs of a pine tree keeping watch in the night.
Down the hill from where the two runaway teens carried out their nefarious deed, Alvi could make out the strings of light bulbs over an improvised band shell. An orchestra played a snappy rendition of a Cuban flair. Guests of Malcolm Dodge, a man whose millions came in brown bottles from Canada, laughed and danced. Alvi softly sang along with the orchestra, picking out the parts of The Peanut Vendor song that he recognized from the musical shorts at the matinee. Sometimes he and McCutchinson snuck in. Sometimes they got caught. Alvi worried this would be one of those times. He sang what he knew hoping to take his mind off what he and McCutchinson were doing on the rum-runner’s property. Having left their families who could barely fend for themselves, the boys did what they could to survive now that they were on their own. A job was a job as long as there was pay. When a guy asked them to bury a dog for a dollar they jumped at it.
McCutchinson drove the tip of the spade back into the soil. It sank and stopped. The shovel handle snapped. A splinter the length of a golfer’s pencil sank deeper into his palm than the shovel had in the ground.
“Friggin’ rocks and roots,” McCutchinson said. He bit at the exposed end of the splinter and spat it out. He tossed the broken spade end to the ground. The clang made Alvi jump.
“You’re making too much noise,” Alvi said.
“There’s no one around here. Besides, we’re a country mile from the Dodge estate.”
“Yeah. You don’t have to tell me that. I’m the one who lugged the dog.”
McCutchinson laughed. Even though shadows covered much of his friend’s face, Alvi knew he had that ‘devil may dance on your grave’ grin he sported when he was in his ‘I can’t lose’ frame of mind. Those were the times they got away with it.
“Well someone had to carry the shovel,” McCutchinson said. He laughed and swung the broken handle around like he was Errol Flynn.
A single shot rang out in the night. Alvi didn’t see the spatter emitted from McCutchinson’s forehead as much as he felt it on his own face. Before he could wipe a dirty sleeve over his blood covered eyes his friend belly flopped into the shallow hole he’d been digging for the dog.
“Mick!” Alvi backed against the trunk of the tree. “Oh God. Mick!”
A man stepped out of the shadows. He swung a flashlight over the ground.
“Look at that,” the shooter said. “A hole in one.” His laugh was low. It started in his gut and sort of bubbled up his thick neck.
“You weren’t supposed to kill him, Mason,” another man said.
“I thought he was drawing on me when he swung his arm up. Honest mistake at night in the moonlight, Blake.”
“Mr. Dodge won’t be too happy about it,” the man named Blake said. “In fact, it’ll be better if he doesn’t find out. Finish burying him in his hole.”
“Me? What about him?” The man named Mason gestured at Alvi with the flashlight. Alvi cowered and covered his head behind his arms.
The man named Blake grabbed hold of one of the protective limbs. The tattered and worn fabric of the old tweed jacket Alvi wore ripped at the armpit. “Anyone else with you, kid?”
Alvi shook his head. “No, sir.”
Mason moved his flashlight over the carcass of an Irish Setter.
“Hey, Blake,” Mason said. “It’s Rusty.”
Blake stared the dead dog. He twisted Alvi’s arm. The jacket tore a bit more.
“Watch it, mister,” Alvi said.
“You just killed Mr. Dodge’s favorite hound, kid. You’re the one who should watch it.”
“We didn’t kill it, mister.”
“His name was Rusty,” Mason growled.
“Sorry,” Alvi said. “But I’m telling you we didn’t kill him.”
Blake shoved Alvi to the ground. His back struck the bell of the spade.
“The two of you are trespassing on Mr. Malcolm Dodge’s private property,” Blake said. “Mr. Dodge’s dog is dead and your friend was digging Rusty’s grave.”
“Now he’s dug his own,” Mason said. He offered his visceral laugh once more. “And yours.” Mason pointed his revolver at Alvi.
“Wait—wait!” Alvi pleaded. “Honest. We didn’t kill Rusty. Some other guy did. He paid us a dollar to bury it. Him. Rusty.”
“A dollar each?” Mason asked.
“He wasn’t no Rockefeller, mister,” Alvi said.
“Then who was he?” Blake asked.
Alvi shook his head. “I don’t know. Me and McCutchinson were lifting apples from some trees when this automobile pulled up alongside the apple grove. We thought we was on his property. Started to run. The guy called us back. He asked if we wanted to make a buck. McCutchinson tried to weasel an extra two bits out of him before we even knew what he wanted us to do. The guy started to pull away and we chased him. I mean, a dollar? Who wouldn’t work for a dollar?”
“And this guy killed Rusty?” Blake asked.
“He had the dog in the back of his car. He said he was driving down the road and the dog ran out in front of his car. He said he tried to stop but it happened so fast that by the time he stopped the dog was dead.”
“And he paid you to bury the dog?” Blake asked.
Alvi looked around. “He told us to.”
“The guy in the car.”
Blake told Mason to shine his light on Rusty and keep an eye on the kid. He knelt down next to the dog, ran his hand over the fur. After he checked one side, Blake rolled the dog on its other side and did the same. He pressed on the rib cage.
“This dog wasn’t struck by a car,” Blake said. “Mace. Shine your light in here.” Blake opened the dead dog’s mouth.
“What are you looking for?” Mason asked.
“Foam. See if there’s a funny smell. No visible wounds so I’m thinking the kids fed Rusty some poison apple.”
“Like the bedtime story?”
“Hey! Watch the kid,” Blake said. He looked over the bodies of McCutchinson and the dog before turning to Alvi.
“Honest, mister. I’m not,” Alvi said. He slid backwards, wrapped his fingers around the jagged end of the broken shovel, kept it hidden behind him.
“You expect me to believe some guy in the car paid you to bury Rusty here?”
“I really wish you would,” Alvi said “because that’s what happened.”
“I think you’re full of shit, kid,” Blake said. “Now tell me why you killed the dog.” Blake bent down and grabbed Alvi by the front of the jacket. Alvi tightened his grip on the broken handle. Splinters cut into his palm. He arched his back ready to swing the spade at the side of Blake’s head.
“Kids didn’t do it, Blake.”
Blake jerked his face around to Mason. “What the frick are you talking about, Mace?”
“Think about it. Why would they kill Mr. Dodge’s dog? Bury him here? It ain’t about them. It’s about the guy. He wanted to send a message to Mr. Dodge.”
“What message would that be, Mace?”
“He can get at him. A guy who can get at Mr. Dodge is a dangerous man, a man to be reckoned with.”
Blake, on his haunches with his back to Alvi, reached into his sport coat. “Even if you’re right, we still can’t let the kid go.”
“I know,” Mason said.
“I’ll handle it, Mace. You take care of the one you shot.”
Mason holstered his piece. “Hey, kid, where’s your shovel?”
Blake turned his head, gun in hand at his side. Alvi swung the spade quick and hard. It struck Blake in the temple and rang. Blake dropped the gun to hold his head. Alvi grabbed it. Mason fumbled with the flashlight, dropped it, then fumbled with the snap on his holster holding his gun in place. Alvi stood and walked within a foot of Mason.
“Aw, Jesus, kid, don’t!”
Alvi shot Mason once in the forehead. The man fell backward.
Behind Alvi a twig snapped. The boy turned. Blake was trying to get to his feet. Alvi put the barrel of the gun against Blake’s neck. The man stopped moving. Alvi whispered in Blake’s ear.
“Aw, shit, kid. I knew it,” Blake said. It was the last thing he ever said.
Alvi tucked the gun into the rear waist band of his pants. He said goodbye to McCutchinson and walked off into the night.
A couple of miles down the road he heard the low rattle of a running car. Inside he found the man who had hired him and McCutchinson to deliver his warning. The man was asleep. A brown bottle lay on its side on the seat next to him. Alvi tapped on the window. The man inside jerked and gasped. He dragged a hand across his mouth as he opened the door.
“Job done?” he asked. Alvi turned his face away from the man’s booze soaked breath.
His answer made the man laugh. The man pulled a roll of twenty dollar bills out of his trousers’ pocket. A rubber band held the money together.
“You surprise me, kid,” the man said. He opened the roll and dug a dollar out of the center. “Where’s your friend?”
“They killed him,” Alvi said. “But then you knew that. You knew they would have killed you if you had tried to bury the damn dog. You expected them to kill me, too. That’s why I surprised you.”
“Didn’t you ever study the Greeks, kid? The messenger always gets killed.”
“Not this time, mister,” Alvi said. He reached behind him and brought out the gun he’d used to kill the two men back on the Dodge property. The man in the car sobered up just long enough to eat the bullet.
Alvi dragged the dead man from the car. He gathered up what he could of the dead man’s roll of money. He even used the same rubber band to hold it all in place. Ali shoved the roll deep into his pocket before getting behind the wheel of the running car. He drove off into the night following a road of which he had no idea of where it led. He didn’t really care as long as it was away. Behind him he left the rocks and roots of his youth.
Jack Bates grew up in the northern suburbs of Detroit, Michigan, and began writing at an early age. He is an award winning writer of short fiction, screenplays, stage plays, and children’s books. He is a three time nominee for a Derringer Award from the Short Mystery Fiction Society.