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A Higher Power

by Geoff Hart

"Frank: Come quick. Graverobbers.—Jake." The letter was short, to the point, and postmarked Shady Valley. I called Mom to cancel dinner, and set about packing my bag.

The first time I’d seen the sign, I assumed it referred to a cemetary or rest home. I still enjoy the irony. From a distance, the town had seemed identical to the other picture-postcard, white-clapboard towns whose church steeples and American flags dot so much of the northern New England landscape—the kind of place where nothing more exciting than the 4 PM freight train should ever happen on by. Of course, normal is awfully subjective.

Most hikers would have returned to the main road after spotting the biohazard signs. Someone distracted by weighty matters might pass without noticing the signs, but down the road a mile or so, they’d run into dense stands of deformed raspberries gradually reclaiming the old dirt road despite repeated passes by the Postal Service trucks. Start threading your way through the wickedly curved thorns and you developed a newfound appreciation for the rasp part of their name, and most would give up at that point, preferring not to share their blood with those long, thirsty thorns. But I was stubborn even by the standards of my family, distracted by my search for a suicidal friend, and they do say that God watches out for drunkards and fools. I eventually escaped the raspberries, skin largely intact, without once thinking Briar Rose.

The road sauntered onwards beneath the forest shades, where not even the raspberries seemed willing to grow. In hindsight, I was fortunate those shades were slumbering in the summer sun and that I’d stepped briskly on my way to find Dolores. That got me within sight of the town, and for reasons not relevant to this tale, I didn’t become one of those many misunderstandings buried downslope from the tavern. This visit, the dusk gathered around me like Bela Lugosi’s cloak as I came within sight of Jake’s tavern, quiet and empty as a church between holidays at this time of day.

I found my favorite table already set, promising ample reward for my exertion. Even before I’d clumped up onto the broad porch and begun beating road dust off my jeans, the heavenly smell wafting through the open kitchen window caught me by the nose, and Circe herself had never set a trap half so enticing. Dying’s said to do unfortunate thing’s to one’s tastebuds, but you’d never know it by Jake; like most haunts, his essence lingered on, and that essence harbored a powerful desire to cook for someone who could appreciate it.

Any good cook’ll tell you the key’s in the ingredients, and Jake’s free-range chickens nicely suit my prejudices concerning animal husbandry; if I want grain, I’ll eat it myself and spare the chicken the labor. The chickens graze out back, down the long hill of the graveyard, where they stalk luminescent grubs that crawl up from the ground around moonset after the citizens have made their way back into town. I didn’t mingle with most townsfolk, as they’d never really welcomed me into their cold hearts, but they made "live and let live" their watchword, if you’ll pardon my splitting a few idiomatic hairs.

Jake, who’d appeared out of nowhere while I’d been gathering wool, set the chicken before me. As usual, he’d garnished it with the mushrooms that grew in the cellar, where a visiting urban restaurant critic unfamiliar with country hospitality and the notion of etiquette now slept until the millennium after some injudicious remarks about the cuisine. He’d never filed that story, but the mushrooms surely benefited from his subsequent tending.

Jake stepped back and let me tuck in just enough to take the edge off my hunger. "Frank, we need a big favor." I nodded and saved a drop of gravy from a lonely trip to the floor with a quick swipe of my tongue. "You got my letter, so you know what’s been happening." He paused, gravely.

I swallowed another savory chunk of chicken and some of the strange, pale potatoes he grew out back. "Let me guess—strange things’ve been seen in the graveyard."

Jake smiled politely; the joke probably hadn't been funny the first hundred times I’d essayed it either. "No, not since the Hansens last summer." Nice family, though they’d been pig-ignorant about the warning signs and kept right on picking raspberries until after dark. Fit right into our little community once they’d gotten used to being deader than liberalism in America.

Frank chewed his lower lip. "Someone’s been digging up the graves and taking us away. The Hansens lost their daughter last week, you know."

That sat me up straight. I met his gaze, bland and innocent and expressionless as only dead eyes can be. He’d known how hard the news would hit me; little Becky was a pleasure to babysit, and seemed to know instinctively which patches of berries were safe for the living to eat. I could imagine her parents' distress. "So you’ve got a body snatcher."

"We tried asking Friedrich, but he still won’t let us anywhere near." Friedrich had moved to the country to make a reputation painting pastorals, and instead stumbled into his destiny. Now he does work that's been favorably compared with the illegitimate offspring off Edward Gorey and Norman Rockwell, with a dash of Hieronymus Bosch thrown in for good measure. He sells more than enough paintings for more than enough money to live the life of a country squire, albeit a reclusive one. Happy though he was to include the townsfolk in his work, he kept his benefactors at bay with a garden full of of garlic, silver bells garlanding the scarecrows, and rowan hedges surrounding his house.

"And Greta?"

He shook his head disapprovingly. "She respects his privacy too much to intercede on our behalf, verbally or through more effective means. Her auguries show nothing." His thin lips puckered as if he’d just sipped wine vinegar while expecting a nice Bordeaux. "I warned her those perversions would harm her magic!"

I kept a straight face, not wanting to choke on such fine chicken and become more than an honorary citizen. Greta and I had occasionally done our best to impair her magic, and in a town of de facto necrophiliacs, even the most open-minded had some difficulty with Mundane dating behavior. You never heard it to your face, as they all scrupulously minded their own business—but every now and then someone let their mask slip. Pondering, I chased the chicken down with a long draft of Sam Adams.

"Jake, I don’t know that I can help. I’m not a cop or anything; I don’t even write good detective fiction."

"Understood. But the problem’s quite beyond us. We hoped that more natural efforts would work where the supernatural has failed."

"No promises, but I’ll certainly head down to the cemetery in the morning, suss out what’s going on, and report back. Would you pack me a snack or two and a thermos of coffee?" Jake smiled altogether too smugly, squeezed my shoulder gently with those cold hands, and left me to enjoy my meal.

I’ll skip the obvious line about how well I slept that night, and where is none of your damn business.

***

Next morning, yawning and wiping sleep from my eyes as I walked, I made a point of stopping by the verdigrised statue of Ambrose Bierce. I tacked 'round that old lexicographer and curmudgeon with a wink and a smile, hung a left and beat upwind along Main Street, and paused to pay my respects to Howie Lovecraft for good measure, leaving him gleaming brazenly behind me in the morning sun. It’s a ritual obeisance I make every trip in the hope it’ll attract some of their saintly attention to my writing. Respects duly paid, I stopped by the tavern to collect my lunch, then made my way downhill past fat, lazy chickens pecking drowsily at the sparse vegetation.

Shady Valley’s small cemetery housed only about a hundred citizens, and they tended their homes meticulously; the grass shone green in the morning sun, interspersed with a million twinkling jewels of dew, and the night-blooming flowers that swaddled the graves had nearly finished their morning retreat belowground. As the sun rose higher, a stillness fell upon the world, disrupted only by the chickens, but crickets cricketed in the deep grass outside the fence, and cicadas began shrilly tuning their fiddles as the air warmed.

I passed by several freshly excavated graves and inspected the crushed grass where some sort of vehicle had parked. That being the limit of my rudimentary investigative skills, I made my way over to the ancient oak that held the kids’ fort, and climbed into its sheltering leaves to escape the sun. I settled in, pushing aside a small heap of bones they’d been gathering for some school science project, and booted my laptop so I could get some work done while I waited. The work went slowly, and thoughts of breakfast had grown increasingly distracting by the time an engine cleared its throat and announced its presence on the steep grade below the cemetary.

Through the leaves, I watched an old Ford pickup approach the gate. As the engine choked and died a long and lingering death, a tall, thin man in a neatly pressed black jacket emerged, stretching mightily. I saved my work and powered down, grateful for an excuse to try something more productive. I stuffed the computer into my backpack, then glanced back at the gate. The newcomer removed his jacket, folded it carefully, and tossed it onto the vehicle’s front seat. That done, he cracked his knuckles and surveyed the grounds from behind the pickup’s door. Preparations complete, he pushed the door shut with a rusty squeal, rolled up the sleeves of his crisp white shirt and took a shovel from the bed of the truck. Throwing the shovel before him, he hopped the fence with enviable grace, then bent to pick up his tool. At the first row of graves, he pulled a notebook from his pocket, recorded something with a flourish, and pocketed the book and pen. Then he made his way to Lars Hansen’s grave; I’d babysat Becky there often enough to pick it out, even by day and through the leaves. He took one last look around, then began digging industriously.

I dropped down from the tree and hastened over, spotting the clerical collar only once I’d drawn close enough for my shadow to fall across the fresh-turned sod. He looked up, alarmed, and his sweaty face paled visibly. I smiled politely, crossed my arms, and waited patiently as he backed hastily away from the grave and rummaged beneath his shirt. Triumphantly, he removed a large silver crucifix and waved it in my face—a natural precaution under the circumstances. When I failed to flinch, he tucked it hesitantly away again inside his shirt, the color returning slowly to his tanned face.

I smiled, hoping we could do this the civilized way, and stuck out my hand. "My name’s Frank."

"Father Michael," he replied, crushing my hand.

I recovered my hand with some alacrity, trying not to wince. "Forgive me for seeming critical, Father, but you’re digging in a friend’s grave, and I suspect he’d take that amiss. I’m sure we’d both appreciate an explanation of what you’re doing here."

Scowling now, the priest looked me over even more closely. "I should think it’s quite obvious. I’m disinterring your friend."

"Now why would you be doing that? Lars and his wife weren’t Catholic, and they were decently and properly buried here, according to their wishes."

The priest examined me minutely before replying, lips curling. "Buried, yes, but decently and properly? No, not them, nor any of the rest of the poor souls in this cemetery. Are you aware that here, the dead rise to walk again by night?"

"Of course. But what business is it of yours? They harm no one."

Evidently, he’d been expecting another answer. He spun his mental wheels a moment, pondering and discarding several replies, then all at once the clutch engaged and he regained his momentum. "It’s abhorrent. The dead must rest in peace, and it’s my duty to see that they do so. If you won’t help, then I'd ask you to please leave me to my work."

"I can’t do that." On impulse, I grabbed his shovel and, having taken him entirely by surprise, pulled it from his grasp. "Leave my friends alone. Do your work elsewhere." I was so pleased with myself that I relaxed. Big mistake. The priest swung a roundhouse blow and clipped me a good one on the ear. I dropped one way, the shovel dropped another, and the ground, not to be outdone, rose up to meet the both of us. As I lay there, ear ringing, he stepped over me to collect the fallen shovel.

I’m unquestionably more a lover than a fighter, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t written about my share of donnybrooks. Some of it had rubbed off. I tackled him as he leaned towards the shovel, taking him down and landing on top, and before he could so much as gather the breath to sputter, I wrenched his left arm up behind his back and frog-marched him back to his truck. I wasn’t in a particularly good mood, and he made most of the trip on tiptoe to preserve his arm. At the truck, I opened the door with my free hand and thrust him in, knocking his jacket onto the floor. He got back on his feet in a hurry, glaring like he was going to come right back out at me. Ear still throbbing, that was the last thing I wanted, so I assumed a pose I’d seen in a Jackie Chan flick and practiced for far too many hours in front of a mirror.

"Uh uh. I didn’t expect a priest to swing on me, but if you make me, I’ll break your face, Father." For added effect, I rotated my leading hand about my wrist, ending up with the palm facing outwards. It looked silly as hell, but when you look that stupid yet still appear confident, people naturally assume you know what you're doing.

For a moment he seemed ready to call my bluff, then abruptly thought the better of it. With only a parting glare to tell me what he thought of my future prospects, he settled himself on the seat, slammed the door, and wrenched at the ignition. With a consumptive gasp, the engine reluctantly fired, the wheels sought and found purchase in the grass, and the truck spun in a half circle before speeding off towards the big city. I slumped, greatly relieved. You learn to bluff pretty well when you play poker with the dead, but the priest’s punch had been solid, my ear was really starting to bother me, and the closest I’d ever been to any talent at the martial arts was standing in line with Leong at the FantAsia festival. Pausing only to retrieve my computer from the tree, I headed back uphill. My ear was beginning to throb.

***

That night, Mayor Johnson called a formal town meeting. As a transient, I had no vote, and being a Mundane pretty much got me the cold shoulder anyway from most of them—though you could protest with some justice that even those who didn’t shun me could hardly give me a warm shoulder. I sat with my back against Jake’s bar and an ice pack pressed ineffectually against my ear, while the debate raged on about what to do. The proposed solutions tended to cluster distressingly around the theme of lynching, but nobody had a solution for the one small flaw in their plan: the priest only ventured near town by day, when the townsfolk lay sleeping. Even if he did relinquish any trace of sanity and arrive at night, priests had certain native protections against the townsfolk.

Besides, tough talk notwithstanding, a bunch of folk as decent as these ones wouldn’t try something that unpleasant until they’d grown truly desperate, and they weren’t there yet. If they hadn’t been that sort of people, Greta, Friedrich, and I would have joined their ranks during our first visit. Yes, there are a few rotters among the dead, but people are people, and mostly pretty reasonable if given half a chance.

At some point, I fell asleep, and woke as dawn began touching the sky and the townsfolk trooped back to their resting places. Jake had packed another breakfast, and I took it with me when I returned stiffly to my tree to await the priest. I hadn’t doubted for a minute he’d return, any more than I doubted that come heaven or holy water, I’d be there to meet him. But although I’d half expected reinforcements, I hadn’t expected the black and white car with the flashing lights. This time, the priest leaned smugly on his truck and let the Sheriff do the talking.

I appraised him calmly across the gate; a bit of malt muscle around the waist, but the biceps that bulged large as my thigh as he levered himself cautiously over the fence gave me pause. I swallowed hard, hoping he hadn’t noticed, and put on my best game face. "Morning, officer. How can I help you?"

He looked me over closely, trying to figure whether I was really the kind of man who’d attack a priest. But even unshaven, I didn’t look to pose much of a threat, so his riot-stick remained in its belt loop, and I relaxed ever so slightly. "Father Michael claims you assaulted him yesterday while he was carrying out his duties. I assume you know your Miranda rights, but do you have anything to say before I cuff you?" He rested a large, calloused hand on his handcuffs.

"Not if it’s a case of my word versus the word of a priest." I pushed my hair away from my ear to reveal the bruise, just beginning to turn that exuberantly unpleasant yellow-and-black, spoiled-banana color. "But the truth is, he attacked me when I tried to stop him from digging up my friend’s grave."

The Sheriff nodded. "He mentioned something about that, but then, you really don’t have any right to be interfering with a priest, do you?"

"Rights are the point, aren’t they? The Hansens and most of the townsfolk here aren’t Catholic. I don’t mean to be telling you your business, but if he can’t prove their families asked him to dig them up, I’m wondering what right he’s got to be here."

The Sheriff nodded, albeit reluctantly. "You've got a point. Give me a minute, son." He returned to the truck to see what the priest had to say, and a brief, heated argument ensued. The argument ended with the priest back behind the wheel of his truck, glaring out at me with an unhealthy flush in his face that boded ill for my prospects in the afterlife. The Sheriff drove off with a polite tip of his hat, but the priest’s face promised I hadn’t seen the last of him. When both vehicles had driven out of sight, I hurried back uphill. The Sheriff’s visit suggested a solution.

That night, I asked Jake to take Mayor Johnson aside. It was obvious she wanted nothing to do with me, but a politician is a politican, and she put on her best public face.

"Ma’am, I know how I can fix things, but I’ll need your help. Here’s what you have to do…"

As I explained, a broad smile spread across her pale face, and when that smile reached critical mass, she chuckled right out loud. Shaking her head, she produced a pen and paper from her briefcase and dashed off a quick note on the town letterhead, and for good measure, slapped me on the back hard enough to stagger me. Then she bussed me on the cheek and sent me off for a good night’s sleep. I didn’t resist; I’d be up early tomorrow, and I hadn’t slept all that well last night, what with my ear and all.

***

Next morning, feeling more rested, I headed off towards the city at the best speed I could muster on a borrowed mountain bike several sizes too small for me. Many hours later, knees still aching, I returned in a discreet black sedan, accompanied by an inconspicuous individual in a cheap suit. We pulled up behind the truck and a rust-eaten red Firebird with a gold lightning blaze, fat tires, and a wide spoiler just as Father Mike was beginning to slide ropes dangling from a portable engine hoist under Lars’ coffin. Two burly, sweating youths who’d been assisting moved threateningly towards me, then subsided at a sign from the priest. My antagonist frowned as I stepped out of the car, bicycle clips still clamping sweaty bluejeans to my legs, and balled up his fists as if he were readying himself to belt me again. My ear ached, remembering, and I made sure to stay well out of reach—and a step beyond.

"You’d best quit now while you’re ahead, young man. I’ve cleared things with the county, so this time no Sheriff will be here to interfere. And if you persist, my two companions can make a more persuasive case for your departure." He glanced defiantly at my companion, a short, balding man whose complexion suggested he’d spent more time driving a swivel chair than working outdoors.

My companion stepped forward. "Father Michael Alway?"

"Yes. And you are?"

"I have a warrant for your arrest." The priest’s jaw dropped faster than if I'd proven the Pope was secretly Presbyterian. My companion brandished a badge that flashed in the sunlight, making sure the priest got a good, clear look at the seal. "Are you going to come willingly, or do I have to call in reinforcements?" I’d expected a pair of handcuffs, but instead, a sealed envelope magically appeared from his coat pocket. The priest cracked the envelope, read its contents with increasing consternation, and blanched as he reached the punchline. He looked up at my companion, raised a finger in protest, then abruptly wilted.

"Wise choice." My chauffeur nodded smugly, and retrieved the envelope from slack fingers. "You two youngsters—you have a driver’s licence between you?" They nodded, mystified by the exchange. "Good. Follow me back to town in the truck."

He turned to me and clapped a hand on my shoulder, reaching up to do so. "Thanks for your help, Frank. We’ll get this matter resolved."

The three interlopers climbed into their respective vehicles, defeat plain in the slump of their shoulders, and drove off in a cloud of dust. I smiled, more than a little pleased with myself. I’d have to retrieve the bike later, but it was too late in the day and I needed a cool swim to shed the dust from the morning’s ride and ease my swollen knees. Besides, Dolores would be waiting impatiently. I hadn’t spent any time with her this visit, and I had to share my triumph with someone.

Every spring, the uneasy truce between the lake’s warm lower and frigid upper waters is broken, and the warm waters return to the surface, carrying along whatever’s been lying on the bottom. Dolores, for instance. Dolores and I go way back—even before she broke off a longstanding affair with a mutual friend and ran off to do herself in. At first, I’d tried to help her pick up the pieces, but had probably only added a few pieces of my own. While Clive went on to achieve some minor notoriety with his poems, Dolores took a hike in the hills, a few too many pulls at the bottle of Drambuie he’d left behind, a late-night swim in the lake, and a long voyage to the bottom. Nowadays, she mostly broods away the seasons at the bottom of the lake, dwelling on the many failings of the human male, but when the seasons of her soul and of the lake move her, she bobs briefly back to the surface to see whether the world’s changed. If I’m there, we swim a while and talk over old times. I regale her with gossip, read her anything new that Clive’s written about her, and spend some quiet time together until she’s had enough of light and laughter. Each time, she claims to have forgiven him and to have forgotten, and sometimes she really does seem to mean it, but I’m never sure; it’s hard enough to figure what a live woman’s really thinking, and the dead always seem so damned sincere.

I lay dripping on a flat rock, letting the sun warm my bones, while Dolores basked in the shallows, watching the minnows nipping at her toes, long dark hair framing her pallid face and a half-smile animating her colorless lips. At length, she turned to me and broke the silence, voice like the whisper of a creek in late summer. "What I don’t understand, Frank, is how you managed to get rid of the priest when he’d obviously gotten permission to do his work."

"Well," I said, biting back on my grin, "I figured that if our problem was with holy forces, the solution had to be to invoke something stronger. You’re familiar with the old saw about the only sure things in life being death and taxes?" She nodded patiently. "Well, most people figure that only the former will get you out of paying the latter, but as it happens, they’re wrong. You see, Uncle Sam doesn’t legally have to stop collecting just ’cause you’re dead."

She nodded knowingly; like the rest of the town, she’d been paying taxes on income from her various investments ever since the last census had included them in the tax base.

"As it happens, our fearless leaders take a dim view of anyone who interferes with their tax collection. Needless to say, each citizen that got dug up was one less person on the tax rolls to pay their salary. All I had to do was point this out to the appropriate authorities, and the problem solved itself."

Author's notes

I'd always wanted to write a Lake Wobegone–style story, only weirder. Then I had the image of the special free-range chickens, and poor old Dolores (who started life as "Lenore", but "dolorous" is funnier) orbiting annually around the thermocline (thanks to a course in limnology), and possibly a Spider Robinson acid flashback that suggested the punchline. Some day I'll return to Shady Valley. I kinda like the people there.

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