“I’m a gravedigger,” the man said, “not a murderer.”
He looked across the table at me with eyes blazing out of his rugged face and gripped the arms of his chair with such intensity that I thought his fingers would snap. I looked down at my notes.
“Um, Mr Wright; Mr Albert Wright, isn’t it?” I asked, “did you know that for the last few years the death rate has been on the increase in this town?”
“Well naturally,” replied Albert, “everybody’s getting older at the same rate, so it stands to reason that sooner or later people are going to start dropping off the other end of the lifeline, if you see what I mean.”
“Didn’t you think it was odd that the faster you dug graves, the faster people ‘dropped off’ as you put it?”
Albert scowled at me and leaned across the table.
“Look, if you’re saying that I killed anybody just to put them in a grave I’d dug you’re crazy. Why would I want to do that?”
The questioning had been going on for several hours now, and all that we had uncovered was circumstantial evidence. There was no doubt that more citizens had died over the last three years than in the previous ten. However, none of the deaths had appeared suspicious at the time. The strange thing was that many of them appeared to have little or no family left so it was difficult to get the full details of the cases.
I shuffled some papers in front of me and decided to try another line of questioning.
“How much do you get paid per grave, Mr Wright?”
“Two hundred dollars.”
“And do you know how much families are charged for each grave?
“Er, well, Charley handles the payments,” said Albert.
“Did you know that Charley asks five hundred dollars for each new grave?”
He shook his head.
“Rather a lot of money for a hole in the ground, don’t you think?”
“Hey mister,” Albert looked up and thumped his hand on the table, “have you any idea how hard it is to dig down six feet into the hard, packed earth? I earn every penny of that money.”
“Have you ever opened up an old grave?”
The man put his head on one side, as if considering this question.
“Well, it depends if they’re family or not. Sometimes family like to be buried next to each other so we make a hole side by side with the first grave.”
“And do you charge the same for opening up an old grave?”
“Like I said, Charley does the money.”
Albert shifted in his chair and looked around the room. The light from the window caught the top of his head and the dust and earth from his hair appeared magnified as if in a spotlight. His elbows poked through the holes in his sleeves and mud spatters dotted his trouser legs. He did not look like a rich man.
“Do you remember when the work started to be busier?” I asked.
“Yes, it was two years ago, about the time that the big discount store was bringing in their Christmas stock. I remember because Charley told me there might be extra work on the gravedigging and I told him that I had to work longer shifts moving the boxes in the store room and that maybe he should get another person to dig a few graves.”
“And what did Charley say to that?”
“He said no, that he’d wait for me.”
“What did he mean by that?”
“I suppose he meant that he’d wait until I’d finished my stacking shift before calling on me to dig.”
“I see. And when did you dig the graves?”
“Well we dug them during the day at first, but then Charley explained that it would be cooler to dig them at night so we started digging at night.”
“Didn’t you think it was odd to dig a grave at night?” I asked.
“Well no, you see I had just finished my shift stacking the shelves and Charley said it would be better to go straight to digging so that I could get all my work done in one go. I liked that because then I could go home and sleep.”
He looked as if he could do with some sleep right now.
“How many graves do you normally dig a night?”
“Three or four. It depends.”
“And didn’t you think it strange that so many people were dying in this small town?”
Albert slammed his fist down on the table again.
“Look, I already told you, I’m a gravedigger, not a murderer! I don’t get paid to think about people dying – that’s your job. I get paid to dig, and I ain’t done nothing wrong.”
He was right. He had not done anything wrong. He was just the poor old middle man, paid $200 a time to dig as many graves as he could during the night. Charley was the one who made the profits. Charley was the one who charged the grieving families for the graves, reselling the same one sometimes over and over. Charley was the one who sped up the flow of customers by poisoning the water in the hospital and the two nursing homes. Charley was the one who buried coffins full of drugs in the extra graves that he paid Albert to dig. Charley was the one who paid Albert to dig up those coffins so that a family member could be laid to rest next to the supply of cocaine – after it had been moved on, of course.
Oh, I knew all about Charley. I had been investigating him for almost three years now. There was nothing I did not know about Charley and his operations. There was only one problem.
Charley had been murdered the night before.