“Nobility” by Michael Grant Zimmer
Mondays Are Murder features brand-new noir fiction modeled after our award-winning Noir Series. Each story is an original one, and each takes place in a distinct location. Our web model for the series has one more restraint: a 750-word limit. Sound like murder? It is. But so are Mondays.
This week, Michael Grant Zimmer gives us a fictional story based on a real-life black market trade in 1820s Vienna, Austria.
As usual, I detected the Keeper before he unlocked the gate; a waft of plum brandy and rotting gums announced him through the solid oak. Hans and I led in the horses and wagon as he beckoned, and everywhere the Keeper’s odor pervaded like a virulent fog. He babbled on, even more intemperate than usual, and we knew the night would be busy. The Keeper tended to celebrate large crops in advance of their reaping.
He led us through the stone forest. Mausoleums of the best families, small fortresses of granite, stood indestructible in the soft moonlight. Marble obelisks reached into the sky, signposts of the greatness achieved in our world—a greatness eclipsed, of course, as all things shall be.
We reached the pit: a long stretch of freshly turned earth at the fence line, the resting place of paupers and thieves. The church and its buttresses loomed skeletally in the distance, presiding like a silent arachnid over our dark enterprise.
Out came the shovels. The Keeper was giddy with drink and spoke impertinently as we dug. I cursed him and asked, as I had many times, why they could not set the depth at three feet rather than six, knowing his fury would rise, that he would lecture us about the Bishop and propriety and how appearances must be kept, if only for these few hours.
I preferred his indignation to his happiness, foul creature that he was, so his frustration and pique on this point soothed the aches in my muscles from the work. We reached the bodies in due course and did our best to uncover them without damage. They were less valuable to the doctors with wounds; the fat orderly had docked our pay by a third the last time for just a few shovel strikes. Appearances must be kept.
We uncovered the bodies with care, wiping away the loose dirt from their faces and necks, prying the wretches from the earth. The Keeper was back to his giddiness. Seven bodies would fetch him a month’s wages, and these were still pliant, the bones only just beginning to lock. It was a bountiful harvest.
When we reached the girl, the Keeper turned solemn. As we hoisted her out of the dirt to the edge of the pit, we could not but take note that hers was the only body without clothes.
The Keeper knelt beside her and whispered something I could not hear. Hans and I looked at each other, and then I looked back at the Keeper, who was in the midst of touching his tongue to her bluish-brown cheek.
Suddenly, he blurted that she would not be for sale. He wanted her again, and we could not take her to the butchers. I reminded him of our agreement; she was already expected at the school. They needed all seven bodies for the lessons.
The Keeper looked at her young form, pert and ghostly in the moonlight, then said he would pay us for her out of his share from the other six. He would pay us double her worth.
For a long moment, we stood there in silence.
Did we not see this was love? he asked.
Hans looked at me and I back at him, weighing the Keeper’s mien of sadness and desperation.
Men in our position, even the religious ones, do not often question the morality of our actions. Besides, Hans and I were open to opportunities. We had to be. Though there would be complications, we had dealt with complications before. We knew what grim work would be made with the scalpels. It seemed only right to leave her behind.
Later, the fat orderly complimented us on the haul. The freshness of the seventh body was remarkable, he noted. And though we could see he wanted to divine its provenance, he knew better than to ask. Old toothless drunks die all the time.
MICHAEL GRANT ZIMMER is a writer and filmmaker based in Los Angeles. He directed the award-winning feature documentary The Entertainers, about the World Championship Old-Time Piano Playing Contest, and has fiction forthcoming at Spelk.
Would you like to submit a story to the Mondays Are Murder series? Here are the guidelines:
—Your story should be set in a distinct location of any neighborhood in any city, anywhere in the world, but it should be a story that could only be set in the neighborhood you chose.
—Include the neighborhood, city, state, and country next to your byline.
—Your story should be Noir. What is Noir? We’ll know it when we see it.
—Your story should not exceed 750 words.
—E-mail your submission [email protected] paste the story into the body of the email, and also attach it as a PDF file.
Posted: Jul 27, 2015
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