Death and Taxes

It was nearly sunset.

The graverobber stood a few paces away from the couple, silently observing their relief and joy at being reunited. His hands were still covered in the sticky black dirt from the morgue, and he was exhausted from the effort.

Time passed as they continued their reunion, but his work would stretch long into the night.  Another town, another morgue, another soul to guide back to the land of the living. He brushed the dirt from his hands and gathered his tools to leave. He didn’t feel much emotion anymore, but there was a particular satisfaction of a job well done that he still enjoyed. He had a purpose, and that was enough.

“How much do we owe you, sir?”

The woman had broken her embrace with her wife, and turned tearfully to the graverobber. He could see the tinge of fear in her eyes. The common folk always believed the stories.

“There is nothing owed today. The Collectors will assess your grave tax, but I assure you it will be a pittance. Your wife’s death was an accident.”

She nodded, thankful, but still tried to press a few Brass into his hands.  He would need to record the donation to make sure their contracts were updated accordingly, he supposed. 

Outside, the light was dimming but still bright enough. He blinked and shaded his red eyes.  Normally this kind of work happened in the dead of the night, and he never really adjusted to the light of the surface.

A man stood across the road watching him leave, obviously drunk. A Texican perhaps? Maybe a Baywalker.  But probably a Texican. The graverobber turned and headed back to his caravan.

“Tax man here to collect his blood money! Tell me tax man!” Spittle flew from the drunk’s lips on each word of the insult.

“If an apple keeps the sawbones away, what keeps you Council fucks away?” The drunken man’s words were slurred, but the challenge was clear.

Not every doctor was sanctioned by the Grave Council, but he was. Gathering his anger, he composed it into a fiery, dead-eyed stare and turned deliberately to face the man.

“Stephen. Joseph. Clark.”

The blood rushed from the face of the Merican as he realized his taunt had been successful. Most graverobbers would have ignored him.  Not today.

“How.. how.. do you know my name?”

The graverobber took a menacing step towards the man. The graverobber’s eyes seemed to glow with a pale deathly light.

“We know what happens in the night, Stephen.”

A step closer.

“We see your dalliances. We assess your crimes. We remember that night in Essex.”

Another step.

“The tax will come due.”

Another step. The graverobber could smell the stench of the cheap hooch on the man’s breath.

“All will pay the tax when it is due. Perhaps when your pitiful life is over, cut short by a life of booze or even a raider blade at your neck in the night when you forget to lock your doors...”

A step closer.

“A hand like mine will reach out to help even the likes of you, Stephen.”

A final step. He could smell the bitter tang of piss. The terrified man had pissed himself. It figured.

“But the tax will come due.”

A long moment passed, and then Merican was alone once more, shivering in a pool of his own urine.  The graverobber stopped, and looked back at the pitiful retch.

“Remember Stephen. There are only two things certain in this life. Death and taxes.”

The final words whispered across the road. 

The sun was setting, and the balance was once again restored.

A Grave Council vignette by J. Loyd

Last Words

The first light of dawn was just on the horizon, and already the sky was glowing with the impending sunrise.  It was that perfect moment before the day began and the end of the long night that meant the final few hours were gone.

The small enclosure the prisoner was trapped in overlooked the open air area of the recreation yard, a place the Warden called “Purgatory”.  The ground was mostly a cracked and broken black top, probably that once served as a parking area for the inhabitants of Temple Station before the Prison was built, but now served as an area to get a little sunlight if you had earned enough cred with the Commissary.  It was quiet at this hour, save for the two of them. He gazed at the gaping maw of the hole in front of him, and tried to suppress a shudder.

The true purpose of the yard was really the Pit.

At least thirty to forty across, the only notable feature near the edge of the chasm was the metal rings near the side that were used to lower the prisoners to the bottom of the Pit. No one really knew how deep it was, but it was deep enough. It was probably once a well or cistern, but now it served a completely different function.

It was a constant reminder of the price a prisoner could pay for doing the things even other prisoners found distasteful. There were lots of ways to die in Killhouse Prison, but this was probably the worst.  At least if the butchers in the Meat Grinder got you, you’d eventually be pulled out of the morgue by a graverobber. The Pit was the final place a prisoner could finish their sentence at the prison, though the Warden could call it “mercy”.

His cellmate was sitting nearby, outside the cage, watching the sunrise continue to turn the sky a glorious shade of crimson.  A small consolation from the gang, purchased with the last bit of good will the Warden might have had. No one else would come sit with him.

“I’ve got money with the bookie on ten minutes.  Think you will last that long, Tommy? I could use the cred.” 

Fitting he would be worried about money, even now, he thought. The cred could buy out his friend’s contract, maybe even earn him a spot on a work crew outside the prison.  He would have probably done the same, had things been reversed.

“I’ll do my best, but I’m a tinker, not a fighter.  Depends on how many zed are down there now.”

His cellmate only grunted in agreement.  

The Pit loomed large in the morning light, and you could barely make out the low groans of the dead below.  Even if the zed didn’t get you, you’d starve or die of dehydration eventually, and it would begin the cycle again.  The other prisoners and even the guards liked to bet on how long the poor fuckers thrown in could last. The big money was on the long shot of surviving past the first few minutes, but the bookies loved taking the sucker bets.

“I wonder if she will come to watch” he mused to his partner.

“Maybe. You really pissed her off.  I haven’t seen her that mad in awhile. Maybe the lifers have, but not me.”  

His cellmate was absently scratching at his chin, contemplating the crime that had earned him a trip to the Pit.

“You fucked up though, Tommy. We don’t really want another riot on our hands, no matter how much I like you.  I gotta survive till the Indulgence.” 

His cellmate put it rather matter-of-factly.  The condemned man was silent.  

No one wanted the atrocity of the riot that earned Prudence Penitentiary it’s real name of Killhouse Prison to happen again.  The prisoners policed their own. It was the rules. If the guards had to step in, you knew it was bad. He had fucked up. The grave tax had to be paid.

“Remember when the Law Dogs caught up with us outside of Essex?  You put up a mean fight there. Even knocked that puddle jumper out before his buddy clocked me in the head.  Maybe you can make it ten minutes. Wouldn’t that be something?”  

His cellmate chuckled to himself, remembering the times before the Prison.  They sat there for a few more minutes, silently contemplating the past.  

He could hear the bustle of the Prison as the morning shift was ramping up, though.  There would be a decent amount of onlookers, he thought. Everyone enjoyed the entertainment, as fucked up as it was.  

His cellmate pulled himself wearily to his feet, as the guards would be here soon.  Appearances were important to the Warden, and it wouldn’t be right if the others saw his cellmate here with him.  He didn’t want his partner to catch any flak from the rival gangs, either.

“Any last words for me bud?”

HIs cellmate looked at him one last time. He knew the ritual.  It was the first tradition you were taught you when you made it to Killhouse.

“Just remember, Tommy.  The shiv they give you before you go down isn’t really for the zed.”

A Killhouse Prison Vignette by J. Loyd