“Why – who are you?” he asked in half surprise. “What right have you to spy on me?”
The woman didn’t answer. She held up her bony hand. There was a flash of fire on his throat – and a scream. Then, with a final gurgle, George Jacobs died.
“I wonder what – or who – could have killed him?” said a young man.
“I’m glad he’s gone,” said another. That one was lucky.
He didn’t look behind him.
IN A HALF-WORLD OF TERROR
King’s first published story; he was 18 when this thriller appeared in a 1965
issue of Comics Review as ‘I Was a Teenage Graverobber’. It was published in
Stories of Suspense the following year under the present title.
It was like a nightmare. Like some unreal dream that you wake up from the next morning. Only this nightmare was happening. Ahead of me I could see Rankin’s flashlight; a large yellow eye in the sultry summer darkness. I tripped over a gravestone and almost went sprawling.
Rankin whirled on me with a hissed oath.
“Do you want to wake up the caretaker, you fool?”
I muttered a reply and we crept forward. Finally, Rankin stopped and shone the flashlight’s beam on a freshly chiseled gravestone.
On it, it read:
He has joined his beloved wife in a better land.
I felt a shovel thrust into my hands and suddenly I was sure that I couldn’t go through with it. But I remembered the bursar shaking his head and saying, “I’m afraid we can’t give you any more time, Dan.
You’ll have to leave today. If I could help in any way, I would, believe me…”
I dug into the still soft earth and lifted it over my shoulder. Perhaps fifteen minutes later my shovel came in contact with wood. The two of us quickly excavated the hole until the coffin stood revealed under Rankin’s flashlight. We jumped down and heaved the coffin up.
Numbed, I watched Rankin swing the spade at the locks and seals. After a few blows it gave and we lifted the lid. The body of Daniel Wheatherby looked up at us with glazed eyes. I felt horror gently wash over me. I had always thought that the eyes closed when one died.
“Don’t just stand there,” Rankin whispered, “it’s almost four. We’ve got to get out of here!”
We wrapped the body in a sheet and lowered the coffin back into the earth. We shoveled rapidly and carefully replaced the sod. The dirt we had missed was scattered. By the time we picked up the white-sheeted 13
body, the first traces of dawn were beginning to lighten the sky in the east. We went through the hedge that skirted the cemetery and entered the woods that fronted it on the west. Rankin expertly picked his way through it for a quarter of a mile until we came to the car, parked where we had left it on an overgrown and unused wagon track that had once been a road. The body was put into the trunk. Shortly thereafter, we joined the stream of commuters hurrying for the 6.00 train. I looked at my hands as if I had never seen them before. The dirt under my fingernails had been piled up on top of a man’s final resting place not twenty-four hours ago. It felt unclean.
Rankin’s attention was directed entirely on his driving. I looked at him and realized that he didn’t mind the repulsive act that we had just performed. To him it was just another job. We turned off the main road and began to climb the twisting, narrow dirt road. And then we came out into the open and I could see it, the huge rambling Victorian mansion that sat on the summit of the steep grade. Rankin drove around back and wordlessly up to the steep rock face of a bluff that rose another forty feet upward, slightly to the right of the house.
There was a hideous grinding noise and a portion of the hill large enough to carve an entrance for the car slid open. Rankin drove in and killed the engine. We were in a small, cube-like room that served as a hidden garage. Just then, a door at the far end slid open and a tall, rigid man approached us. Steffen Weinbaum’s face was much like a skull; his eyes were deep-set and the skin was stretched so tautly over his cheekbones that his flesh was almost transparent.
“Where is it?” His voice was deep, ominous.
Wordlessly, Rankin got out and I followed his lead. Rankin opened the trunk and we pulled the sheet-swaddled figure out.
Weinbaum nodded slowly.
“Good, very good. Bring him into the lab.”
When I was thirteen, my parents were killed in an automobile crash. It left me an orphan and should have landed me in an orphan’s home. But my father’s will disclosed the fact that he had left me a substantial sum of money and I was self-reliant. The welfare people never came around and I was left in the somewhat bizarre role as the sole tenant of my own house at thirteen. I paid the mortgage out of the bank account and tried to stretch a dollar as far as possible. By the time I was eighteen and was out of school, the money was low, but I wanted to go to college. I sold the house for $10,000.00 through a real estate buyer. In early 14
September, the roof fell in. I received a very nice letter from Erwin, Erwin and Bradstreet, attorneys at law. To put it in layman’s language, it said that the department store at which my father had been employed had just got around to a general audit of their books. It seemed that there was $15,000.00 missing and that they had proof that my father had stolen it. The rest of the letter merely stated that if I didn’t pay up the $15,000.00 we’d go to court and they would try to get double the amount. It shook me up and a few questions that should have stood out in my mind just didn’t register as a result. Why didn’t they uncover the error earlier? Why were they offering to settle out of court? I went down to the office of Erwin, Erwin, & Bradstreet and talked the matter over.
To make a long story short, I paid the sum they were asking, I had no more money. The next day I looked up the firm of Erwin, Erwin & Bradstreet in the phone book. It wasn’t listed. I went down to their office and found a For Rent sign on the door. It was then that I realized that I had been conned like gullible kid which, I reflected miserably, was what I was.
I bluffed my way through the first for months of college but finally they discovered that I hadn’t been properly registered. That same day I met Rankin at a bar. It was my first experience in a tavern. I had a forged driver’s license and I bought enough whiskey to get drunk. I figured that it would take about two straight whiskeys since I had never had anything but a bottle of beer now and then prior to that night. One felt good, two made my trouble seem rather inconsequential. I was nursing my third when Rankin entered the bar.
He sat on the stool next to me and looked attentively at me.
“You got troubles?” I asked rudely.
Rankin smiled. “Yes, I’m out to find a helper.”
“Oh, yeah?” I asked, becoming interested. “You mean you want to hire somebody?”
“Well, I’m your man.”
He started to say something and then changed his mind.
“Let’s go over to a booth and talk it over, shall we?”
We walked over to a booth and I realized that I was listing slightly.
Rankin pulled the curtain.
“That’s better. Now, you want a job?”
“Do you care what it is?”
“No. Just how much does it pay?”
“Five hundred a job.”
I lost a little bit of the rosy fog that encased me. Something was wrong here. I didn’t like the way he used the word “job”.
“Who do I have to kill?” I asked with a humorless smile.
“You don’t. But before I can tell you what it is, you’ll have to talk with Mister Weinbaum.”
More fog evaporated. I got up.
“Uh-uh. No making a human guinea pig out of yours truly. Get yourself another boy.”
“Don’t be silly,” he said, “No harm will come to you.”
Against my better judgement, I said, “Okay, let’s go.”
Weinbaum approached the subject of my duties after a tour of the house, including the laboratory. He wore a white smock and there was something about him that made me crawl inside. He sat down in the living room and motioned me into a seat. Rankin had disappeared.