Author: Ron Ripley
Editor: Emma Salam

The Treasure Hunter

Jack Matthews specialized in fine antiques, artwork, and estate jewelry.

Many people saw him around at various estate sales, auctions, and the occasional flea market. Nobody ever witnessed him purchasing estate jewelry, however.

Because Jack didn’t buy it.

He stole it.

Jack was an accomplished grave robber.

He sat in his Jeep Wrangler, parked on an old logging road, half a mile outside of Mason. The driver’s side window was slightly open, just enough to let the smoke from his thin Turkish cigar escape into the warm summer air. It was early in the morning, and, like clockwork, the State trooper who patrolled the ghost town’s main road, cruised through.

Jack had seen the officer. The young man had been speaking into a cellphone and far more intent on his conversation than on anything else around him.

Which was perfect for Jack.

The trooper wouldn’t make another pass through Mason until eight hours later.

Jack had plenty of time to prospect.

He placed a well-thumbed copy of A Guide to New England Birds, on the passenger seat, and he double checked his work bag. A collapsible shovel, coveralls, some water as well as a bag of trail mix, and a pair of high-powered binoculars. Jack doubted anyone would even stop by, but it paid to have a cover story handy.

In Jack’s experience, the dead didn’t care about their rest being disturbed, but it sure as hell irritated the living.

Jack got out of the Jeep, locked the doors and put the keys away in his bag. He slipped his arms through the straps and started off on a roughly straight line towards what had once been the center of Mason. He moved along quickly. The sooner he was done, the better he would feel.

There was always the chance of being discovered, and Jack didn’t want to push his luck.

Within five minutes, he had cut through the woods and reached a small side neighborhood with abandoned houses. He ignored these and continued on his way.

Five more minutes of fast walking put him at the Mason cemetery, and at the old iron-gate, he paused to look around.

There were a few hundred headstones within the protected confines of an old stone wall. Tall pines grew up along the edges, their boughs heavy as they hung over the headstones. At the far back corner of the cemetery stood a decrepit, single story house. A caretaker’s building. The paint had long flecked off the shuttered windows and the closed door. Holes stood out starkly in the old roof, and the brick walls looked as though they might crumble into dust.

Jack smiled.

The place was perfect. Absolutely abandoned.

And his research had told him how the last burial had taken place in nineteen sixty-four.

The first of them, however, had taken place in the late seventeen hundreds. Yet those didn’t hold any interest for Jack.

He wanted the Victorians and the Edwardians. The mid to late nineteenth century and the early twentieth. The people who would have been buried with their jewels and their gold.

Jack knew what years to look for. Practice had helped him to be perfect.

With a happy whistle, Jack slipped through the gate and made his way to the center of the cemetery. He looked for the obelisks and urns which would mark the Victorians, and he found them.

Dozens of them.

He sighed with pleasure and set his bag down. He walked carefully from headstone to headstone until he found one with promise.

“Mary Lee Locke, Beloved Wife and Mother,” Jack read aloud.

Mary Locke had died when she was sixty-seven. Children would have been married. Her jewelry would be with her.

Jack hummed to himself as he went back to his bag. He put on his coveralls, took a drink of water, a handful of trail mix, and assembled the shovel. Soon he was back at Mary’s grave, and he started to dig.

He made sure to pace himself, and to carefully set aside the top layer of sod. He dug steadily and cautiously. With age, the top of the coffin would have weakened. Several times he had crashed through rotten wood and then spent hours cleaning the remnants of flesh, bone and clothing from his boots.

After a short while, he was roughly a foot down.  He paused to give his back a rest.

A loud, creak sounded, and Jack turned to look around.

One of the shutters on the caretaker’s house had come free.

It swung lazily in and out, and with each movement one of the hinges screamed out in protest.

Jack chuckled and turned back to his work.

Only a few minutes had passed before he heard a different noise. A loud, almost groan which echoed off the stones and filled the quiet air.

Jack straightened up and looked at the building again.

The door was open.

And not a little, but open completely, so it rested against the brick wall.

What the hell? Jack thought. Is there someone living in there?

Fear suddenly flooded through him, and Jack got out of the large hole he had dug. He gripped the handle of the shovel tightly and took a nervous step towards the house.

“Hello?” Jack called out.

No one answered him.

He walked a little closer.

“Hello,” Jack said again. “Is there anyone there?”

The open shutter closed with a bang and Jack nearly jumped.

I have to lock those, he thought. If I don’t, they’re going to drive me crazy.

He lowered the shovel slightly and walked boldly forward. Once at the door, he stopped and peered in.

A small desk stood against the far wall. Above it, hung a faded and illegible calendar. Off to the right, a variety of shovels rested against the wall. On the left, were a table and a pair of chairs. An old radio stood on it, the antenna straight up.

No one was in the house. No one had been in the building for a terribly long time as far as Jack could tell.

The shutter opened and banged, and Jack jumped in fear.

Yeah, this needs to stop, he thought angrily. He dropped the shovel onto the table, went to the window and pulled the shutter in. With quick movements, he found the iron latches and locked the old wood in place.

He took a step back, grinned and wiped the dust and dirt off his hands and onto his coveralls.

Jack turned to pick up his shovel and froze, petrified into stillness.

An old man sat at the table.

He wore a knit cap and a flannel shirt. His face was thin and haggard. The eyes, blue and cold. Narrow, pale lips were pressed close together, and Jack realized he could almost see through the man.

The stranger’s edges were fuzzy, as though they weren’t quite finished.

He’s a ghost, isn’t he? Jack thought. Yes. He has to be.

And then he realized the dead man’s pale blue eyes were fixed on him.

“What are you doing here?” Jack asked. He tried to control the fear which threatened to overwhelm him.

A look of surprise flashed across the ghost’s face, and then he smiled. “Oh no, I’m the one who’s to ask you. And so I do, what are you doing here?”

“I work for the State,” Jack lied, his heart beating spasmodically. “I’m here to check on the graves.”

The ghost laughed and shook his head. “Ah, you do lie well, whoever you are. But it makes no difference if you are who you say you are, or simply another thief. Both results are the same.”

Jack took a cautious step towards the exit and the dead man flashed him a grin of yellowed and broken teeth.

The door slammed shut.

“You just arrived, young man,” the ghost said softly. “Why would you wish to leave so soon?”

Panic climbed into Jack’s throat in the form of a scream, and he swallowed convulsively to keep it down.

“I have to go,” Jack said, his words coming out in a hoarse whisper.

“Oh no,” the dead man said, standing up. “I don’t think you do. You’re going to stay awhile.”

Jack lost the battle with his fear.

The scream he had struggled to contain ripped free. The sound of his own voice punished his own ears, and Jack turned so quickly he stumbled and fell to his knees.

He didn’t try to get up. Instead, he scurried forward on all fours to the door. He reached the old wood, grabbed hold of the black metal handle and pulled himself up.

A whistle came from behind him, and something heavy struck him in the back of the head.

Stars exploded in front of Jack’s eyes, and he slipped down the door to lay crumpled on the dirt floor. Darkness lapped over his vision with all of the calm, cold detachment of the sea.

A bitterly cold hand grasped him by the back of the neck, and the door sprang open. Jack’s limbs hung loosely, and he found himself dragged out into the daylight. The darkness parted, he saw the graveyard, and then his sight disappeared again. He felt the rough ground and the cool grass beneath him.

Then, through the darkness, Jack could smell fresh earth.

His sight returned. Jack blinked and felt himself slide down, and he realized he was in Mary’s grave.

Oh no, Jack thought, trying to move. Oh, this can’t be happening. No way.

But his limbs didn’t respond. Only his eyes flickered from left to right frantically. He looked up at the pale blue sky. An occasional cloud passed through his line of sight, but nothing more.

The dead man stepped into Jack’s view and squatted down. He smiled.

“I suppose,” the ghost said, “you think something mundane as being buried alive is going to happen to you.”

Jack didn’t answer.

He couldn’t.

“Oh, don’t worry,” the dead man said. “I can see it in your eyes. But don’t worry, don’t worry. I’m not going to do such a thing to you. No. Not me.”

The ghost stood up and stepped away. A moment later, a shovel full of dirt was thrown into the hole. It landed lightly on Jack’s legs, and more of the dark, rich earth followed.

Soon every part of Jack was covered, save for his head. Occasionally the ghost would reach in, brush some wayward dirt away from Jack’s face. Then the burying began again.

Within a short while, as Jack’s thoughts raced with panic, only his face remained free. The ghost brought forth the turf Jack had so carefully set aside, and fit it neatly over the fresh earth.

Jack hyperventilated as the grass was tucked neatly around his face.

The dead man returned.

Once more, he squatted down beside the grave and smiled at Jack.

“See,” the ghost said. “You were afraid I was going to cover your face up, too, weren’t you?”

Jack remained silent.

“No,” the dead man said happily. “You won’t suffocate to death. Nor will the weight crush you. Not enough of it. But you’ll starve to death. Course bugs and animals might get at your face first.”

The ghost leaned forward, the smile on his face vanished.

“Perhaps,” he said softly, “you’ll understand why it’s wrong to rob the dead.”

The dead man stood and left.

Jack was alone.

Tears welled up in his eyes as he looked into the sky and felt the first ant run across his face. The insect’s legs tickled his lips, and Jack tried desperately to scream as it slipped into his mouth.

*  *  *

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