Sunday, November 15, 2009


Jeezus!” For Greg Grisdale, it was way out of character. Even part of him knew it right after. Cripes; I sound like a dog.

He certainly wasn’t a pushover, or one to take it lying down. He had leapt out of his bed without thinking about it, and saw that the cloaked figure had a few inches on him. Whatever it was, it was hidden and possibly well-padded. The only feature Greg could see was its nose: bulbous.

It occurred to him that this thing had gotten into his place unseen, and it didn’t look like a human being despite its shape and nose. So, he contented himself with, “who are you? How did you get in here?” His voice had clicked back into character, thanks goodness.

The creature didn’t disappoint his first impression. “I am Death.” Greg found himself relaxing.

“Death, is it? Well, what are you here for? I’ve been to the doc; he keeps telling me I’m so healthy, I’m wasting my time in the waiting room. Can’t be for me, can it?”

Had its voice not been so resonant, it would have been grating. “Your death is not yet; in that, you are correct. I require your assistance with a death.”


Death paused a bit, and Greg felt the corners of his mouth rising. The thing doesn’t take to questions, that’s for sure. As his assessment sunk in, his upper lip rose up to his gums. It may be Death, but it wasn’t all that frightening. He could deal with it.

“As the number of souls have increased, so have my responsibilities.” Now he sounds like a priest. “My power has limits, and the number of simulacrums – “ whatever – “I can create are not infinite. Thus, I need assistance so as to ration my time.” As it completed its last sentence, Greg could feel its invisible eyes.

His smile was gone, and his back slipped into a crouch as he wondered if he had underestimated the creature.

“All right,” he said, trying for a reasonable manner,” “you don’t have the time to waste. Is this a volunteer job?”

“No; there is payment. For assisting me, you will learn the year of your own death.”

And if I don’t do it right, I don’t get paid. Simple and straightforward.

His posture now straightened, Greg replied promptly. “Okay; I’ll do it.”

In the blink of an eye, they were in another room in what appeared to be a house. It was a bedroom, but not the master bedroom. It was too small, and so was the bed. Also, the figure in it – on top of it – was too young to be the owner. A bottle of pills was near his semi-fetal figure.

Death supplied the words. “This young man is a weakling. He ended his life with pills, much as a woman would do. When others would be girded, he sniveled.”

So, that was the assignment. Great. Death sure knew how to pick ‘em!

“Okay, I got it. I take it you have to leave now; how do I get you back once he’s ready?”

“Summon me with a simple call in your mind. To reach the soul, call out to him.” With that, the creature vanished. Greg understood why; its last instructions didn’t leave a lot of wiggle room for questions. So, to it:

“Kid? You up?”

Incredibly, at least in other circumstances, the poor fellow’s body became double-exposed. He didn’t get up; instead, his shadow-body curled up more.

So he is up, Greg answered himself with an inner sigh. It looked like this one was going to be a long one.

He snuck over, and calmed himself by noting that his own body must be back in his room. Greg hadn’t landed a gal yet, although he came close a few times. Things were fairly easy, so he didn’t feel any hurry to. He wasn’t old enough to grow out of the sway, lay and sash-ay lifestyle. All a kid like this meant, was someone who’d crimp his action unless a hard distance was kept between them. It was going to be a challenge.

Might as well be factual. “What got you offing yourself?”

Still balled, the kid replied. “I couldn’t stand to live.” Nasal voice, the kind that transitioned smoothly to a whine.

But something seemed wrong – “Lots of people are like that.” Instead of continuing with what he thought, he veered into “Was it a terminal disease that got you pill-swallowing?” After all, it might have. The pills had to have come from somewhere.

“No,” the kid droned back. “There was nothing for me in life.”

Stifling, Greg turned it into a near-cough. He had been right about this – kid. Yep, Death sure knows how to pick ‘em. “So here you are, and followed through.”

Unexpectedly, the kid turned his head and glared at the bigger man. “I don’t like you.”

Had Greg been able to see his face in the mirror, he would have seen beatific. The kid saw button-eyed. “Well, fella, I can’t say that I’d be jollying around with you either.

“If you want to know why I’ve come here to scare you, it’s because –“

The kid’s spirit-body was now out of his corpse, moved to the far side of the bed. “You think that I’m – Oh, God!”

Musing that the last two words sounded almost normal for him, Greg figured out what he had seen. “Yep, that’s your corpse. Pill bottle’s on the other side.”

Instead, the kid kept looking at him. “Basically, I’m your guide,” Greg continued. “Once you’re up to it, I’m going to be summoning someone that’s scary but doesn’t mean you any harm. He’ll – it’ll – “take you to where you’re going to go.”

He stayed polite, but Greg’s opinion of his charge was hardening. A loser; a waste of space. Someone that you laughed about and then forgot. Nothing more.

As he recovered, the kid’s brow wrinkled more. To restrain himself, Greg noted that the night vision that came with his own spirit-form was pretty good. It might as well have been twilight. Greg braced himself as soon as he saw the other’s mouth opening. “So I’m nothing to you,” in a tone that suggested he had switched subject and object.

“Let me show you something,” Greg responded as he came over to the bed. The kid’s back was to the wall, so he wouldn’t go anywhere – or so Greg thought. To make himself less threatening, he kept his arms back and moved in with his face. The youngster didn’t move, even as Greg’s face was right over his corpse.

“If you’ll look closely a little over my right eyebrow, you’ll see a little scar. Do you know how I got it?”

“A bar brawl?” the kid drawled back. He didn’t even have enough stuff in him to sound chilly.

“No, not in the slightest. One night, I was walking down a hill and a car was going by. Next thing I know, I felt this ‘thud’ right over my eye. It didn’t hurt all that much, and I didn’t know it was bloody until I felt something sticky run down on my eyebrow. All I knew was that the car’s tire hit a rock and shot it to my face.

“The point I’m trying to make is, there are some times when you have to keep plowing ahead. You’ve done what you did, but you have to see through the next step.”

As he half-expected, the kid didn’t snap to it. On the other hand, he didn’t get any whine back either.

“Cripes! Weren’t you worried about your eye being hit?” Before Greg could respond, he heard, “What do you really think of me, anyway?”

For some reason – it might have been the assignment, it might have been the sight of Death, it might have been something else entirely – Greg felt as if his normal opinion had been drained away, leaving only a quiet recognition that he knew nothing about the figure cowering on the far side of his bed. He found himself saying, “I don’t know enough about you to say.

“In fact, I haven’t walked in anything close to your shoes. Not even close. That’s the truth.”

It was the truth. How could Greg get across that his dad scolded him when he had cried, or even when he didn’t win a fight? That he was raised to either shrug pain off or see it as a goad? The kid wasn’t that small, and he wasn’t a stick, but there was a kind of shapelessness about him. There really was no way they could relate.

Strangely, the realization made Greg relax. He accepting their incomparability was like a runner throwing off his training weights. He was now sure that the rest of the chore would go smoothly: the hump was passed.

And he was right. “Move aside,” the kid said, and started to get up. Within a minute, he had gone with Death.

At the same time, Greg was back in his own room. It wasn’t that much bigger than the kid’s, as it was part of all the apartment Greg could afford. The Grim Reaper didn’t keep him waiting long.

“The death went quietly, and with minimal resistance. You have fulfilled your part of the bargain.”

“If you don’t mind me asking, –“ something under the cowl said that the thing did mind, so Greg shifted gears – “when do I die?”

The creature nodded, slightly. “Your death will transpire in the Christian year 2069.”

“Okay.” The thing had fulfilled its part of the bargain too.
Greg didn’t know quite how to proceed. It would be mannerly to shake hands, but the Grim Reaper wasn’t exactly a Facebook contact. Uncharacteristically, he waited a second.

Seeing his body out of the corner of his eye gave it to him. “Say, how do I get back in there?” he asked with a motion towards his body. “The same way?”

“An act of will, yes.” Now uninterested, Death vanished.

Leaving a normally extrospective man with a fait bit to think over.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

The Big Scare

Mart Huffman could do nothing except freeze in his bed. The hulking figure over it was clearly Death.

Well over six feet, made invisible by a black robe, facial features hidden except for a bulbous nose, Death lacked the scythe and hourglass as far as Mart could see. Given who the creature was, it was reasonable for him to assume that his time was up.

More than he knew, Mart’s life was motivated by fear. He had once read that potatoes contained trace amounts of arsenic, which had led him to abjuring potatoes. A sore that healed slowly had made him wonder if he had had a cancer. Every time he had gotten sick, even as a child, he had assumed that he would be permanently sickly. When he got well, he was surprised.

He fit in well with the environmentalists, but was no more than a fellow traveler. He didn’t much care for their love of animals or of nature, and was put off by any misanthropic streak. Mart wasn’t a people-hater; he was an introvert. A clever one, who had enough time on his hands to nurse his pet fears.

Fear of death was the big one, of course. His grandmother had been a hypochondriac. Mart didn’t share her habit of talking about herself and her complaints, but there were other commonalities. The selling point of environmentalism, for him, was the enormous influence it claimed for human influence on the environment.

When told to get up, he shook his head mutely. As long as he stayed in bed, he assumed, things would not get worse.

“I am not here to claim you,” Death said in an echoing baritone that Mart pegged as menacing. “I require your assistance with a death.”

Surprised once again, Mart set his back to raising his torso upright. Once up, he remembered that he hadn’t moved the sheets or covers. The relief he felt dampened any conclusion about it.

Besides, the subject was acquiring a fascination. A death was involved, but not his. Once again, Mart’s fear went underground.

“So what do I have to do?”

Death answered smoothly, as if he had said his words many times before. “You will guide the spirit of the death to my hands. To do so, you must assuage all qualms and ensure that the death will pass without resistance or complaint. Should you do so, you will learn the year of your own death.”

Mart’s anxiety started with the first part and stayed through the rest. He wondered what he was being used for. Did Death eat them? Or send them off to torment? Was he expected to snow this person? Any of these outcomes were possible. One of them could happen: in Mart’s brain, this translated into “will happen.” He was too used to treating conditionals as facts.

However, curiosity won out over his qualms. His atheism was a help in assuaging them, burying the conditionals where the fears were buried.

“Sounds fine,” he answered while getting out of his bed.

He was now in a hospital bed, looking at a mess. He counted three patches on the upper body of his assignment, all with coagulated blood on them.

Death’s final instructions, not to mention his description of the deceased, had been easy to remember. Just call to the fellow, inform him that he was dead, assuage any fears he had, and get him ready for Death. Once done, Mart needed only to summon Death in his head. Then, it was over. Mart would get the information, and he could go back to sleep.

But that self-reassurance didn’t get him over the first hurdle. He had to tell someone that they were dead. Not being too comfortable with death himself, Mart didn’t really know how to proceed. After mulling a bit, he decided that the euphemisms beloved by the religious were the best tools to use.

“Uh, excuse me. I have something I have to tell you.”

For a moment, he saw the poor man’s spirit superimposed over his corpse – not for very long, because the fellow rose easily through the sheets from his hospital bed. He was about four inches taller than Mart, and was the same type he had shied away from when in school. He was a squarehead, all right, and had his hair clipped short. Unlike Mart, his features settled into a smile.

“Well, what are you here for?”

Feeling like an undertaker, Mart proceeded according to plan. “You’ve sort-of passed into the next life.” He had decided that it didn’t matter if the words were untrue, as that would be Death’s fault. Or someone else’s. “From what I’ve seen, you were shot. The bullets led to your demise,” he finished, controlling a reflex that kicked in when he thought of guns.

He got the surprise of his life when the fellow’s grin expanded. “I’m dead, am I? Funny; I thought the cigarettes would have gotten me.”

Cigarettes? Perplexed, Mart had to reply. “How could you take up such a filthy habit? They kill you. Everyone says so.”

Now, the guy’s teeth were showing. “As if it makes a difference now.” Following Mart’s eyes, he turned around; what he saw, wiped the grin off his face. At first startled, he became fascinated.

Mart wasn’t. The cigarette bugaboo, one of several for him, was eating at him. “I don’t understand why you people would smoke, given the problems it causes. You want to stay alive, don’t you?”

The taller fellow turned back towards him. “What I don’t understand is why people like you think that we have a duty to stay alive for as long as we can.” He sounded pensive.

Before Mart could say that it was obvious, the man continued. “Don’t you think it’s like those people who say we should all become rich? Think about it: if you’re loaded, you can buy more things.” He saw Mart reaching for some words, and his grin reappeared. “Please, humor me; I’m the dead guy.”

Looking around, he sunk his spirit-body into a visitor’s chair. It either held his weight or he was floating just above it. “It’s obvious that rich is better than poor in some way, but not that many people really want it enough to push themselves. Maybe they don’t want to be pushed by others, too.” His head tilted as his eye met Mart’s. “Do you see what I’m saying?”

“I hear you,” Mart answered cautiously. He was still standing beside the hospital bed, which now formed a partial barrier between he and his…client?

“Yeah,” he continued, “but wealth is one thing and life is another. Isn’t life all you got?”

“As far as I knew,” the taller fellow answered, looking over at his corpse. “I guess the hospital people knew I’d be dying; I don’t see any code-blue action. Wrong side of the triage,” he observed as his gaze shifted back to Mart. “Why don’t you sit down?”

Mart, had he been honest with himself, was unconsciously feeling words that he had heard but shrugged off. His fear was coming back, with an anxiety that was new to him. Had he been religious, he would have pegged this fellow as a potential blasphemer.

“Because there’s someone I’d like you to meet. He’s much taller than you – than us – and he’s a little scary, but he’s just here on a job.”

“Oh. You have an appointment?”

“Actually, you do,” Mart informed him. “The fellow I’m talking about is Death.”

“The Grim Reaper?” That got Mart’s charge looking perplexed, for a moment. Then he returned to his habitual self-confidence. “It fits, I can say that.

“You might as well bring him here. I’ve been ready to die for some time now.”

Death appeared right after Mart had made the summons. Without being prompted to, the fellow stood right up when he saw the hidden, taller figure. “Okay, I’m ready,” was all he said. As Death approached the man, Mart found himself back in his room.

He hadn’t reacted the same way when he saw his own body. It didn’t take much to imagine it in a coffin. Mart, forgetting which person had been the deceased, wondered how many people would come to visit him.

His pondering ended when he felt Death reappear. Seeing invisible eyes, he turned around.

“I have to say you were right about him. He really didn’t care whether he lived or died. I guess he was one of those sad sacks who wasn’t much interested in life.”

That remark got the creature’s invisible eyes boring into his. For some odd reason, the ever-present but mostly repressed fear didn’t appear. Instead, Mart felt a small point of fatalism in his chest.

But the thing didn’t yell; he merely said, “You have fulfilled your task and the transfer was expeditious. Thus, you have fulfilled your part of the bargain. You will die in the Christian year 2076.”

Mart felt his mouth open. That would make him alive until about eighty! How unlike that soul he had shepherded, who could not have been more than thirty-five. “Thank you,” he replied politely.

Then, he remembered. “How do I get back into my body?”

“Through a similar act of will,” Death told him, and vanished. Not realizing why, Mart felt a little abandoned.

To recover his composure, he went back to staring at his body. More than eighty years, living as he did. Eighty years of caution, care, watchfulness. Sixty-seven more years of taking it safe. He knew he wasn’t going to be rich, but he knew that he’d have a slightly longer than average life. Life that he guarded, carefully. Life that would be lived much like he had.

It could have been worse, he told himself. Life could have ended at seventy, sixty, even fifty. In a very real way, he was much luckier than the guy he had looked after. Mart wasn’t likely to get himself shot at, let alone die an awful death because of a bad habit. Surely, his was the fuller life?

That question posed, Mart performed that act of will and found himself floating down into his body; he hadn’t felt like climbing back in. Once secure, he escaped into sleep.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Beyond Price

I really don’t have time for this – the words shriveled in his mind.

Adam Cates really didn’t. Time was valuable, and he didn’t have much. Not after his responsibilities.

Whoever had said that the busiest person had the most time to spare wasn’t thinking of Adam; that was for sure. The money was piling in, but it afforded him no cushion. There was only one way the dollars came in, and that way involved time. If he didn’t devote the time, the dollars would stop flowing. That’s how he read the situation. He had moved to a head office several years ago, but he was still the same shopkeeper. The store’s gotta open; customers don’t wait.

He certainly had a gift. How many people thrived in an area dominated by superstores? He was a franchisee, not a fully independent owner, but he was a near-perfect match for the chain. After sweating ten years in one, he acquired enough knack to make two, then three, now seven franchises thrive. He had found the time to have two kids, but largely left them to the wife. Luckily, they were daughters.

As of now, all of them were enjoying themselves in a vacation home he had bought and hardly seen. He was alone when the figure had appeared in front of his king-sized bed. And then beside it.

He was too wearied to challenge it, or something akin to wearied. By habit, Adam shifted to treating whatever-it-was as a customer.

“So what brings you here?” he asked quietly.

He then heard this thing – cloaked in a dark robe that covered everything except for its nose – tell him that it was Death. He couldn’t make the connection, as he had missed out on a few things in life. It made a kind of sense, though, as a living human wouldn’t have gotten in this far. His security system was top-notch; he had seen to it.

Adam was fifty-three, and the hair was long gone from the top of his pate. If he were dead, it wouldn’t be that great a shock. He had already been to the funeral of one of his schoolmates – a hard-charger, like he was.

The thing continued, revealing that it wasn’t Adam himself that was kicking the bucket. Something it said made his orientation shift.

“So you want a deal?” Now his voice was louder, and sharper. “Why would I even do that – especially for some thing that doesn’t even knock and introduce himself?”

The terms came, which whetted his competitive streak. “No, that’s not good enough. The year’s too diffuse. There’s no way I’ll do it unless I know exactly.”

He heard some line about how the exact date would be useless because he’d take steps to avoid it. Whatever this thing was, he must have been a broker or professor in a previous life. Someone who thinks he knows business but doesn’t.

“Doesn’t bother me,” he answered confidently. “Maybe I want to push it back.”

He smiled, still in his bed, when the thing acquiesced. Another negotiation, completed. “Okay, I’ll do it. As long as it doesn’t take that long.”

After he had gotten up – and got a surprising glimpse of himself still sleeping before he was taken away – they arrived in an apartment. It was obviously one, with the standard doorless bedroom; he had looked behind again to check. Like so many others, she had died in her bed. A booklight was on, and she had died with a book. Enough light was given off for him to see bookshelves in her bedroom. It gave him a picture of what she was; she looked about eighty or so.

Death now spoke, in that deep rhymey voice of his. “This death used to be a woman who was intellectual. Commerce was a stranger to her; it passed beneath her notice. She consumed, but did not produce anything other than her writings. She has availed herself of the taxpayer while doing so.”

Unconsciously, Adam began shaking his head. Great – one of those people. It occurred to him that there was no penalty clause attached to the deal, but the observation drained away. Even if there were no formal penalty, you don’t get ahead by scoffing off. He had made a deal.

Since his mind had wandered, he asked for confirmation. “So all I have to do is get her ready to meet the great beyond. If I do that, you take her away, we go back, and I get back in my body. And I know when I’ll die.” The thing nodded.

A nod was as good as a signature. “And I get you back – how?”

Now his head was nodding. “Okay. I just call you in my head; fine. I’m ready to do it, and I can assure you that –“

With the “and,” Death was gone. Adam shrugged his eyebrows, and told himself that the thing was busy as he was. Which made sense, given how many people there were.

“Uh, excuse me.”

He now saw what he was sure Death had seen when he was roused. Now superimposed over her corpse, still lying peaceably in the bed, was a double image of the lady. This one’s mouth moved as she replied.

“I don’t know who you are. How did you get in?”

Adam hesitated, thinking of the best way to go, then went with: “I’m not really here, at least not physically.”

“Oh – I must be in a dream-state,” she answered. “I’ve never seen a strange man in my dreams, not in my own place. Maybe it’s something to do with – well, the state I’m in. I never really –“

Not quite meaning to, Adam cut in. “Actually, I should clear something up for you. You are, in fact, dead.”

The double image now showed perplexity. “Am I? Then why would I be seeing you? You look like a shopkeeper. Why would you be some kind of death-spirit?”

“By the way, I should tell you something: you can get up and move around if you like.”

She didn’t. “I’m still waiting for an answer.”

Yep, she was one of those. Probably a teacher in her spare time. “I’m an agent of that death-spirit. He was here just now, but had to go somewhere else. When you’re ready, he’ll show up and both of you will go to the afterlife.”

“Assuming that there is such a place.” She had gotten her hackle up, all right.

Best to drain it. “I should tell you that you were right about me. I do, in fact, own and operate seven hardware stores.”

“So I take it you’re doing this chore for a pecuniary motive.” There, in her tone, was what Death had mentioned.

“Miz, a large part of the world runs on incentives. Not just me, but lots of other people. I use ‘em myself all the time.”

“I have no doubt,” she disclosed with an indeterminate tone.

“Not to worry,” she continued, “you’ll get your pay-off.” It was then that her spirit-form rose out of her body. Her spirit-feet, unimpeded by the bedsheets, hit the floor quickly.

“Now hold on a minute,” he said edgily. “I appreciate the promptness, but I just wanted to ask you something. It’s the first time I’ve had to ask someone like you.

It didn’t quite come out right. “Where do you get your attitude from?”

She didn’t seem to take it that hard. A medium-sized woman, she neither bristled nor shrank. “I assume you mean, where I got my life path from.” Not waiting for confirmation, she continued.

“It came to me in a dream, when I was a girl. In this dream I was living with some friends near the waterfront. There were people there who passed us by, many quite well off. I wasn’t, nor were my friends who were there with me. None of the passers-by stayed; the only ones who did were my friends. The pavements where we were, were cracked; puddles formed in some of them. I don’t remember where we lived, but it was comparable.” Adam didn’t interpret, nor made notes while she continued. He just listened.

“I wandered off, towards the lake, perhaps to get away from everyone for a moment. While there, I saw the sun shimmering on the blue, blue water and swaths of silvery undulating plumes of sun on top. There was a spit in range, and the trees and the grass were highlighted with a kind of joy. It didn’t last long, but I had realized I had seen what no-one else would see. Not the people passing by, not those passing through. Not even my friends, as I was alone.

“I found that joy in reading. That is what made me what I am today.”

Adam didn’t say anything for a moment. Then, he confessed that he never remembered his dreams.

It had gone as expeditiously as she had promised. Within a minute, she was gone with Death. Adam found himself back in his own room. Rather than look at his own body, he waited by the other side of the bed.

As promised, Death arrived – right in front of him. Adam looked up as he reminded the creature that he had fulfilled his part of the bargain. Not very assertively, either.

The creature nodded. “Now it is time for you to learn the time of your death. It will come on May the twentieth, in the Christian year 2023, in mid-morning. 10:36.”

“Thank you,” Adam replied humbly. Then, prompted by his careful mind, he added: “Could you please tell me how to – well, get back in my body?” The jocularity he had planned to add vanished.

“You need only go to your resting place and descend back to where you were. A wish will suffice.”

Thinking of nothing else to say, Adam thanked Death again. After a blink, it was gone.

While following instructions, the old man reviewed what he had experienced. Mid-morning, May 20th, 2023 – the date had gone right into the steel trap. But, that woman. She was something that he had never really encountered before, nor really respected. He now wondered why. In retrospect, she hadn’t had that much of an attitude. No charmer, certainly, but she wasn’t abrasive; at most, candid. Matter-of fact.

He had never bumped into someone who had been galvanized by a dream of that sort, into choosing a path that wasn’t really – well, usual. Everyone had dreams, but the dreams he was familiar with were meant for the real world – plans in disguise.

Still, she had lived. She wasn’t soured up, so she must have done something right.

As he saw his own body, Adam implemented the final instruction. Lying down, he wished himself back into it. As sleep claimed him, he wondered how his family was doing…and whether or not he was too hands-on for where he was now. He could delegate a little more...

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Words Hurt

Tom Horner was a man who took words seriously. That’s why he couldn’t believe what he was hearing.

The figure who had woken him, assuming that he wasn’t embroiled in a dream, had offered him some sort of bargain. It was Death, or a prank concocted by someone who was pretty thorough. He didn’t much like punking, but felt obliged as a good sport to smile when others laughed about it. Tom easily conceded that it was harmless, but he couldn’t see how playful quasi-lying was admirable.

His room was neat, with little clutter. It had taken some forethought to keep it that way, which Tom didn’t mind expending. Nor did he mind a part of his life revolving around making the cleaning easy. The computer on his desk was the sole, lonely occupant of it. Any papers he had were neatly stored away. The file cabinet was his friend, as it made financial chores easy. In the almost infinitesimally small chance he was ever audited by the tax collectors, he would sail through it in a breeze. Tom had heard of people who paid a little more tax than was necessary, so as to have a “hook” if they themselves were ever audited, but that practice struck him as inefficient. Better to be neat than pay an extra, all-voluntary, tax on sloppiness.

The rest of his apartment was a similar study in neatness. He had sometimes wondered how his girlfriend would have fit in should they live together, but it was a non-issue right now. Forethought, like any valuable resource, had to be economized. Having a live-in, as of now, wasn’t a sufficiently high priority.

Besides, it wasn’t as if he were missing anything. His high-school confusion had been mirrored by hers. When they had first hit it off, they had ended up smiling over their same disjointedness. It turned out that the kind of girl he had mooned over was a near-ideal prom date for the kind of guy she had mooned over. The base of their bond was the mutual recognition that they’d both been a little silly when teenagers. She wasn’t exactly plain, but she had a knack of appearing so. She had a circle of friends, but she could come and go as she pleased. He found it easy to praise her for her inner individuality, but it didn’t come as easily as her praise for his inner integrity. She was one of those silver-ring girls, and he didn’t mind. Tom never knew that one of the techniques she had picked up was admiring a guy for a character trait that everyone took for granted. It took a bit of practice, for some, but it made the postponement of intercourse a much easier stream to navigate.

Tom had actually fallen asleep on his home-office couch, having put in a long after-hours spell. He wasn’t one of those people who put a computer in the bedroom; to him, it said nascently sloppy. He wasn’t that kind of workaholic.

He had already risen, and seen that Death had several inches on him. “You’d better confirm what you just said. If I help you with a newly-dead person, then you’ll tell me the year of my own demise.” It came out flatly.

Death nodded, his incongruously bulbous nose bobbing up and down. “It will be your task to shepherd the soul after his death. Many facing death do not accept it quietly, or complaisantly bend to their fate. They cause trouble. Your task will be to mollify such trouble so I can arrive and escort them to their death-place. In return, as I said before, you will learn the year of your own death.” And make things easier for him when my own time comes, Tom noted. Dream or no, it made sense.

He considered for a moment, in which it didn’t occur to him to renegotiate the year part. “Okay. I’ll do it.” Death seemed to know that he meant it.

He might not have, had he knew what he was in for. To put it bluntly, the room he was now in was a disaster. Death had accompanied him, and some kind of night-vision highlighted the fresh corpse in front of both of them. The bed-sheets were tumbled about in a way that invited the term “rat’s nest.” Although it didn’t look like a room in a boarding house, it might as well have been. Junk-food packages littered the place, congregated near the junk-pile desk that contained a computer somewhere. Tom’s girlfriend was somewhat Reubenesque, although not unhealthily so, but this fellow – whoever he was – took the cake. Most likely, he had taken a lot of cake. And chips, and choco bars, and a whole load of “else.” He seemed close to Tom’s parents’ age.

“This man is a professional spammer, specializing in the promotion of stocks that many deem worthless.” Tom felt his face harden. “It is beyond him to consider the effects his conduct had upon the innocent; he prefers to think of them as gullible. He uses legalisms when it suits him, when his momentary advantage finds them shielding, but has boundless contempt for the law.” Hearing Death’s elaboration now made his upper back tense up. It wasn’t going to be an easy job; that was for sure.

He turned to Death, tilting his prominently-jawed head up. “So what do I do?”

“Call him; his spirit will answer. When he is ready, call me. I can be summoned merely by a call in your mind. Make sure that he will offer no resistance beforehand.”

Tom nodded. It wasn’t going to be easy, but it was certainly straightforward.

“Get up, spamboy.” Tom got his response by seeing his equally-obese spirit form clamber out of his body.

“Sure, man, sure.” He was evidently immune to disdain. “What brings you here?”

Then he blinked, and seemed to remember something. “Hold it – how did you get here?”

Tom bit the bullet. “I’m here because you’re dead.”

“Bullcrap,” the man replied as he lumbered over. “You ain’t the Grim Reaper and I was feeling fine. Feeing fine, come to think of it. So why you bothering me?”

It was evident why the real thing had gone to outsourcing. Maybe his cadences didn’t impress that many, too. Tom doubted if this crook would be impressed at all. “Turn around; look at your bed.”

The rotund fellow did so, and saw it for himself. “Well. I really thought you were flinging it. Guess you weren’t.”

Point accepted, he turned around. It was as if he was flopping while vertical. “Can’t blame me for being skeptical. Everyone gulls everyone in this world.”

Tom was beginning to feel ill. Habitually, he turned to reason. “That’s not true. People who are honest are taken for granted, but they’re not ostracized. If you were right, they would be.” Maybe they’d be forbidden fruit, he wondered, but kept that thought to himself.

“You know what I mean,” came the irritable reply. “Those people don’t count. Every one of them thinks they’re important, but they’re just the pack mules.” The thought that his guide might be one of those “pack mules” either didn’t occur to him or didn’t bother him. The fellow’s sensitivity seemed insulated by his fat.

“I mean, look. I bummed around, but that’s because I couldn’t be bothered. Once I got my act in gear, it was easy to scam enough dough to get a down payment for this place. Or, I should say, enough ‘proof of income’ for a nice little dealie.

“And I haven’t been thrown out! Still makin’ the payments, as if nothing had happened. Talk about recession-proof!”

It was a good thing that he liked to gab, because Tom’s treasured words had utterly failed him. Here was a human being who thought that his fellow humans were put on Earth only to shoot money in his pocket. He made it even plainer that he didn’t care about anything involving ethics or morals. He even said to Tom, “Even you can make it in this racket, Mr. Bashful. Even a stick like you.”

Oddly, it was easy for Tom to remember the task he had agreed to. Some tough talk seemed worth a try. “Look, it’s over for you. You’re dead, you’ve seen it, and you might as well deal with it.” He resisted the temptation to use “go quietly” in his next sentence. “Things’ll go a lot easier if you go along with the Reaper.”

“Kid, there’s no such thing. You’re gulling me,” he said with an odd-to-place fat smile.

That gave Tom his opening. “Want to bet on it?”

The spammer cocked an interested eyebrow and replied, “what are the terms.” Despite his overall nihilism, he seemed to take those words seriously.

“You see Death, you go quietly. No gab, no talk, you get behind him and go.”

That got a half-toothed smile that was easier to place. On a six-year-old it would have looked cute. Tom was sure that this fellow still thought it was endearing. “Okay; I can do that.

“Now show him to me!”

Tom turned inwards to make the summons, and was rewarded with a presence that, though alien, was comforting in a way. Unlike this blob, Death meant what he said. By comparison, the Grim Reaper was trustworthy.

The spammer let out an oath, followed by “it is him.” Everything but the scythe and hourglass.

Tom raised both eyebrows, and the spammer nodded. “All right; you won this one.” He was a little shorter than Tom, and had to tilt up his head a little more. “Okay, Death. Take me away.” They both disappeared, and soon Tom had too.

He arrived back in his home office a moment before Death. Tom killed the time watching his own body, somewhat mesmerized.

He didn’t need to look around; he felt Death before eyesight confirmed.

“You have fulfilled your task; it went expeditiously. Before I tell you the year of your death, you must know how to rejoin your body. Use a similar act of will – wish it – and you will descend into life.” Tom felt its eyes on him, and he obediently nodded.

“You will meet your death in the Christian year 2073.”

“Thank you,” Tom replied. For more than just the information.

Death nodded, and vanished - leaving Tom to come to terms with what he had just experienced.

Whoever that fellow was, he was grotesque. Living in a one-room slum, wearing his body down with awful food, acting and even thinking like an animal – Tom could go on and on. He might, once he got back in his body. It proved to be as easy as Death had described.

Eyes opening, Tom saw the indeterminate image of the blank white wall. Whatever night vision he had, he had lost after his homecoming. His return confirmed, he again reviewed what he had seen.

That fellow – fat, disgustingly slobby, crooked, rapacious in his small-scale way. Chances are, he had forgotten he had owned a house. Too used to boarding houses and bumming around. And that smile, that –

An image struck him, and Tom suddenly burst into laughter. He spent the next ten minutes undulating on the couch, finding it impossible to stop.

When done, he got up to get to his bedroom. Before he left, he spent a moment fondling his neat desk.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Lest Chance

“You must be insane.” Dudley Gardner wasn’t buying it.

Why would he? An atheist since teenagerhood, he had been an easy sell for the idea that his religious peers were beneath him. It wasn’t quite his social status in school that did it, not quite. The popular kids didn’t show much sign of religious feeling, certainly not in the sexual department. The religious kids tended to be treated with disdain, although not contempt. A few of them had dropped out to homeschool.

So it wasn’t Dudley’s own relative lack of popularity, directly. He got a similar treatment from the popular, though he was categorized as something different. Highly intelligent, he blanched when “spaz” was used. So he got excited. Didn’t everyone?

All of his subsequent learnings cemented in this initial awakening. By his lights, this figure in front of him must be part of a gag.

“Then you reject the bargain.” The voice was cold, but the rhythm of it seemed familiar to Dudley. He had transitioned easily from learning to teaching. The growth of the homeschooling movement had lessened his reticence about displaying his own beliefs. After all, the public school was secular, and it was easy to homeschool nowadays. If religious nuts didn’t like it, then they could drop out. Their squawking was just the usual complaints about people who were made to pay their fair share, as specified by law. They were just in it for themselves. Why should the classroom suffer on account of them? They could have put up with secularism; why didn’t they? If they don’t, it was their choice.

The words, sunk in, made him hesitate in his bed. He knew of no-one who fit the physical description of this Death-caricature. He wasn’t threatened. Since he was lying in his bed, a single, he was probably asleep. Hence, he was dreaming. It might be good for his psychological health to let the dream proceed.

“No, I accept your bargain. I’ll see him through”

“It is a ‘she’,” the figure corrected. “Once you get up, we will go to her death place. Your task will be to prepare her for her death, to prepare her for me. I can be summoned by an act of your mind, which you will do when she is prepared. If she goes, promptly, you will then learn the year of your death.”

It was straightforward, for a dream. Dudley would go through the charade of ushering someone in to the mythical afterlife, after which his unconscious would tell him what it thought was the year of his death. It might even be a self-fulfilling prophesy. Then, he’d wake up and it’ll be over.

He “got up,” not even bothering to check behind him.

Dudley was expecting his unconscious to show him someone else. A religious nutcase? Why would he be charged with ushering in that kind of person?

That’s what she obviously was. Trinkets and paraphernalia, all Christian-themed, decorated her bedroom. The woman herself was middle-aged and obese. It wasn’t hard to guess that she had suffered a heart attack. Another one that thought her faith could protect her from the consequences of her behavior; that, Dudley was sure of. She was probably the kind that displaced her own irresponsibility onto recipients of government assistance.

Well, they were one up on her. At least they knew how to seek help and get it.

The voice of his dream-totem spoke. Dudley had been a little uncomfortable when they were both standing, as this thing had about nine inches on him. However, this being a dream, it didn’t matter. Although it was odd that his unconscious had put a bulbous nose on the figure’s otherwise-unseen face.

“This woman is a psychological dependent. Clutching to what she is convinced is the truth, she had consumed much time and effort – and money – on pursuing what she is convinced is a state where she is both Godly and good. As you have surmised, her death has come earlier than might be expected for someone in her actuarial category. She needs her God.”

Yep, that sealed it. That ‘Death’ figure was his unconscious speaking. Dudley could have said those same words himself.

“Call her; she will awake.” With that, the figure was gone.

In his teacher’s voice, one used for an unpromising student, he called to her. “Miss. It’s time for you to get up. You’re dead.”

She did wake up. Surprisingly, she smiled when he heard the news. “So my Maker has called. When do I see Him?” She followed with some quote from her favorite book.

Dudley decided to get the crap over with. “You won’t. I said you were dead.”

And on, and on, and on. She hadn’t listened to a thing he said. In their interminable ‘discussions’, she had revealed that she had had an abortion when a youth. Her regrets, mixed with fantasizing about what the fetus would have been like had it lived, had caused her to enter her delusion-world. All of the arguments proving that there was no God, no rational faith, nothing except a psychological crutch, went in her ears and seemingly in a black hole. Every time, he ran into the same obstinacy. She was dead, he was a spirit, hence God exists! Some of her ripostes were clever, he had to admit, especially the point about the length of time she had been dead. Had it just been an illusion on her part, she wouldn’t still be talking. She had laughed when he explained that she was only a figment in his dream. She had laughed at him!

So, he continued. Why shouldn’t he? These Christians were all pushovers, that was for sure. The ones that weren’t, were easily batted away with a well-chosen word. He had the advantage, from the get-go. Why shouldn’t he use it?

But she was obstinate. In addition, after rejecting his own reasoning, she had the temerity to proselytize to him! Dudley wasn’t going to give up; that was for sure.

So on, and on, and on, it went. It seemed like days before he finally tired out. Seemed like them; neither had gotten hungry. Not even her with her padding.

Reduced to what he was sure were weasel words, he said that she would meet what she considered to be her Maker after her trial. Self-satisfied, she stood and waited. Now taken out of argument mode, he paused for a little reflection. This dream had been realistic, unusually so. While he and she were arguing, her corpse had been discovered and even mourned over. He had attached no significance to people missing her. They were like her; that was all he knew.

When she saw the Death figure, her mouth opened and a short prayer escaped from it. She said something about the angel Gabriel. Not that it mattered.

The next place he saw was a hospital. Wondering why he was there, he looked around and saw a figure that seemed dead. A nurse was checking the instrumentation beside the bed. Strong jaw, somewhat triangular face, medium height, his hair color, his haircut –

Oh, dear G- It finally occurred to Dudley that he was looking at himself.

The Death figure was now beside him. “This place is where your body has been moved to while your spirit has been occupied by your own choice and actions. When I have revealed to you the year of your death, as you have fulfilled your bargain, you will descend into your body and resume life.”

Dudley remained silent. Normally agile in the verbal department, he was lost for words.

“Your death will take place in the Christian year 2061.” Which would make him about eighty.

Glad it was over, Dudley confronted the figure of his imagination. “Well, I certainly earned it.” For some reason, he could now feel the eyes of this thing. “How’s about getting me awake?”

It was too fast to see the thing’s hands. Whatever it was, it had grabbed Dudley bodily and was conveying him to the hospital bed. The last thing he remembered, before waking up there, was a falling feeling when the creature let go. The first thing he said, when awakened, was: “What is this? I’ve got rights.”

And the first thing he heard was from the nurse. “Oh, you can be assured that they’ve been all respected. You’ve been in a coma for the past three days.”

Dudley was in no mood, particularly about her tone. It was the same one her colleagues used on the unruly. Seeing a little gold crucifix hanging from her neck helped set him off.

“Another believer, is it? You people have a vested interest in suffering! I want out of here.”

His words left her unaffected. “Well, I’ll just go mosey over to the doctor and he and you can have a little chat about it.”

“I happen to be a teacher of science, “ he belted back. “You have no right to patronize me! Get the doctor in here – now!

“O-kay,” she replied with her smile unbroken, “he’ll be along in a jiff!” With that, she exited, her head tilted up slightly.

And was soon replaced by a group of three, all with goopy smiles. “Glad to see you’re okay!” one of them said. “We’ve been visiting you here, all volunteers and glad to be so, and we’ve been praying for you every step of the way!...”

Sunday, October 11, 2009

The Big Score

Frank Dainard didn’t quite know how he had gotten into the lifestyle. Nor did he care, when it came down to everything except the crunch.

His profession was theft, a career choice that had become more challenging as of late. The easy targets all had security systems. Consequently, he needed ruses. Now, the easy pickings were the absent-minded: prof types. After his apprenticeship, which did include a couple of extended vacations in Club Fed, he figured out how to spot the easy marks. Trusting, with a lousy visual memory. The kinds who were delighted to learn that their recent purchases included a “service contract” which, Frank was good at intimating, was part of the warranty. No bothering the homeowner with this ‘service’! No messing around in a private home; no. The item in question went straight to the shop.

And, after its spell in the shop, it went to the owner. The new owner, courtesy of one of several fences.

The idiots who trusted their reputable security firms couldn’t even remember him, except for a few features. It was easy, but Frank had enough forethought to see it becoming hard. He had already become accomplished at the conventional tools of disguise: his favorite was the false distinguishing feature. Why remember a fellow as 5’ 11”, brown hair and eyes, roundish face, somewhat cynical smile, when a stylish tattoo was a dead giveaway? On and off, and that’s all they remembered. Thankfully, his age-peers were raffish enough for him to stick out but not in an immediately suspicious way. The marks didn’t see him as a miscreant until long after he got away. Tats, Frank had decided, were better than hair – too close to the face. They were also easier to remove, with the exception of wigs.

Still, despite his caution and foresight, he knew that the perfect scam was two steps from being blown. It was only a matter of time before the cops would be knocking at his door. Frank recognized the value of co-operation. He wasn’t the only one to work this scam; he had made sure of it. The fences, and the shadowy figures above them, saw him as a bright boy when he had the idea of chivvying guys who looked like him into the same schtick. Likely to confuse one with the other, it was a four-fifths chance that the fellow nabbed would have an alibi. Part of the plan, of course, was to be in a public place when off the job. An alibi, carefully deployed, would get the do-gooders howling about “persecuting the poor” and the heat directed the other way. Despite his cunning, Frank was fatalist enough to know his moment would run out. That’s why he was angling for a job as a fence’s assistant. No better way to go “behind the camera” (Frank liked to think about it that way) and get into the same old industry in a less legally perilous role. Once laundered, he could open up his own fence shop and even go legit some day. A small businessman, with nothing to hide except his past. Although unknowing of his plan, Frank’s caseworker had pegged him as one of the reformable ones. He kept trying to find work, and was rather assiduous about it. Even to the point of asking his applications be time-stamped…

He wasn’t the tallest nail in the bag, that he knew, but the hulking figure in front of him was bigger than he had seen anyone. Whoever this creep was, he was big. At least six inches on him.

Still, that didn’t matter. No-one busts into Frank’s home without looking for a fight!

“Hey! What do you think you’re –“

What stopped Frank cold – chilled cold – was the full sight of the creature. A black hoodie, out of which an oddly bulbous nose protruded. The hoodie extended down to the feet. The thing had eyes, but Frank could only feel them. He decided that he didn’t want to see any more.

Now, the thing replied. “I am Death. All who die come to me; all who die pass through my gate.”

“You mean I’m dead?” Frank’s voice now highed up, like it did when he was arrested for the first time. Cripes, that was sudden, his inner voice told him.

"No, you are not. I am visiting you because I require your assistance with a death. Should you agree, then fulfill your responsibility, you will learn the year of your death.”

The incongruousness of the Grim Reaper offering him a deal got some of Frank’s wits back. “You telling me you want to deal? What’s the catch here?” One thing Frank was not, was like his victims.

“What you’re offering me is pretty powerful. Why do I rate it? What’s the real in the deal here?”

The creature replied smoothly. “You were selected largely at random.” So it’s like a lottery or something, Frank filled in. “My power is not unlimited. As the human race has grown in number, the number of simulacrums I can muster has been exhausted. I need human help, and my knowledge of fate grants me the wherewithal to bargain.” That, in a tone suggesting the thing wasn’t exactly accustomed to the wheely dealie.

Anyways, Death’s motive was clear. In return for shouldering his load, Frank would get something. He’d find out when he’d die. But why not –

“Can’t I get the day?”

“You can, but I must warn you. If you learn the day of your death, then you will take steps to avoid it; I have found that the measures you will take will render the information you receive useless.”

Useless? Dodging death? This guy must be Death; I don’t know anyone who would be so damn cold about it. Useless? A get-out-of-death-free card? This guy was so lost, Frank was now tempted to mark him down as a potential victim.

That temptation vanished when Death’s unseen eyes lingered on his. With stomach filling with bile, Frank now knew that Death was not someone you dicked around with.

The high voice came back. “Can I get the time?” The creature nodded. This deal was going easy, in a way, but…

They were now in an execution chamber. Frank’s eyes bulged as he saw the writhing body of someone who might have been one of his “clubmates.” He had to remind himself of his instructions: call to the guy when he’s finished; talk him into going co-operatively; summon the Reaper when everything’s cool. Then, collect. It was actually easier than a boost.

Still, if it was easy… Frank, looking around, now saw that Death was gone. He was alone with the convict, who was now dead.

“Hey…fella? You with me?”

Frank still had enough presence of mind to feel woozy when seeing a second body stand up from the dead one. It was the same guy, who seemed delighted.

“Well, look at that! I done cheated death!”

“Actually,” Frank explained, “you sort-of didn’t. You came up from your own body just now. You are dead.”

“It don’t feel like I am,” the convict replied, with his tone adding that’s enough for me. Then he smiled, to himself. “If the guy I torched went through this too, then I guess it’s all right. Both ways. He lives, I live, only in another plane."

The implications, though, got his brow furrowing. It became clear that this fellow was worried about a rematch.

“He done killed my deal, you see, and that’s why I killed him,” the convict continued. “He’s gonna be walking all over me again, here, and that means I gotta take steps.

“Can you die again here? You know that?”

Frank shook his head. “Don’t know a thing. All I know is I gotta prep you for the death walk.”

The convict grinned a little. “Shouldn’t be that hard, ‘cos I’ve done the death walk now.” Two prison guards and what appeared to be an orderly had come in to the execution room, and the convict turned around. “My! That’s me. That’s really me there.”

But not for long. The body was ushered out, with his spirit and Frank’s remaining in the room of execution.

The rest of it went smoothly. Frank had no way of knowing it, but his assignment was a relatively easy one. The fellow went quietly; Frank had sped it along by intimating that he would set things right once Death escorted him to wherever. That got him moving.

Death’s words came back to him when Death did, and they were both back in his place. All that thing had seen was a convicted murderer, born to die in an aura of moral squalor. Frank wasn’t any way close to that fellow, he was sure of it, but he still nodded off when he heard that cop crap. Maybe Death was a cop. There was no way of knowing.

If he was, he’d better be an honest one. Frank didn’t know how to get revenge on the thing, but he’d sure try if he was stiffed. Damn right he would.

“Okay,” he barked, “it’s time to cough up. When’m I gonna die?”

The thing spent some time looking down on him, but Frank felt the fear that meant action. He was afraid, but he wasn’t scared. No way he’d freeze if Death screwed him over.

Finally, the thing spoke. “I can inform you that the time of your death will be ten minutes hence.”

That got two expletives out of Frank’s mouth. Ten minutes!? What kind of cheat –

He had to admit, though, that it wasn’t a cheat on Death’s end. The creature had fulfilled his part of the bargain. It wasn’t in Frank’s moral compass to thank the creature for the early warning.

“Well, I guess it’s so long.” Since the creature didn’t seem accommodating, he added “I shouldn’t keep you because you’re busy.” That got rid of him.

Now, Frank was what he preferred to be: alone. If he was going to be offed in ten minutes, he’d better be. Fishing out his gun gave him the time to locate the probable suspect. He knew where Joey was, and also knew it was about ten minutes’ drive there. It had to be Joey, even if Frank couldn’t figure out how the fellow had screwed him.

Still he would find out – hold on.

Try to be smart about it, Frank instructed himself. If he went over, he might as well have invited himself to his own death. All he had to do was stay holed up, in his room, and wait it out.

The ten creeping, dragging minutes had almost gone when he heard a knock on the door. Frank suddenly realized that he had done wrong to hold up. Joey – or whoever it was; it could be anybody now – had come to him! So he had to fight for his life, in his home.

A couple of quick shots at the door – that would drive whoever it was away. Frank felt the familiar recoil as the bullets flew at the door. F--- the landlord; I’ll be safer in jail. That was action.

The reaction was equally swift. Frank’s face went bloodless when he saw who he had shot at. Badges –

He couldn’t stop his gun hand going up again, he was so shocked. The first bullet tore through his chest, jerking him back; a couple more brought it to an end.

He didn’t look at the presence that called to him: some kind of a girl. He looked down at his body instead. Soon, what was left of him would be part of a crime scene. Or so he hoped.

“Yeah; I know I’m dead,” he said flatly to her. She looked bookwormish, and kind-of distant. Frank didn’t catch why; the words of Death during his own stint were gone from him.

What he did remember was how he had treated the apparition before it had blown away. S---; I’d better drag this out!...

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Long Shot

“I don’t take long shots.” Arthur Pearce meant it.

Doing so would fail the clients. Like others in his profession, Arthur was well aware that it wasn’t his money that was at stake. He was in a position of trust. People came along, knowing little or nothing about how to pick stocks. They counted on Arthur and his likesakes to find ones that would make money without wrecking their futures in the process. For his own money, he could take a little more risk. His knowledge base was far more thorough; more importantly, he could control his own outcome every step of the way. If he flopped on his own account, he would know why and how. He could have chosen differently at the time, and there was no moment that his own money was out of his supervision. None of these options were available to the person who entrusted Arthur, his colleagues, and his firm with their own money. So, he had to observe a higher standard – a more rigorous methodology - when providing his services to others.

It was bad enough to see a company’s prospects melt away for no anticipable reason. Although frustrating, it did happen from time to time; the future was always uncertain.

A company tanking because of a knowable blot in its financials was another matter. How could someone paid to analyze companies miss the obvious? Wasn’t that a clear case of delinquency?

As Arthur’s experience grew, though, he had become inured to the fact that there were potential blots in most of them. At bottom, the valuation techniques he and his colleagues used combined fact finding, slight pessimism and assumptions of normalcy. He trusted that they would usually work out. They did in many cases, but there was the occasional blotch that a nettled client could point to as evidence that none of them knew what they were doing. Arthur was no stockbroker; he neither knew nor cared to know how to mollify an angry client. All he aimed to do was to make sure the clients didn’t have reason to get vexed. Good service: that was the best anger management tool.

However, the combination of less-than-ideal companies, some picks that went wrong for reasons evident only in retrospect, with both capstoned by recurrent disaster stories, changed him subtly. He found himself getting extra warm when a stock he found and recommended was picked up by his colleagues at other firms.

Like many professionals, he worked in his sleep. The question that concerned Arthur’s idled brain was a permanent domicile. He and his partner already had enough for a down payment, even with the more restrictive credit rules now in place. They could move into a starter home or a modest condo. On the other hand, the market was still hot and so was his hand. Arthur knew he couldn’t time the market, but he also knew that the opportunity cost of buying a home was higher than in the recent past. The housing market was wrecked, with bargains aplenty. Inventories, including foreclosures, were clogged enough to –

His upper body leapt up, knowing that there was a third party in the room. His apartment building rated a concierge/security professional, so an intruder was well outside the course of his events. Checking over, he saw Lana’s body still semi-curled in sleep. He might have been –

Now, he saw. There was an intruder, but one that didn’t fit any category of threat. A huge, hulking figure whose body parts weren’t visible – not even the face. Its robe was either invisible or black. A hood covered his…its head, except for an oddly bulbous nose. Not wanting to be precipitous, Arthur paused. He had not long to wait.

“I am here to ask your assistance with a death.” That was all, from a voice that was pretty authoritative. Deep baritone.

Levity might not hurt. “I take it you’re not a funeral director.” His own voice didn’t waver, but sounded as if it had.

The creature didn’t reply further. Arthur saw its hands emerge from its robe – bloodless and withered – and move to its hood. The head seemed a skull, and the face seemed all eyes. Eyes, containing unquenchable anger, which moved normally. Arthur’s sense of advantage vanished, replaced by something more than fear. His body was possessed by an itchy compulsion to move while being drained of the strength to do so.

“I am Death.” Lana hadn’t moved at all, but Arthur was too possessed to ask if he was having a nightmare. “Get up.”

Largely grateful for the opportunity, Arthur did so. His girlfriend not reacting didn’t surprise or both him. For all intents and purposes, it was he and this creature. Whatever it was.

Whatever it was, it had about eight inches on old Arthur. His twitching was still impelling, so he paced around a little, feeling weak while doing so. The creature, thankfully now re-covered, didn’t seem to mind.

Then, the significance hit him. “Am I – uh, dead?”

“As I said before, I need your assistance with a death. Your own time is not yet. However, if you choose to do so, you will learn the year of your death.”

A bargain. A real bargain…

Now oddly calm, Arthur weighed it over. It was valuable information. If he was destined to die at seventy, there was little reason for filling up a retirement plan except for tax advantages. His money would better be put into life insurance, seeing as how he’d win the bet with the insurance company. There was also the option of living a little better, and investing more in his future kids.

On the other hand, if his time was due at ninety, he’d best be stuffing as much money as he could in his plan. He could also take risks with his money even when retired. Arthur began to see, as his sense slowly recovered, that he was being handed one of the most valuable unknowns in financial planning. But what about –

“Sir? Might I ask, does this knowledge cover only me?” Death, after an imperceptible pause, nodded.

That confirmation meant that a crucial part of the equation – Lana – was out of the picture. Now, the offer didn’t seem like such a miracle.

Still, one was half of two. “Okay, I’ll help you out.” It might have been shock, but Arthur was now businesslike. That enervating urge to move around was gone.

The room they were in now came close to being the conceptual opposite of Arthur’s place. He noticed that he now had night vision, enhanced by a small desk light near what was obviously a corpse. The room was slovenly, and probably stank. There was some sort of painting, or print, on an easel far away from the bed. A computer was on the clothes chest beside the bed, with no chair beside it. Whoever this fellow was, poverty was his friend. A close look at the corpse showed a purplish tinge, along with a spilled bottle which had dripped liquid on the bedsheet and the body. The fellow seemed about his age.

Death intervened. “Your task is to prepare this soul to accompany me. In order to win the year of your death, he must be ready and his exit must be expeditious. You may summon me in your mind once you and he are ready.” So there was no time limit, Arthur added to himself. Sounded straightforward.

When Death vanished, Arthur changed his estimate. It was actually going to be easy. Whoever this fellow was, he might as well have been a suicide. Not that he had much to live for. This room had to be part of a welfare motel, and Arthur didn’t see anything consistent with hope or progress. The fellow might as well have been waiting to die. He also might be older than Arthur had estimated.

“Time to get up,” he announced. That would anchor in a smooth transition.

The fellow’s spirit moved up from his comatose body, looking like he had awoken from sleep. After muttering something, he looked over at Arthur evaluatively.

“Who are you?” Some of the mutter was still there. “And why am I – normal?”

Briskness was still indicated. “I’m Arthur, and you’re now dead.”

Surprisingly, the long-haired fellow grinned. “Hey! Dead, am I? Wow!” Standing up, he was slightly shorter than his guide. Wavy hair, dark, bunched and probably not washed. Brown eyes, with a look that suggested he didn’t know what was going on given the circumstances. Arthur told himself that, like many another job, this one looked easier than it was going to be.

He looked over at the print. “I can use this, that’s for sure. Smack really worked.”

So that was it, Arthur noted with a hostile curdling in his stomach. A heroin addict, overdosed. “You’d better look back at the bed,” he continued politely.

The kid did, and saw what Arthur had seen. And froze for several seconds.

It took most of those for Arthur to realize it wasn’t shock or self-mourning. The fellow began to look like he was about to take a photograph of himself.

“So that’s it,” he wondered. “They must have been right about the booze.” He continued to look, his head moving systematically over the scene of his own passing.

An irritation began to show in Arthur’s voice. “Planning to paint a picture?”

“Could you freeze it, please.” The tone that wrapped the words was oddly inappropriate, as the fellow didn’t seem to have heard the note of sarcasm. “You’ve already been through it; I haven’t.”

“Pal, I’m alive here. I don’t really have the time that you do.”

“You are?” the fellow replied abstractedly. “Then how could you be here with me? We’re either both alive or both dead. There’s no half-way house…”

All right, the hup-to approach isn’t moving the process. Time for another approach, even if the obvious one was making that same feeling creep up in Arthur’s stomach.

The bonhomie was, of course, artificial. “So, what do you see in heroin that’s to your benefit?”

“It helps me create.”

The creepiness was back. Whoever this guy was, he didn’t stick to an excuse. Oh no, he had to elaborate upon it. Arthur was soon hearing a blended mix of digital-artwork expertise and junkie apologetics. Yeah, right. We all need an edge…. Oh my, the art-looking public is just too demanding for artistes that stay clean…. Oh yes, the junk has nothing to do with it. Su-u-u-re….

Still, this waif fellow did seem to know what he was talking about. And, Arthur had to admit, there wasn’t any of the self-justifying crap that artistes normally use. No talk about a special mission, or the iniquities of whatever. The guy was talking about what he had done.

“You’re not listening, are you.” The guy smiled, probably to himself. “Not that it matters now.”

Arthur sighed. He had a job to do, and it was getting along. “At least you know. Now, as to the matter of what happens next… “

The junkie guy didn’t pick up on it at first. Then, “I guess you want to get out of here. Okay, do whatever.”

Death appeared momentarily. The artist guy looked up at him in the same way he had looked at his own corpse. Evaluatively. The only words he said to the apparition were, “yeah. I’m ready.” With that, they were gone; Arthur was left alone in the place for a moment.

Lana was still sleeping; that was the first thing he had checked when he was whisked back. So was he.

He didn’t need to check on the hulking presence that was now behind him. “It is done,” the same voice said with the same authority behind it. The austere authority of the Grim Reaper, the spirit who saw everyone once their time was through.

Arthur didn’t turn around at first. “So how’d it go,” he asked quietly.

“It went the way that it should.” That was all; no details. Arthur turned around, and his eyes met the top of Death’s neck. “You have fulfilled your part of the bargain.”

Now it was payment time. “Your own death will take place fifty-one years hence.”

Eighty-two. Now, Arthur could adjust his financial plan to fit. For having to put up with a junkie, it was a huge return. There was nothing to say but, “Thanks. I appreciate it.” With that acknowledgement, Death was gone.

And left Arthur to reflect over what he had seen. The guy he ushered was an artist; that was for sure. At least, he had been. He seemed to know what he was doing, despite the heroin habit. Poison; he had poisoned himself. He seemed to know it, too. Come to think of it, he hadn’t really been whiny either. From what Arthur recalled, that artist hadn’t been all that self-justifying.

Oddly, an earworm intruded in his thoughts from some old movie he had seen some time ago. Some old martinet, a real gargoyle of a fellow, bellowing about how he resented people questioning him about his career. Something about his methods.

It didn’t fit, as that artist had been a hippie type. Still…

Arthur wasn’t anti-art, not by any means. He and Lana had even gone shopping for a picture or two to brighten the place up. They hadn’t seen the artists, of course, but few people did; that’s what galleries were for. He was just anti-drug. Had he heard that one of his colleagues was doing the lines, he wouldn’t have been – well, brusque – but he would be distancing himself; that was for sure. His nose felt puerile even thinking about cocaine.

He didn’t know what they did to come up with what they came up with. It wasn’t his place to. They produced the product in the studio, the gallery moved it, and people like Arthur bought it. That was the supply chain, and there was no need to interfere with it.

Still, Arthur thought while wondering how to get back in his body, it would have been nice to have gotten the guy’s name.