- and the -
Bank of Limbo
The Limbo presidential elections were in full swing and the current president, Death, was set to win yet again. The closest rival was known to only a tenth of one percent of the voters. He had only put his name forward on a dare, never realising that once registered he was legally expected to do his best to win. Death clobbered him in every speech, leaving the unfortunate candidate shaken, queasy, and rethinking the choices that caused him such untold public humiliation. The poor guy tried to withdraw his name on every occasion but Death insisted the public was entitled to a fair election. After all, Death couldn’t run unopposed so soon after defeating a near overthrowing of his government.
The revolution on everyone’s mind had been a narrow miss for Death and had plunged the entire realm of Limbo into chaos. The people were beginning to wonder if the pressures of the job had finally gotten the better of their president. Even more disturbing was his blatant misuse of power, where he managed to kill Kingston Raine, a fictional character, and bring him into Limbo. Such things were supposed to be impossible and still it baffled Death on how he made it happen.
Worse still, Kingston promptly escaped from reality and led the bounty hunters of Limbo on a chase through Fiction. He blundered his way through Macbeth, joined forces with Little John before Robin Hood had a chance to save Sherwood Forest, was chased through Dracula and Don Quixote by forces from the afterlife, and helped to overthrow the Limbo revolution by trapping the usurping leader in Dante’s Inferno.
As a result of the whole fiasco, Death was eager to maintain some sense of order or he risked the realm and his company, Death Inc., falling into chaos once again. Unfortunately, bringing such order back into being meant that Death was forever swamped with reports and status updates, queries and suggestions, inquiries and investigations, and a long list of escaped revolutionaries who were no doubt plotting a second coup d’etat.
Michelle, his secretary, knocked on the office door and found her boss slumped over his desk with his forehead resting on top of a carefully worded and badly smudged election speech. “Sir?”
“Go … away,” mumbled Death, without looking up.
Michelle gave her boss a sympathetic smile and lowered her voice. “You have a meeting with The Chronicle in ten minutes and the reporter is already here. You need your game face on.”
“We’re going to postpone the election,” mumbled Death.
“Of course,” said Michelle. “But first I’ll show the reporter in and you can explain your lack of enthusiasm.”
Death lifted his head off his desk and stared at his secretary. She was avoiding saying the reporter’s name, which was not a good sign. Death squinted in suspicion. “It’s not Lomac Simpson, is it?”
Michelle grimaced. “Kevin Van Heuten.”
Death twitched involuntarily and groaned. “Give me a minute.”
Michelle closed the office door. Death stood and flexed his arms, rubbed his face, then did his best to get his mind whirring back into action. He slipped on his pin stripe jacket and fixed his tie, then ran a hand over his smooth, bald head. He was barrel chested and looked like a man in his late thirties from an unknown mixed heritage. He could change his appearance at will to look and sound like anyone who had ever lived or died, but he preferred this look because it was low maintenance and he didn’t like shopping for a whole new wardrobe whenever he changed his physique.
Death headed towards the solid oak doors and stared through them, shifting his focus so he could see the bloated man sitting near Michelle. Death groaned at the thought of meeting Van Heuten and had specifically requested Lomac Simpson. He now realised that was a stupid move, since Simpson was known to be a lot more agreeable during an interview and Van Heuten only wrote to a pre-determined agenda. Death had ignored Van Heuten for weeks. Instead of getting it out of the way it had built to point where he may have to play nice to the shallowest reporter in the realm.
Death waited until he saw Van Heuten fidget with the wait. The reporter was dressed in a faded cream shirt that was far too old to still be considered respectable. There were yellowed patches under his arm pits and even his knee length socks were mismatched. One was navy blue the other was dark green. Death saw Van Heuten wrestle with scratching his nose or leaving it alone. Then came the perfect moment. Van Heuten had his finger up one nostril and Death swung open the door.
“Kevin. Please come in.”
Van Heuten dropped his hand quickly to his lap and knew he had been caught. He stood, tried to smile at Michelle, but she gave him a disgusted look and held out a box of tissues. Van Heuten paused, realising the trap, and he did his best to shake it off. “No need. It was only my eye.”
Death waited by the door and Van Heuten walked in. The reporter was again surprised by the lavish office Death had for himself and he wished his apartment above the newspaper was this big. At the far end of the rectangular room was Death’s desk, supporting what looked like a metric tonne of paper work. There was a tall leather chair facing two seats opposite the desk. The walls were lined with volumes of books from the floor to the ceiling. Near to the front door was an L-shape sofa which Death waved Van Heuten to. Next door was the boardroom of Death Inc., most recently the site of the negotiations between the competing unions and lawyers, which had been the foothold in trying to overthrow Death’s rule.
“Thank you for seeing me,” said Van Heuten, as he took his seat on the plush brown sofa. “As you know The Chronicle is one of the leading newspapers in Limbo and our readership has been steadily increasing over the years.”
“Tick tock, Kevin,” said Death, unbuttoning his jacket while taking a seat.
Van Heuten allowed himself a quick smile, relishing the moment of not being liked at all and yet influential enough that Death had to put up with him. He carried with him a thick clipboard stuffed with stapled pages and a dictaphone.
“That won’t work in here,” said Death, eyeing the small device.
“I remember,” said Van Heuten. He pocketed the small machine. “Like old times, then? Speed writing with a pen and paper.” He laid his notes on the coffee table and knew Death was reading over them from where he sat. “Ooo, was there a coffee on offer?”
“I don’t think so,” grunted Death.
“Oh. It’s just I saw Michelle coming back with a fresh espresso.”
“Then that would be for her.”
“Ah,” said Van Heuten. He continued shuffling his pages around and paused at one of the bundles. He wanted to catch Death looking surprised or outraged, but he was met with a perfect poker face as Death stared his opponent down.
“Go ahead and tell me about it,” said Death.
“Oh, you mean the report from the financial sector?” asked Van Heuten, feigning surprise.
Death held his stare on the balding reporter and broke the silence by repeating himself. “Go ahead and tell me about it.”
Van Heuten tried to regain his nerves, which had failed him just seconds before when he remembered that he was speaking to the most powerful creature in the entire realm. He flashed back to every conversation starter he had prepared along the walk from his office, yet Death had jumped ahead, causing him to stumble over his words. “I uh, have a report from the financial sector,” said Van Heuten.
Death stared blankly at the reporter. “You don’t say.”
Van Heuten handed it across. Death flicked through the sheets and read over each page in under a second. Van Heuten clicked the top of his pen and held it over his writing pad. “As you can see, something weird has been happening with the Bank of Limbo.”
Death pretended to read through the pages slowly, allowing Van Heuten to feel the awkwardness of the moment.
“You haven’t asked me a question.”
Van Heuten read over the top line of his notes. “There have been a number of excessively large loans withdrawn from the bank in recent years. A lot of them happen whenever a high profile recently departed arrived in Limbo. If I had to guess I would say someone on behalf of the bank is trying to bribe the sorters into giving the rich and famous a better deal in Hell.”
Death shook his head. “I am not the general master of the bank. I don’t know the ins and outs of everyday accounting practises.”
“Well, what about the rich and famous being treated to a better deal than the rest of us mere mortals?”
“I’m sure if you did your research you would find that even a saint and sinner are treated equally in Limbo. When they get to Hell they can choose to do whatever they like.”
Van Heuten flicked the page over, then smiled to himself. He knew this one would make Death squirm. “Three days ago the body of a recently departed was found flayed and dead in Limbo, when he had been sent off to Hell six days before that. Do you know who allowed him back into Limbo?”
“No, I do not,” said Death, rolling his eyes back to the reporter.
“It seems to be the first time anyone has been found dead within Limbo. What steps are being done to investigate and apprehend the persons responsible?”
“As something of a professional you should know that I am unable to disclose details of an ongoing investigation.”
Van Heuten leaned back into the sofa and relished the momentary insult. “Then perhaps you can tell me what steps are being done to keep the public safe and informed.”
“The public has no need to be worried,” said Death, falling back into a well rehearsed speech. “This was an isolated instance-”
“Some are suggesting the murder is a consequence of the revolutionaries that are still at large.”
“Yes, I’ve heard of your suggestions, Kevin, and I do read your dribble. It’s poorly written, lacking in grammar, and reads more like a whiny blog than actual journalism. Whatever revolutionaries are still at large will be caught and given a fair trial.”
Van Heuten scribbled the last sentence down in his pad. “Some even say that Kingston Raine is behind the murder, as per orders of a secret government movement to silence anyone outspoken.”
Death sighed and shook his head. “Kevin, your readers are smart enough to realise that a man who arrived in Limbo nine days ago had nothing to do with Kingston Raine, who was last in Limbo thirty three days ago. The flayed gentleman certainly did not have anything to do with an illegal uprising that was foiled also thirty three days ago, since he was most certainly alive at the time and definitely not in Limbo.”
Van Heuten glanced to the next topic on his list. “You have an election coming up.
“Yes and I look forward to seeing your fair and yet slightly biased take on my winning.”
“Some have noted that your closest opponent, Manuel Hands, has been offered a performance coach from this very office.”
“If you’re going to have someone run for president, it’s nice if they can speak coherently and not look like a deer in headlights.”
“Perhaps the public want a deer in headlights,” said Van Heuten, scribbling furiously.
“Then by all means you can find a deer and scare the poor thing half to death with all the headlights in Limbo, but it would be ineligible to run since it’s a deer.”
“Deers aren’t all that common in Limbo,” said Van Heuten.
“The plural is deer, and I’d go so far as to say there has never been a single one at any time in Limbo. A couple of cats, a few dogs, but those are random occurrences.”
“Random occurrences, like someone being flayed?”
“Exactly,” said Death. “I’m sure the poor gentleman was flayed in Hell and his body was left here in some sort of transportation mishap. I have a meeting with the Satan office soon so maybe he can clarify a few standing issues.”
“The gentleman was actually quite rich,” piped Van Heuten.
Death cocked his head to one side and leaned forward. “And?”
“Well, you said he was a poor gentleman, but he was a billionaire in Life.”
Death rolled his eyes. “Yes, the sort of billionaire who found his way into Hell rather quickly.”
“I heard he tried to bribe some of the officials in Limbo to amend his history. There seems to be a habit of that. Do you keep a track of their well being when they arrive at their destination?”
Death shook his head and let out a long sigh. “No, it is of no concern to me. This realm is for sorting. What happens to them in Hell is no longer any of my business.”
“And what about in Heaven?”
Death waved his hand in dismissal. “It is of equal unimportance in my life.” He glanced towards the large office doors and smiled. “If you have an issue with the well being of the souls heading South then maybe you should take it up with the Satan office.
Van Heuten shook his head. “I think he has too much influence within Limbo as it is.”
The large office doors boomed open and a tall, powerful gentleman with spiked hair in a full black suit while wearing a power red tie glanced over Death and stared at Van Heuten. The energy in his eyes burned with immortal rage and the stare alone could have incinerated Van Heuten. “You. Out.”
The gentleman flared his eyes and in an instant Van Heuten felt his soul cower as the nightmarish stare of Satan sent every last sense screaming for his mummy.
Michelle huffed by the side of the door. “I’m sorry, he insisted.”
“Of course he did,” mumbled Death. He stood, looked over the sweat covered and terrified reporter, and Death held out his hand to help Van Heuten to his feet. “We should call it there for the day and continue some other time.”
“Uh … sure … okay …” Van Heuten made the mistake of glancing to Satan again.
Satan’s eyes again roared with flames. “Get out.”
Van Heuten grabbed his papers and stumbled towards the door, brushing against Satan’s perfect black suit while he felt the ire of Lucifer stare into the back of his head. Van Heuten hobbled towards the exit, terrified of running like a six year old and equally terrified to still being in view of Death’s office.
Death smiled to his secretary. “Michelle, if you could help our reporter friend out, I’d appreciate it.”
“Of course.” Michelle closed the door on Death and Satan.
The flames in Satan’s eyes faded away and he gave Death a polite nod. “You’re welcome.”
Death arched his eyebrow. “That was hardly necessary.”
“Most things are hardly necessary, Grim. You’re looking well.”
“So do you actually,” said Death, as he looked over the immaculate outfit Satan was wearing.
“Yeah, well, some of my underlings started to think it was casual Tuesday all the time and so now I need to dress the part. Plus, I had to remember if I could still tie a full Windsor knot.”
Death peered at Satan’s tie. “That’s a half Windsor.”
“Ah! It used to be. I had Mr Windsor himself declare that he had made an egregious error, so this is actually the full Windsor.”
“This was a recent declaration, I presume?”
“Oh, very recent,” said Satan. He looked over his shoulder and jabbed a thumb towards the door. “So who was that little twerp and when will I have him in my custody?”
Death shrugged and headed towards his desk. “Just a reporter covering the election.”
“Ah, so I’ll have him sooner than he expects?”
“If you say so. Scotch?”
“Sure.” Satan walked to one of the chairs facing Death’s desk and took a seat, then lifted his feet onto the desk and leaned back with his hands across his stomach. “So, election time again. I hear you’re doing well in the polls.”
Death sighed and shook his head. “Are these the polls that say my popularity is at a twelve percent approval rating?”
“No, I was reading the ones where you’re going to win ninety nine percent of the votes, so well done on your landslide victory.”
“Cheers,” said Death. He poured two hefty tumblers of scotch and handed one over to Satan.
“So, what on Earth has possessed you to hold an election so soon after the Limbo Troubles?”
“I’m trying to avoid another riot,” Death said, taking a seat behind his desk.
“Was there a first riot?”
“So ‘another’ is just you being cute?”
“Life and Limbo go on, Luc. The people like a routine and when this whole mess is done then hopefully they’ll forget that a whole lot of lawyers tried to overthrow the government.”
Satan took a gulp of scotch. “Of course. That covers the realm and allows you to remain as the president. But what about being the CEO of Death Incorporated? That’s a whole other mess which you allowed to happen during your re-election. How did that shareholder meeting go?”
Death groaned and sunk into his chair.
“Shareholders getting a bit antsy, are they?” Satan asked, giving his old friend a grin while taking another sip.
Death waved his hand and felt the tiredness of a thousand years crash around him in an instant. “Only enough to keep my eyeballs falling out with a hundred new inquests and inquiries a day.”
“Oh yeah? Hey, do you remember what I did in my last general election?” Satan asked.
Death rolled his eyes. “No, what did you do in your last -”
“I never had one,” said Satan, leaning forward. “And neither should you. You don’t need a presidential election, you don’t need to answer to your shareholders. Although, as a minority shareholder, you should at least answer some of my calls from time to time. There are only so many interesting people in Hell that are worthy of my attention. I’m convinced you’re keeping all of the good ones up here and sending me nothing but the dregs of society. Now, unless you want to do me a favour and arrange an accident on Earth …”
Death gave a quick shake of his head. “No.”
“A couple of teen heart throbs would do nicely.”
“No,” said Death.
“Maybe I’ll send Ezekiel along to provoke that into happening.”
“Don’t you dare,” said Death, scowling at his friend.
Satan tipped the tumbler down his throat and swallowed the last of the drink. “Another?”
“Not me for.”
“Well, I better. I have a jam session with a death metal group. They promised to worship me. They better not wimp out like the last lot.”
Death smiled at his friend. “And you need to be drunk for that?”
“I need to fit in,” Satan said, with a shrug.
Death passed the bottle over and Satan rested it on top of a stack of reports.
“I heard there was another Kingston sighting,” said Satan.
“Oh yeah? Been reading some of our newspapers, have you?”
“I hear things. Apparently you’re hiding him here in Limbo.”
Death nodded. “I heard that as well, even from Michelle.”
“She likes him,” said Satan, giving Death a childish grin.
“Unfortunately, yeah. But he’s preoccupied in Europe.”
Satan cocked his head to one side. “Real Europe?"
“Fake Europe, the one from his book.”
“Ah.” Satan craned his head around the office. “Did he take your scythe as well?”
“No, that’s locked away. Can’t be too careful with that lying around for anyone to misuse.”
“Your own fault for letting him teleport away with it like that.”
Death furrowed his eyebrows and glared at his old friend. “I was distracted at the time.”
“You’re very good at being distracted.”
“It keeps me looking youthful.”
“Makes you look confused,” said Satan. “Though, to be fair, I probably had the same look when I read your request this morning.”
“Ah, finally, we’re done with the small talk and onto the important business for the day.”
“Don’t try to be cute, it’s not a good look for you,” said Satan.
“So this billionaire who was found flayed and murdered,” said Death, leaning forward and pulling the right report out from under a stack of inquiries. “I thought we had an understanding.”
Satan dropped his legs off the desk and leaned forward. “We did. I don’t know what to tell you.”
“He’s supposed to be in Hell and somewhat alive,” said Death.
“I agree,” said Satan, raising his eyebrows in defence. “I even had Edmonds look around to try and locate him, in case we had something of a mistaken identity, but no. We couldn’t find him.”
“I don’t suppose he was killed in Hell?”
Satan shrugged. “If that happens they are usually resurrected near the harbour.”
“Well, once in a while one of them is resurrected in a florist and that one is a puzzler, I can tell you. It’s been happening for thousands of years and I still can’t figure out why. In a few places you are resurrected where you actually die, which does get a little unpleasant. Volcanoes and such.”
“This guy wasn’t resurrected,” Death said, shaking his head.
Satan shrugged again. “Then he wasn’t killed in Hell. Maybe you should have your people look into that because it didn’t come from my end.”
“My people did look into it. As strange as it sounds, they’re not used to dead people in Limbo. Dead, dead. Walking dead is fine, like Michelle out there. But an actual corpse has a way of freaking them out. Murdering someone so that they actually stay dead is supposed to be another impossibility in our realms.”
Satan had to stifle a snort. “We’ve been having a lot of impossibilities pop up lately, haven’t we? Perhaps you should call off the election until this mess is sorted out.”
Death shook his head. “No, I’m hoping to use it as a platform for my success.”
“Bad move,” said Satan. “You should never rest an entire campaign on the hopeful outcome of a murder investigation. Or, you know, just don’t have an election.”
“It’s the aura of maintaining civilisation. Elections are pointless in governing the realm, but necessary to prevent riots and anarchy.”
“If you say so,” said Satan. He rolled his eyes and poured himself another drink.
“Besides, it’s a nice thing to do.”
Satan dropped his mouth open and feigned a terrible offence. “Am I not nice?”
“You have your reasons,” said Death.
“So, you’re saying I’m a dick on purpose?”
“You’re very sweet to Michelle.”
Satan shrugged. “She runs a tight office. I appreciate that. And she thinks I can read her mind, so that’s always a treat.”
Death nodded towards the door. “Speak of the devil.”
There was a knock on the door and Michelle peered inside with a grave look across her face. Both Death and Satan looked her over and knew something was amiss. Satan craned his head around the chair and saw a short man in a trench coat with thick glasses waiting in the outer office. Next to him was a taller but skinnier man, younger, wearing the same outfit and looking around in a mixture of wonder and frayed nerves.
“Hmm,” said Satan.
Michelle came in, handed a report to Death, and left just as quietly.
“Oh, that can’t be good,” said Satan, looking back to Death.
“It’s not,” said Death as he read through the file.
“You know, I heard a fantastic story about Kingston having dinner at the Chinese place the other night, the one on Svarog.”
“Uh huh?” Death dropped the file onto the desk.
“The head waiter is convinced he was there,” said Satan. “He’s hiding here, isn’t he?”
“No, he’s not.”
“Come on, bring him out. Or one of his friends. Who was the Spanish chica, the ditzy one?”
“She isn’t ditzy.”
Satan peered over to see what had caught Death’s attention. “If she isn’t ditzy then what’s in that file?”
“Some business I have to take care of.”
“You have a staff of eight hundred thousand, I’m sure you can delegate.” Satan peered over the desk. “Except, that looks like a soon-to-be-departed file.”
“It is,” said Death, with a grim nod.
“No doubt double checked with seers, psychics, and scouts?”
“A trouble maker is about to die,” said Death.
Satan clapped his hands together. “Excellent! Another arrival for me to enjoy.”
“That’s for Janice in Sorting to approve.”
Satan smiled at Death. “You need a couple of scouts to check on this guy?”
“The scouts? No. They’re looking into any connection between Hell and our flayed billionaire. And I’m sure you’re hiding something.” Death folded over the cover of the report, dropped it onto his desk, and gave a polite nod to his old friend. “Give my best to the death metal group.”
Satan reeled around in surprise. “You’re kicking me out?”
“Sure am. I have work to do.”
The last thing Rickland Carson remembered seeing was his London hotel room swarming over in darkness as his body tumbled backwards. He distinctly remembered kicking over the room service trolley to alert someone to his situation, yet no one came. He felt the last pinch from his lungs as he tried to free the piece of crab stuck in his throat, then the darkness was complete.
He was then met with an unusual sensation. He was light headed, floating in a dreamlike world while pulled along by someone in a black hood and robe carrying a wooden scythe. Rickland touched down on the ground and felt his senses return to him. All of a sudden he could breathe, could think clearly, and he quickly tried to splutter the crab out of his throat and found there was nothing there blocking his throat at all.
He was then startled by the marble surroundings of a giant foyer. Up high were the golden words ‘Welcome to Limbo.’ Under that was a sign in red reading ‘Please be kind to all staff.’ Under that was another sign. ‘Especially to your retrieval agent.’
The man in the black robe held onto Rickland and pulled him through the large doorway, passing two huge marble winged lions. Rickland stumbled into an area the size of an airplane hanger, full of offices, cubicles, seats, and people. Black wisps of smoke shot through the air from one location to another, carrying messages and voice mail across the giant facility. A hundred people were escorted by their own grim reapers and a thousand more people were waiting in seats, or in lines, whimpering and looking around nervously, wishing that someone would wake them up from this nightmare.
Rickland had been caught in the final moment of his life better than most of those around him. While the majority were the elderly in nighties and pyjamas, with some wearing an emergency robe loaned to them for delicate reasons, Rickland had been fully dressed while eating his lunch. He wore a white suit made by the dedicated Dmitri which was fitted to hide a slight bulge in his stomach. Completing the ensemble was a salmon coloured shirt and teal cravat. His blonde hair hung over his face and was kept silky smooth with only the finest of hair products. His fingernails were manicured that morning and he kept a pocket full of wet wipes for his hands within his jacket pocket. Had he known he was going outdoors or meeting anyone in such a vulgar location he would have made sure to bring his brown leather gloves, but those were lying on the vanity unit in his hotel suite.
Just as Rickland finally processed the information overload he realised he was still being dragged forward by a stranger. “Ack! Let go of me!”
“We’re almost there,” said the grim reaper.
“I’m using this suit for later!”
Rickland’s grim reaper stopped in front of one cubicle and he peered inside. “Morning Janice. Got another one. Rickland Carson.”
Janice looked over her glasses and studied Rickland carefully. “How was he?”
“This one was a singer. Mostly Sinatra. Got half the words wrong but at least it broke the run of bad luck I had this morning. Seventy one criers and screamers in a row. Can you imagine?”
Janice didn’t look the least bit impressed. “Yeah. I can imagine. I had to deal with seventy one criers and screamers myself, in conversation.” The grim reaper reached for the bowl of wrapped chocolates and Janice shot her hand out with the reflexes of a ninja, slapping him away. “Mr Carson, have a seat.”
The grim reaper nudged Rickland to the chair and drifted away to find his next assignment. As he glided away he said hello to every attractive sorting agent he passed.
Rickland stared at the chair and raised his nose as though something foul had just crawled up his nostrils.
“Have a seat, Mr Carson.”
Rickland looked as though he was about to regurgitate some of his lunch. “I think I would prefer to stand.”
Janice shrugged and pulled the bowl of chocolates closer to her, then began unwrapping one of them slowly. She looked over Rickland’s file with nothing but boredom. “Fifty two. That’s unfortunate. Death by crab. Hotel room. A career as a literary critic I see. Some university lecturing. No spouse. One surviving child.”
Rickland’s eyes shot up. “What?”
Rickland shook his head. “That’s impossible.”
Janice gave him another bored look and plonked the chocolate into her mouth and began sucking in the strawberry centre. Rickland stared in disgust and held his eyes shut. “Says here you cheated on an exam once in primary school.”
Rickland’s eyes shot open again. “What? That’s in there?”
“Everything’s in here, Mr Carson, I’m just choosing what to read. I don’t suppose Danny explained any of this to you?”
Rickland looked around. “Am I supposed to know who that is?”
“Your retrieval agent.”
“You mean the drugging kidnapper in the hood and cloak?”
Janice gave Rickland another bored nod. “Yes, and around here that particular one is called Danny. I’m guessing by the stunned look on your face means he did not explain everything to you, and yet Danny will insist he told you and you were too light headed to remember. So let me ask you something: are you nice to animals?”
Rickland snapped his head back. “I don’t have time for this. I appreciate a joke once in a while but I do not have a sense of humour about being kidnapped. I will show myself out.”
Janice looked back to the file and quickly nodded. “Ah, I misread this. I thought you were passive aggressive but prone to doing what you were told. It turns out you’re assertive. I’ll just underline the part that says ‘annoyingly’ and that should speed up our level of communication.”
Rickland pulled his shoulders back, his mind coming into full force now. There was no way he was going to let this stupid woman get the better of him. “I have an important meeting in ten minutes with my lawyer and unless you release me now I -”
“Thank you Mr Carson, our meeting is done,” said Janice. “If you could wait on one of the seats just out there someone will be along shortly to escort you out. We apologise for the inconvenience. If you would like to fill in a survey regarding our performance you may find a box of small pencils within the seating area. I hope you have an agreeable day.”
Rickland stared with contempt and immediately hated everything about this woman. She had no dress sense and no manners to speak of. The way she munched on a chocolate was disgusting, especially for someone her size. Now she was booting him off to someone else. “When my lawyer hears of this …”
“Your lawyer will have his own issues to worry about when that day comes,” said Janice. She dumped the file into her outbox.
Then, something in the air seemed to change. Janice felt it, even Rickland felt it. A silence fell over the cubicles. Janice’s eyes darted to one side and felt stricken when she saw the mighty boss of Death Inc. stop at her cubicle and peer inside. Even the power of it was enough to force Rickland into the seat as he looked on in awe.
“Janice, it is a delight to see you,” said Death, as he beamed with a smile.
Janice’s jaw dropped open, revealing the half eaten chocolate still in her mouth. She was quite sure she had never met Death before, or even seen him in person, and yet he knew her name.
Death turned to Rickland. “Rickland.” Death’s smile started to fade as he glanced from Rickland to the chair, to Rickland again and back to the chair, and finally back to Rickland. “Did no one ever tell you it is impolite to remain seated while introducing yourself?”
Rickland squinted at Death’s face and then dropped his eyes towards Death’s open hand. “I’m afraid I don’t shake hands.”
“Oh?” Death glanced at Janice, who quickly scrambled to find that detail in Rickland’s file. “Rickland, I’m here to escort you away.”
Janice looked up quickly. “Sir, I’m sorry, I’ve already called someone in.”
“I’m sure they’ll understand,” said Death. He pulled Rickland by the arm and felt the man squirm as he was being manhandled onto his feet and led away. Death held out a hand to take the file and Janice handed it over. “I like what you’ve done with your hair. Are those new highlights?”
Janice’s almost choked on the last remains of her snack. “I had them done yesterday.”
“It looks good. Thanks for all your hard work.”
As they walked away, all eyes turned on Death and the man next to him. A thousand stories of gossip were building in an instant and no one could understand why Death would escort one of the recently departed to his destination, not unless it was a publicity stunt for his election campaign.
“I don’t like these people staring at me,” said Rickland.
“That’s quite an ego you have there, isn’t it?” said Death. “Don’t worry, I’m just here to hurry things along, we can’t have any missteps in the production line, can we?”
“I beg your pardon?” Rickland stopped walking and fixed his suit from that awful chair. “I think I will find my own way out.”
“I’m sure you won’t,” said Death. “Normally I would teleport us to the entrance, but it’s not that far away and it’ll be good for people to know exactly where you went in case they ever tracked you down.” They turned down one row of cubicles and headed towards another large doorway, this one with ‘Destinations’ written overhead.
“People know where I am,” said Rickland, through gritted teeth. “They’ll find me.”
“They sure will.”
“And you’ll have to answer for wasting my time,” said Rickland.
“It’s Rickland, you bald headed know-it-all, and when my lawyer finds out about this he will have you tied up for the rest of your life in …” Rickland’s voice trailed off and he was left standing absolutely still and silent.
Death glanced through the doorway and saw what had caught his guest’s stare. He rolled his eyes when he saw Satan standing there in a full Devil appearance, complete with curled horns, red skin and a goatee. He was still dressed in his black suit with his power red tie. His eyes locked onto Rickland’s.
Death sighed at his friend. “Really?”
Satan shrugged. “Well, something has inspired you to get your hands dirty doing the work of a minimum wage bagger and dragger, someone who only needs to walk people a hundred metres from there to here. Hardly befitting a CEO. I was curious to see what you were up to.”
Death glanced over his shoulder and walked with Rickland up to Satan and made sure no one could overhear them. “I’m just doing this one.”
“That’s my understanding as well,” said Satan, beaming with a curious smile. “But why?”
Death knew he wasn’t going to get very far and looked to Rickland. “Mr Carson, this is Satan. Satan, this is Mr Carson.”
“I don’t care,” said Satan. He looked back to Death. “Why are you doing this job?”
Death sighed and turned to Rickland. “Ricky, I think the Kingston Raine series written by Don Keaton are some of the finest examples of writing every produced.”
Rickland recoiled in disgust. “Then you are a bigger idiot than I thought. And my name is not Ricky. It never has been, it never will be, and I will never answer to anything other than my actual name. Don Keaton is an idiot and his untalented dribble could only be served to the lowest of classes with no discernible taste.”
Satan sneered. “There’s a room full of beginner violinists, you know? I could send you there.” He flared his eyes again and smiled as Rickland quickly looked away.
“I have nothing to say,” mumbled Rickland.
“Actually, Rickland here has many things to say,” said Death. “For the last few years he has criticised Don Keaton and Kingston Raine at every opportunity.”
“I see,” said Satan, nodding in delight. “And since Kingston is currently something of a mystery or a hero in Limbo, you think that Mr Scandal Norrick’s timely death is, what, suspicious?”
“That’s not my name,” came the quiet voice.
“And yet you knew I was talking about you,” said Satan.
Death sighed. “The last article by Kevin Van Heuten outlined an oppressive regime change and stated that the first thing to go will be critics and opposing points of view. I just thought I would get this over and done with without causing a fuss.”
Satan arched an eyebrow. “You’re following your paranoid concerns based on some half-wit reporter in a realm where very little of interest happens?”
“No, I’m following the advice of a psychic.”
Satan for once looked impressed. “No kidding? What did this psychic suggest?”
“That when Rickland Carson dies it would be best to get him sorted out of Limbo as soon as possible.”
“Huh. Now that is interesting. Very interesting.” Satan held his hands together in a low steeple and tapped his fingertips together. “Well then, given the circumstances …” Satan pulled his shoulders back and stared at Rickland. “Mr Carson, you are hereby refused entry into Hell.”
Rickland gasped, presumably in relief, but also in the horror that everything around him might actually be real. And, he could smell the scotch on Satan’s breath.
“Knock it off Luc,” said Death. “We both know he’s been sorted into Hell. It’s now in his file.”
“What have I ever done to deserve Hell?” said Rickland.
“You gave Susie Briggs head lice once,” said Death.
“Luc, let him in.”
“No,” said Satan, smiling in delight. “My psychics warned me about him as well. And besides, it might be better to have him linger around to show that you are not taking Van Heuten’s tales of caution to heart.”
“It could provoke a complication,” said Death. “My psychic says to get rid of him quickly.”
“And mine says to not let him into Hell under any circumstance.”
Death glared at his friend. “So, what? Heaven?”
Satan stood up straighter and fired back a menacing look. “Don’t you even think about it.”
“I might have to if you don’t let him in,” said Death.
“He’s already been sorted. It’s too late.”
Death glared back. “I could have a quick word with someone from North.”
Satan’s eyes flared again. “Then I will close off all access to Hell. Limbo would be impossibly over crowded by the end of the day.”
Death sighed and raised his hands in defence. “All right, all right, let’s back down from the threats and see what we can do about it.”
“Okay. But this guy could be useful here,” said Satan. “Of course, by looking at him I know I’m wrong …” Satan waited to see if Rickland retorted. The critic did not, leaving Satan to roll his head in bewilderment. “Seriously? Okay, how about this: if he’s here then that might attract a lot of sympathisers who think that Kingston helped to overthrow the revolution. They come out, listen to this guy harp on about how stupid the whole Kingston Raine series is, some nut jobs start to agree with him, and it will pull them all out of hiding. Then bam! You have all of the revolutionaries listening to this guy at the same time and you can clean it all up in one swift action. Easy, right?”
Death shook his head. “Problematic, I’d say.”
Satan shrugged. “Oh well. Either way, my psychics and seers told me not to let him in.”
“They did not,” glared Death.
“They did. The specific word they used was ‘trouble.’”
Death scoffed. “I can’t have another person stuck in Limbo so soon after the last time.”
It was Rickland’s turn to mumble a pithy retort. “I always heard it was better to reign in Hell than serve in Limbo."
Satan turned slowly and stared Rickland down. “What was that?”
“I mean … clearly … Heaven?”
Satan’s eyes went wide with rage and then narrowed again for a calculating look, destined to cause Rickland untold misery in the near future. “Flay him.”
Death cocked his head to one side and shot his friend an intrigued look. “You know that billionaire was flayed.”
Satan didn’t take his eyes off Rickland. “So I heard.”
“Perhaps you can tell me what you had to do with it.”