- and the -
Far beyond the horizon existed a company whose sole purpose was to sort the dead into two unsavoury categories: those who went south, and those who went north. The company was named Death Incorporated, run by Death & Death Associates, and the Chief Executive Officer and principal shareholder was the Grim Reaper himself: Death.
It was the job of those working within Death Inc. to find the nearly departed, retrieve the recently departed, then sort the very departed into those who lived an exemplary life and those who did not. The departed were brought to Limbo for processing, a job which was getting all the more time consuming as the human population rudely grew beyond all reason. Death had once been able to sort everyone himself and still enjoy a few hours of peace and quiet, but now he needed an entire empire just to process the vast number of humans who died everyday.
He was also responsible for tying together the four planes of existence; Life, Limbo, Heaven, and Hell. Lately, though, he had fallen victim to the bureaucratic nightmare of governing eight hundred thousand employees within the realm, most of whom were busy arranging for the dearly departed to have an easy transition into the afterlife. Curiously, very few souls ever expected to end up going south. As far as they were concerned the only destination in store for them was living it up for an eternity on Cloud Nine. The first clue that something had gone horribly wrong was usually when Satan welcomed them among the crags and volcanoes and called it their new home. It didn’t help their confidence when he then burst into laughter and left the terrified new arrivals to figure out their fate for themselves.
Death looked around his office and groaned at the mound of paperwork the lawyers had dumped on his desk. There were stacks of violations sitting on top of deadlines, reports of abuses of power weighing down a mountain of misappropriations, and each summary highlighted that Death was about to lose his own company. The only thing worse than the first two mounds of paperwork was the third, which made it clear that Death was going to lose the upcoming presidential election as well.
“Michelle?!” Death called out.
There was no answer. He buzzed his intercom and tried a more polite approach. “Michelle?”
There was a snippiness in Michelle’s voice. She had told Death time and time again that he was not to shout at her for anything that wasn’t her fault. “Yes, sir?”
“Clear my schedule. I have a headache.”
“Would you like me to rearrange your one o’clock with the Satan office?” Michelle asked, in a tone clear enough for Death to understand that rescheduling was not a good idea.
Still, Death wanted to be left alone and decided that his old friend could wait. “Yes. Reschedule.”
“Thank you Michelle, that is all.”
Death fell back into his tall leather chair and felt his body ache from head to toe. His bones ached. His eyes ached. His muscles ached. Every part of him ached. He wished he was just a walking skeleton in a black cloak because then he wouldn’t ache so much. Instead, he looked mostly human. He was bald, barrel chested, and had muscular arms hidden beneath a pin stripe suit and dark blue tie. Whenever he went to Life he carried a long and ornate ivory scythe. It was an easy clue for the almost departed that he really was the Grim Reaper and he really would cut them to pieces if they tried to run. These days his subordinates did most of the grunt work of travelling to Life and guiding people back to Limbo. That left Death stuck in his office going over an endless supply of status reports.
I need a holiday, he thought. He flipped through his Life calendar and tried to find something the humans liked to do on January 18, some kind of festival or national holiday he could enjoy while incognito. Unfortunately there was nothing. He finally threw his hands up in defeat. “To hell with it, I’m getting out of here.”
Along one side of his office was a library’s worth of books, secret passages, and his scythe. Opposite that was his collection of ancient weaponry he had collected from important generals who had fallen in battle. He ignored it all and went out to see Michelle. She was trying to reschedule the rest of Death’s day and did not look at all happy to see him.
“Michelle? I’m going out for the afternoon.”
“I’ll make a note of it,” she said. She watched as Death left along the main corridor, heard him leave through the grand doors and waited until she was sure he had gone. She was still dealing with one of Satan’s assistants and by the sound of things Satan was in just as foul a mood as Death. She rubbed her eyebrows and quietly counted to ten to calm herself down.
I need an espresso, Michelle thought. The problem was she had drunk four doubles already and was well over her limit. When she was done dealing with Asari in Sylath Crei she scratched off the last of Death’s appointments and drummed her fingers on the desk. She stole a look down to her bag and realised that with Death out of the office she might actually have some time to herself.
Michelle got up from behind her desk and hurried over to the main doors near the corridor. She pulled out a sign reading: ‘Out of office’ and fastened it in place. Then, back in her own chair, she kicked off her shoes and curled her feet underneath herself as she fumbled with a six hundred page book from her bag. There was a tatty bookmark poking out at page 348. She had only managed to get her hands on the book last night and had spent most of the evening and early morning reading as much as she could.
The book was Kingston Raine and the Curse of the Shanghai Werewolf, book six in a seven book series, written by Don Keaton. The principal character was Kingston Raine, a heart-throb industrial thief and all round smart arse. In Michelle’s opinion the series was one of the most gut wrenching stories ever penned. She had to put the book down several times last night just to clear the tears from her eyes. Kingston and his girlfriend Joanna York were being hunted by a corrupt corporation working above the law. It looked as though Joanna was about to die and it seemed impossible that Kingston could save her in time.
Michelle held her breath and dove back into the story.
Then she yelped as the outer doors burst open with a bang. She dropped the book and shrieked in horror as the pages buckled over themselves as the whole thing hit the ground at an angle.
Death ran back inside, his eyes wide and his arms stretched out as though he was bracing himself to dive out the window.
“He’s seen me!” Death called out and he ran straight into his office, slamming the doors behind him.
Michelle looked around in a panic and quickly fixed her book. As she looked up she saw a suave and very casual man walk into view.
He was dressed in a faded black t-shirt, dark blue jeans, and geek-chic shoes.
Michelle jumped to her feet. “Satan, sir … I contacted your office just a moment ago.”
“Yes, you were most apologetic about your good for nothing boss … can he hear us right now?” Satan asked.
Michelle blinked a couple of times in confusion. “How would I know if he could?”
Satan glanced down to her desk. “Because your intercom is on.”
They heard a distinct grimace and the intercom light flicked off.
Michelle blushed and wasn’t sure what her orders were. “He wasn’t expecting to see anyone today.” She sat down at her desk and tried to regain her composure, which wasn’t easy now that she was barefoot and fighting with her shoes.
Satan watched her carefully.
“Would you like something while you wait?” Michelle asked.
“Do you have any scotch?”
Satan sighed. “Can you contact my office and have them send over a crate of scotch, and not the cheap kind I hand out at Cinco de Mayo. We might as well keep a stash here for emergencies, right?”
Michelle smiled awkwardly. She was wondering what Death was doing in his office and hoped he wasn’t trying to make another quick getaway. Michelle glanced at Satan and wondered if he was reading her mind. He smiled at her again.
The gold and silver inlaid doors opened and Death came into view. His shoulders were stiff and he welcomed Satan inside with an inevitable hesitation. “Luc. Won’t you come in?”
“I’d be delighted,” Satan said. He winked at Michelle, which caused her to blush again.
“How are you, Grim?” Satan asked as his friend closed the doors behind them.
“A little inconvenienced, actually,” mumbled Death.
“That’s too bad. You know, you just sent me a CEO and five bimbos who were electrocuted in a hot tub by the disgruntled wife. I’m told one of the fine ladies is an aspiring actress. She once appeared in a music video.”
“You don’t say,” said Death.
“It’s the one thing on her resume that is actually true. Now she is inconvenienced, you’re just moody.”
Death looked over the several seating options. There was of course the desk, but that was more for business; there was the sofa, which may be a little too casual; then there was the boardroom table in the adjoining room. Death looked Satan up and down and couldn’t get a reading on him, especially while he wore his jeans and t-shirt. “Mid-life crisis?”
Satan feigned a laugh. “No. I had to meet with some lawyer this morning and felt so nauseated I was sure I would never wear a three piece suit again.”
Death waved Satan to the sofa and they sank into the soft velvety-brown cushions.
“There’s nothing quite like lawyers,” Satan said. “They spend their whole career twisting your words around and making you regret even knowing them. Who did you get stuck with today?”
“Representatives from the Placement Workers Union.”
“That alone sounds bad.”
“It is,” said Death.
“There’s no word of a strike, is there?”
“Every single one of them has mentioned it,” said Death. “Without my placement workers no one gets sorted into North or South. We would be stuck with overcrowding the likes I haven’t seen since the Plague.”
Satan nodded. He thought it was amusing his friend still wouldn’t mention ‘Heaven’ in his presence if he could help it.
“I wouldn’t be surprised either way,” said Satan. “From what I’ve heard there’s only one lawyer in charge of rallying the unions together. As soon as you find out who that is you should sort them out of here as fast as you can. I have a few undesirables who can spend the rest of eternity making them suffer. I particularly like plucking each and every hair out one by one. What you need -”
Death threw up his hands to halt his friend. “Everyone’s been telling me what to do, so from now on you can keep your suggestions to yourself.”
Satan shrugged. “Fair enough. Obviously the whole situation is why you’ve turned into such a sourpuss. It’s understandable.”
Death gritted his teeth. “I’m not a sourpuss.”
“You ignore my calls, letters, and visits,” said Satan.
“I’ve been busy.”
“And that has turned you into a sourpuss,” said Satan.
Death rolled his eyes and wished he had a trapdoor.
Satan slapped Death across the shoulder. “Cheer up! You’ve been off your game for a while but you’ll bounce back. There’s always the election to look forward to, right?”
“Not exactly. The polls seem to have it in for me.”
“Really? Excellent. I get to scare the hell out of whoever is trying to usurp you, so once again you might actually run unopposed.”
Death scoffed. “Sure, and the only thing worse than winning is the insufferable gloating you go through after helping me.”
Satan pulled himself back in feigned offence. “How dare you!”
“Knock it off.”
“I am restoring balance, trying to keep an Eternal in the seat of power. Besides, we’re friends. You would do the same for me.”
Death remained silent.
Satan leaned in. “Right?”
Death shrugged it off. “I would lend you all the moral support I could afford.”
Satan rolled his eyes. “Well, in this time of crisis you shouldn’t forget about some of your staff. Michelle in particular looks as though she needs a holiday. She isn’t any good to you if you’re both this burnt out.” He caught a strange look from Death and he scrambled to figure out what it might actually mean. “Why do you look guilty?”
Death groaned and gave in. “She wanted to take the day off to read some fandangled book of hers and I told her no. I know, crazy, isn’t it?”
Satan cocked his head. “I suppose it depends on the book.”
“It’s Kingston Raine and the Curse of the Shanghai Werewolf.”
Satan smiled and looked as though he admired Michelle’s taste in thrillers. “You haven’t read it?”
“You should. There’s still one more book in the series. It’s a little clunky here and there but, hey, you might like it. Some wily loners try to bring down an evil organisation.”
Death wasn’t all that impressed. “I run an organisation.”
“I noticed how you didn’t say …”
“And I have some wily loners trying to bring me down,” Death said, talking over the top of his friend.
“Ah,” Satan said, holding up one finger, “the main character, Kingston Raine, tries to bring down evil lawyers. He usually wins. I should send you the series. It might cheer you up.”
“Thanks, but I would rather wait until the series is finished before blundering through six of seven books while waiting impatiently for a finale.”
“Fair enough,” Satan said. “So …”
Death watched Satan lean forward and he didn’t like the change in atmosphere.
“… On to why I’m here,” Satan said. “I’ve seen the way you run this company. I’ve been a shareholder for almost as long as I can remember and I’m puzzled as to why you won’t use some of my agents in a greater capacity.”
Death rolled his eyes and knew this conversation had been building over the last few years.
“I thought we had an understanding,” Satan said. “My agents can speed things up, even go to Life.”
“Yeah, I’ve seen what happens when your agents get a little rowdy,” Death said. “And please remember your people are in this realm as my guests.”
“And I thank you for that,” said Satan. “But you need my support and help with all of the chaos surrounding you. You can’t do this without me.”
A suspicion grew over Death and he knew the words picked out by his old friend were chosen deliberately. All the more troubling was that he was sure Satan had rehearsed the conversation enough times to pass it off as a casual remark. “What exactly have these lawyers of yours been talking about?”
Satan saw that Death was now paying closer attention, which earned him a smile. “Honestly? How I should join their side and no longer work with you.”
“I see,” said Death, as he gripped his hands together.
“You know it’s only a matter of time before they try to take over again and call for a new way to govern. As soon as you lose the election they will change the laws and kick you out of the building. There is only so much I can do if you refuse my help.”
“As soon as I lose the election? As soon as? Not even an ‘if’?”
Satan shrugged and leaned back into the sofa. “I’ve seen the way things are going. I have oracles, mystics, psychics, and shamans. They are all telling that a great chaos is about to erupt in this realm and an unseen newcomer is going to cause you more problems than you have ever had before.”
Death thought it over. “I see. Do these great psychics of yours see anything else? Do they see me win?”
Satan smirked and shook his head. “You know that’s not how it works. And you of all people should know, considering you’ve killed just about all of them.”
“Funny how they never see it coming,” Death said.
“Oh, they see it coming. They just have a sense of humour when they see your ugly face.”
Death glared at Satan.
Satan held up a hand to apologise. “I meant ugly to them. I’ve known you for long enough and I can’t say either of us are particularly unattractive. I’d even go one step further and say that you in that suit are positively debonair. But it is a shame that you are still only the second most attractive person in this room.”
Death rolled his eyes. Still, there was some truth to what Satan said. They could both change their appearance at will to resemble anyone they had ever met. They could change their voice as well. Death usually held off from the changes until some truly evil human deserved to see the face of a dead enemy or a lost loved one, but those occasions were rare. Most of the changes in appearance came from Satan, who held onto his angelic grace and could adopt the form of any human or angel that had fallen to his realm. Regardless, neither of them chose to adopt the form of someone hideously ugly unless there was a very good reason for it.
Death shook his head and wanted to hurry Satan along. “You know, those psychics have been wrong in the past. How about you come back with something useful to tell me?”
“Well that’s just it. They are all telling me the same thing right now and it’s got me a little worried.”
“Oh sure, just an unnamed nobody causing unsaid trouble.”
“Exactly. Fairly crystal clear, if you ask me,” said Satan. “They don’t say who will win or lose, they rarely do, because these things are fluid and open to change. They are a little murky as well because they are trying to see into another realm and that’s never a good idea. I could loan you a few if you like.”
“I’m not going to have this place overrun with your people,” said Death. “I’m the one who has to maintain this world and I can’t have anyone asking for your permission whenever I give them an order. There can not be a conflict of interest. Now, if you don’t mind, I have other things to do today.” Death stood, buttoned his jacket, and moved over to the door.
Satan smiled and remained on the sofa. “I could flex my bureaucratic might to suit my purposes any time. Right now I just want these lawyers off my back. And off yours as well.”
Death grunted. “Thank you, but I will manage. This is not the first uprising I’ve dealt with.”
“No, it certainly isn’t. But this might be the first one where you become isolated from your true allies. A vote of no confidence in the boardroom can only be delayed for so long. You need my help.”
Death pulled his office door open with such force that it almost broke. He glared at Satan and didn’t say a word.
Satan got the message. He rose from the sofa and headed for the door. “I will loan you a couple of psychics, some of the good ones. Maybe they can shake some reason into you.”
“I’d rather an enemy from just one realm than from two,” Death said, and he slammed the door on his old friend. Death wanted nothing more than to tear his office apart, but he knew that Satan wasn’t far enough away. Even though Satan couldn’t see through doors and walls within Limbo, he still had exceptional hearing and attention to detail. All Death could do was remain perfectly still while enraged and wait until Satan had cleared the realm.
I was almost out of the building, Death thought. I was so close to being gone for the rest of the day and enjoying some sense of freedom. He cursed everything in sight, wishing he could leave someone else in charge but he knew he couldn’t. He was the boss whether there was an open war or perpetual peace. He returned to his desk and knew it was time to pull these lawyers apart. He would remind them that they were all guests within his realm and he could silence them in a heartbeat if they displeased him.
Meanwhile, Satan wandered back to Michelle. She quickly put her book away and looked up, trying to gauge the mood.
“How is it so far?” Satan asked, nodding towards the book.
“It’s getting good,” Michelle said.
“I didn’t know you were such a fan.” Satan shot her a friendly smile, which eased Michelle a little. “I’m going to send your boss the series of books. I heard the author is almost done with the seventh.”
Michelle smiled and relaxed her shoulders. “I can’t wait.”
“Honestly? Neither can I. How’s Death’s schedule looking?”
“Pretty busy, actually.”
“Hmm. I might need to come back in a couple of days. I can’t have him cancelling on me every time he sees a lawyer,” Satan said.
“I can hold his appointments,” Michelle said with an air of importance.
“Does he take a lot of afternoons off these days?”
“No.” She caught herself before she added ‘Today would have been the first,’ and she remembered that no one really needed to know that.
“I’m relieved to hear that. So look, you’re the one in charge here,” he watched as Michelle beamed a smile, “and you can control his good mood and bad mood. If you can arrange it so as to avoid any meetings with unions and lawyers on the same day that I come up to see him it would really make my world a little easier.”
“I’ll see what I can do,” Michelle said.
“Thank you. And I’ll send along those books as well, see if we can’t get another Kingston Raine fan out of him.”
“He’s waiting for the seventh book,” Michelle said.
“Aren’t we all?” Satan shot his last smile at her. “Take care Michelle,” he said, and left.
Don Keaton glanced out of his Melbourne apartment window and groaned. Somewhere among the rabble down below was his agent, coming to hassle him for his long delayed book, the seventh Kingston Raine story and, finally, the last.
She won’t be able to weasel another book out of me, Don decided. She had managed to do so before, bumping Don’s three book premise into five, then into seven. Don had now totalled a million and a half words on just one character and it was driving him nuts. Worse still was that he was only a hundred pages into the final book and he was truly sick and tired of the Kingston universe. The remaining five hundred pages were still a mystery. He had tried four different outlines to tie everything together and nothing worked. It would have ended perfectly well with three books, then possibly well with five, but the sixth had sent Don embarrassingly grey, then the seventh … oh, the seventh …
I should move to France and not tell anyone, Don thought. I’ll just tell them there is no seventh book and everything ended with the sixth. Who cares if none of it makes sense and the cliff hangers are unresolved?
An electric snap ripped through the air next to Don, causing him to yelp and jump back for cover. There was a burst of bright flames and a rush of smoke. Appearing out of thin air was a man with black hair and a long dark coat. He coughed and spluttered as though he had swallowed a mouthful of soot, then the coughing became so fierce that he dropped to one knee.
Don stepped away in utter surprise, his heart lodged firmly in his throat. He had just seen a man appear from nothing, something that should have been impossible, and yet there he was. The strange man had pointed ears and very long fingers. His skin was pebbled with acne scars, burns, scrapes, and scratches. And, curiously, his eyes were yellow.
The man stood up straight and spoke. “Donovan Keaton?”
Hearing his own name had never caught Don by as much surprise as it did just then. Seeing the stranger burst out of nothing and knowing his name told Don one thing: Time traveller. He didn’t know what to say other than: “Huh?”
The scarred man looked a little worse for wear and gripped his stomach. He breathed out and a little smoke escaped his lungs. “Are you Donovan Keaton, the writer?”
Don looked around nervously. No one pleasant and well meaning would have asked him that. “No,” he said, trying to sound braver than he actually was. “No, I’m not him.”
The scarred man looked around in confusion. “Who are you?”
“I’m … just a guy.”
Don’s guest looked as though he was about to be sick. He also looked as though he didn’t believe Don’s lies. “Right. My master has sent me.”
Don started to edge towards the far wall.
“By the way, if you try to leave I will kill you.”
Don went wide eyed again and stopped altogether.
The scarred man realised his mistake immediately. “Wait, no! I didn’t mean that. Sorry, it’s not every day I get this sort of assignment.” He coughed. There was more smoke trying to escape. “My master. The Devil. You’ve heard of him.”
Don’s knees started to rattle together. The scarred man seemed like a delusional drug addict and that never ended well when one of them was inside a celebrity’s home unannounced. Don was starting to re-think his time traveller hypothesis. “Uh … I’m an atheist.”
“That’s fine,” said the scarred man, waving a hand in the air. “Listen, my master likes your books. He told me to come and tell you to hurry up. There’s a woman, some assistant or other, maybe a secretary, apparently she has some super important connection, I don’t know, I don’t get with the asking of questions with my master, except this time he tells me that I’m supposed to go off script, not let you get into the screaming and the shakes, you know? I don’t know myself, except this woman also likes your books, and she has a boss who is supposed to like you as well. It’s a little unusual, see, because normally I’m here for the scaring of souls and what have you, but now I’m supposed to behave myself.”
Don’s eyes darted from one side of the room to the other. He could see the front door. It was still locked and the keys were on the side table. He didn’t think he would be able to get out before the crazy man attacked him.
Then, just as Don feared it, the scarred man turned and looked at the front door as though he was reading Don’s mind. He didn’t seem to care one way or the other.
“My master needs you to hurry up a little. He can offer his services. Not directly, see, because he leaves something like a paper trail. That’s the layman term for you, the human, see, he doesn’t actually leave a … well, that’s not all that important right now. People can tell where he’s been and they can see his influence, you know? And if you’ve been influenced by the Devil then people seem to see that as something of a bad thing. Me, personally, I don’t mind what you do and who influences you, but my master has a sort of standing in life, so to speak, a reputation, and he needs you to get along with the tinkering at the keyboard.”
“He … huh?” was all Don could manage. His pulse had sky-rocketed and his vision had contracted, knocking out his peripheral awareness. He began picking out minute details of the gentleman in front of him; his unusually long fingers looked scorched and scarred, his eyes were luminescent yellow, unfocused and hollow, and wisps of flame came through with every quick burst of breath.
The scarred man ran a long finger through his hair and scratched his head. “So what I’m supposed to do here, see, is introduce you to your options. We have muses, very good ones, some sexy ones, some less so, you know? Walking inspiration, if you will. Now, my master isn’t usually into providing this kind of service, especially not without a soul in return. But this time it’s different. He just needs some leverage on this woman person, or her boss, I’m not too sure which, the trip here rattled my brain a little. But leverage was the key issue. He needs it. You have it. You’re being very slow. He wants to help. So what do you say?”
Don stared at the scarred man. His pulse was throbbing so loudly in his ears he was sure the scarred man could hear it as well.
“Muses have been used a lot in the past, especially by struggling artists such as yourself,” the scarred man said, stifling a cough. “And it’s nothing unsavoury, I should point out. They’ll come, you talk to them for a little, and then inspiration works itself out. It might even be a drinking buddy. You’ll be too busy to even do anything nefarious. You a fast writer, Don?”
“No,” Don mumbled, feeling his chest expanding and contracting more so with every new breath. His vision was definitely failing him. It felt like he was about to pass out.
“Well, problem solved with a muse, I must say. You’ll get the perfect motivation to continue, the perfect ending, everything will fall together rather neatly, or so I’m told. Personally, I’d like to meet the muse that suggested I take this job, because some days, you know … the commute isn’t exactly pleasant. I kinda wish I had listened to a second opinion, even though it is a lot better being able to travel out of Hell than being stuck on the inside, so I guess the muse knew me well enough after all.” He looked at Don as if everything he was saying was perfectly understandable.
“Now, all you have to do is say ‘yes’ and I can pop back in a little while with someone of your choosing. So, uh …” the scarred man pulled a list out from the inside of his long jacket. As he did a terrible scream and shriek erupted from his pocket, startling Don.
“Uh, ignore that, if you could,” said the scarred man. “So, muses available. This list will help us narrow it down a little. You like lists? I like lists. I like writing them more, not very good at following them. Anyway, do you prefer a human muse, a machine, an object, or an animal?”
Don was wide eyed again, his breathing was still erratic, and a chill spread through his face. “What was that scream?”
The scarred man shifted awkwardly. “Yeah, if we could keep that to ourselves you would be doing me a genuine service. Do you want a muse that can talk back or are you an inanimate kind of thinker? There might even be a rubber ball here, you know, you just throw it around, gives you something to do, then one moment, POW! It lands in your hands and … maybe ‘eureka’ was a better expression. Or how about a toaster? Warm food and a good idea wrapped in one. You’re almost a good writer so I think you could pull it off.”
The scream from the jacket dug at Don’s core and he couldn’t let that sound go. He started to remember everything from his dad’s deathbed, the talk of faded screams, the man with the elongated fingers and ears … Don was sure it had just been a hallucination. Then he saw the scarred man’s tongue and realised it was blue and forked. The more Don looked over the stranger in his apartment, the more he realised he was looking at a devil in a man’s body, not a crazed drug addled fan, not even a time traveller, but a real demon from the beyond.
The scarred man paused. He couldn’t understand why someone would ever refuse free inspiration. “If it helps, I can bring a sample muse in, just to get the ball rolling, so that we can find you a proper … You okay? Don? Mr Keaton?”
Don collapsed and fell into a heap.
“Mr Keaton, sir?” the scarred man said very nervously. He walked over and nudged the writer with his foot, then felt the life slip out of the room.
The scarred man’s whole career flashed before his eyes.
Don Keaton was dead.