Story Thirty One – Management
Aaron would like me to tell you that, to fully comprehend this story, you must read all the ones that came before. Doing so is not necessary to enjoy it, but there are a bunch of Easter Eggs and this is the conclusion to the ‘Reapers’ miniseries… and it directly ties in with another, previous unrelated story…. So, basically… He’s fucking with you.
The knob turns easily enough but, as your mind was trying to tell you, music doesn’t work in this place. Not only is there a lack of radio waves, a lack of towers outputting beats to the masses, it’s worse; records, tapes, cds, nothing plays. You miss the rhythms and harmonies.
Besides the silence, there’s an undeniably calming effect to sitting in the front seat. You’d forgotten exactly how much of a difference there is. You had convinced yourself a while ago that sitting in the back, hiding from the red and the horror of this realm was the best for you. But now, with the breeze on your face and a little more connection with the new driver, you feel in control. As much as you can, at least.
Terror isn’t something you feel on a regular basis. You used to. In the fading history of what you once were, among the many black spots and untrustworthy relics you assume to be symptoms of a begrudgingly accepted psychiatric problem, you still remember a few aspects. You were once afraid of everything.
Since donning the coat you’d left most of it behind. You have to push that out of your mind. There’s no place for fear in the mind of a Reaper. The company can’t allow that. Of course, there are a few other things the company wouldn’t allow.
There are stories. Those like you don’t usually congregate together. When they do, they like to talk. You’ve heard of the rule-breakers. It’s the only kind of horror story told in this world of horrors; an overzealous employee took matters into their own hands, initiated a death. They were let go immediately. There’s something dark and forbidding about that; being let go. It sends a feeling of cold emptiness up your forearms.
The driver’s noticed you fidgeting. A sudden question doesn’t help. You respond nonchalantly, giving him a set of canned words you keep to disarm and calm. He doesn’t buy it, but shrugs and goes back to the road.
If your list wasn’t quite finished, maybe you would be a little less nervous. You would have the chance to redeem yourself after the pointlessness of what happened only an hour before.
The name on the list was male, you were sure of it. When you saw the two realities merging, when life and whatever this place is came together, you witnessed the person you thought was your target assaulting a young girl. It hadn’t taken you long to decide to stop him. He was going to die anyway, you just hastened the effect. Turned out that Caspar can be a girl’s name too. You were there for her. You were there to witness her rape and murder and herald her into the final destination.
She saw you, too. The energy you expended in taking the guy down broke the rift wider and allowed her to peer through the veil.
A phone rings. You learned to avoid questioning things that made your head hurt. But today you just couldn’t help it. Why did cellphones work when the radios didn’t?
You realize in this moment, as the driver presses the answer button on the touch screen, that the phones only connect to one person. It’s not a satellite or a tower that was sending the waves of communication. It’s the will of the Boss. It destroys the stability of the muscles in your neck. The tremors start again. You roll the window up, half to allow the warmth to return, half to mute the outside sounds. Team leaders would normally get a call, not drivers. Your phone hasn’t had a ping. You didn’t miss anything.
“Yes sir, I understand. We’re on our way.”
He hangs up. Without a word to you, he changes course. You were heading to the regional outpost. Your stomach flips as you pull onto Park Avenue. It’s going to be a long drive but you know what’s at the end.
He won’t answer your questions. You have so many, you’d think he’d go ahead and break down on one or two. He barely speaks. Your mask has long been removed. It’s after hours, there’s no need but his remains. You get a bad feeling that he doesn’t like you.
A large cave with sprawling pictographs covering the sloping walls, that’s the visual you get when you think of Mr. Grim. It couldn’t be further from the truth. Death lives in a high-rise in a large metropolitan area. You hadn’t expected it. You still wouldn’t believe it if you hadn’t seen it for yourself. He enjoys the metal and glass. In some weird way it makes sense. He’s death. Why would he be surrounded by nature, by definition an aspect of life?
The van turns another corner. As the buildings move from your view, you can see it, Death’s Tower. It’s pristine, a monolithic monstrosity of clean lines and beauty floating on a sea of gore. It piles on the sides of the streets here. Memories of a childhood in a colder climate, with the remnants of a pure white blizzard left behind by the snow plows, are degraded by these sights.
He stops short, across the street. The mask finally comes off. He looks young, definitely younger than you. Beyond the average facial structure so many people share, you can’t pinpoint any specific knowledge of him. His voice seemed so familiar before. It’s hard to accept that you wouldn’t know him. He sure seems to know you, though. He grabs your hand and grips it.
“Don’t show any fear, ok? Own up. Be you.”
You nod. You’re not sure why that reaction is so prevalent when you hear something you don’t understand but you do it anyway. He stares into your eyes before opening his door. He speaks again in a low, serious voice.
“I’m serious, just be you.”
You both exit. Standing on the red, sticky street is an odd feeling. You can feel the slippery entrails underfoot but, like everything else, it simply slides off you. You thank whoever’s responsible for that specific attribute of your clothes.
The driver escorts you inside. He opens the door for you, flashing a polite smile. He pats you on the back, using the contact to gently push you in the right direction.
The interior is just as lovely as the rest. Great granite steps lead to an expansive hallway lit by crystal clear walls of windows. There’s even a tree. It’s dead but it’s still a tree. There are no guards. They aren’t needed.
You spend so much attention on the building that you don’t see the bucket of gray cleaning water until your knee sends it askew and its contents have spread out over the floor at the base of the steps. You hop away from the pool, onto the first elevated plane. You share a glance with the driver. There doesn’t seem to be a mop. The Janitor must be on break. Thankfully, the water blends in with the floor. You can barely tell anything spilled after a few seconds. You decide to move on and your companion isn’t in opposition. Someone else will take care of it.
The elevator works. You’re glad. The building must be thirty floors. Walking those steps to the inevitable sacking didn’t seem very appealing. You pressed the button on a whim but it paid off as now you are standing in a cozy little compartment. You turn to the driver and ask his name. He answers like he was expecting the question.
“John.” He gives a sly smile,.“Or James. It depends.”
You’re too busy trying to determine your own future to worry about some cryptic answer concerning his past. The question had been a slip of the tongue anyway. It was a nervous tick for you to get to know people. You smile in return and wait for the door to open. The buttons are labeled. One button is labeled, that is. They’re all blank, save for the one at the top. Beside the big red activation switch is a crude drawing of a skull, scrawled on the brushed metal with white paint or something of that nature. It was already pressed, presumably by the driver.
You made your own music, humming some old tune by some seventies rock band. You couldn’t remember who. There’s a distinct recollection of it being the theme song of a television show. The driver smiles and joins in.
Closing your eyes, you see the man you strangled. At your side, on your belt, is your trinket. The length of rope you had been allowed to keep with you, the proof of your deeds that brought you here, it was always with you. It had felt like coming home after a prolonged stay at some grueling and tedious work. His windpipe had given away with the wonderful crumpling sensation, like crunching a paper cup in your hands but with so much more satisfaction. Looking back, you can’t decide exactly why you did it. Was it for the girl? Was there even a girl? When you were younger you’d been told you had an odd combination of disorders. Periodic amnesia would mingle with an overactive imagination. They assured you that you weren’t a bad person. You weren’t lying on purpose.
You’re sure you weren’t lying. They had always been wrong. There had been a girl there. You did it, you killed him because he was a monster. You saved her. You can at least hold onto that if fired and sent to wherever you’re meant to go. You smile, thinking that, no matter what happens, you’re a hero. So what if you enjoyed it?
A quick chime sounds. It startles you. The driver holds your shoulder. He gives another smile. The doors open on something a little more predictable for the abode of death itself. The hall is lined with lit torches. You immediately think of a fire hazard, then realize who lit them. He probably has it covered.
The corridor is a little longer than the reality. Your fear has risen ten fold since the first step. The huge black door, covered in shiny leather and guarded by a laughing, larger-than-life silver skull, looms like a breathing entity.
You stand, gripping your rope. The driver pushes but you barely feel it. The deep sounds of a large dog erupt when your fingers touch the skull. You can smell peppermint. The boss always smells of peppermint.
A voice, small, lithe and wiry tries to go lower than its register.
“Ashkii, get back. I told you we have guests, you simple creature.”
Footsteps precede the door opening. A mass of darkness greets you. Behind it, a huge brown Newfoundland shakes off its frustration. Compared to the creature in the cloak, Ashkii may as well be a Chihuahua.
Death sweeps its bleached hand in an arc, beckoning you in. The tone doesn’t fit. It never did. You were surprised the first time you heard him and you continue to be bewildered by it. He speaks in a funny accent that is Brittish and French at the same time, like a bad Monty Python impression.
“Enter, please. I’ve been expecting you.”
The driver winks and turns. He hasn’t been called. This isn’t a team meeting. This is just for you, just about you. You watch him walk away. The boss never tires. He never shows a sign of exasperation or annoyance. He has all the time in existence. You watch the man walk past the stairs, to the elevator. He stops long enough to press the button and give you a thumbs-up.
Now he’s gone.
Your first step in Death’s door is greeted by his dog bounding towards you. The large paws threaten to pound you into the ground before a skeletal hand pulls you back out into the hall and closes the door. You feel the ice, you feel the pain and the jolt that comes from touching Death. All of that through a full layer of clothes and a coat. Somewhere in the inconceivable face hidden by the unnatural hood, a smile stared back at you.
“On second thought, let’s take a walk. This shouldn’t take too long, then we can get you on your way.”
‘On your way.’ The words echo in your head while he leads you to the stairs. Your mind has convinced itself. You’re done for. This is it.
The door opens before anything touches it. You expected a bare stair-case, emulating the bone structure of the boss’s hands but you find something pleasantly different. It’s regal. Each step is plush and cushioned. The walls are dark stained wood paneling and adorned with paintings. Most are normal, portraits of people, smiling at you like family though you couldn’t have possibly met them. The first is a large scale couple, mismatched as they were; a young, charming man standing next to an old and withered yet royal looking woman.
Death distracted you from the collection.
“Listen, we need to talk. It’s come to my attention that you’ve been having some trouble on the job.”
You sputter; no words, just spit and air. The boss takes up the slack.
“Calm down, calm down. Everyone has issues sometimes. I’ve been meaning to digitize the lists but I just haven’t gotten around to it. So many years of paperwork have piled up on me, it’s gotten ridiculous. Corporate is really on my coccyx.”
Death is middle management. Again, it’s something that makes sense. If he was the true highest-up, why would he do anything? Why wouldn’t he delegate every task?
Another painting, it must be abstract, showing a nightmarish monster. It didn’t seem to fit with the others. Whatever it was, you’re not going to get it out of your head any time soon.
Death cleared its non-existent throat. You shook your head, trying to pay more attention to him. The paintings remind you of things. More and more though, they just looked like a random collection; a group of men in the old west, a bunch of arbitrary people and children. You stop looking when you get to the small, ornately framed rendition of a rock. There’s not rhyme or reason to them so it’s pointless to make sure you see every single one. You can’t believe you’ve let your mind wander so much at such an important time.
You explain what happened. It feels like there’s something in your throat, trying to get out the entire time.
Death gives a little laugh.
“My decision to allow you guys to keep an idol keeps coming back to bite me.” He notices your confusion. “The rope you carry, it links you to the world of the living. For most people, it’d be something more mundane, like a book or a piece of jewelry. It’s something every mortal has which they push massive amounts of emotional energy into. My hiring base, however, has never been so normal. You all have knives and guns and syringes.”
He laughed again. There is little mirth or derision. You can tell it’s expressing a feeling of regret. You remain quiet as he continues.
“When you hire serial killers, you tend to get a few unstable individuals. I was just worried you did it for kicks.”
You stop beside the last mural. An old man stares at you from a bed. Thoughts jumble in your head.
“I only killed one person before.”
The door at the foot of the stairs slowly creaks. The boss doesn’t turn back. He steps through and continues. You still hear the voice, practically behind your ears.
“Odd that your memories haven’t returned. I’d hoped your affliction would be cured upon your death but it seems not to have been.”
Your head shakes. An expression of an utter disgust at the idea crosses your face. You follow him to the steps at the entrance hall.
“No, I’m not dead. I’m alive and I’m not a serial killer.”
Death lifts his hand, bobbing his finger up and down.
“Don’t worry about it, everything’s going to be alright. The girl got her end anyway, she was hit by a ‘phantom’ van while exiting the building. You can thank your driver for that. Actually, you can thank yourself for that too. If you hadn’t gotten so emotional, he wouldn’t have been able to get her.”
He goes to take the last step.
“And I’m really sorry about ranting earlier. You can only imagine how lonely things are he–”
Death’s cloak swirls and opens when his foot doesn’t find the traction it needs. The water blends in so well with the floor. You see the monster in all of its glory. The bones aren’t human. Horns on the head protrude and puncture the black fabric surrounding them. It’s fleshless mouth gapes wide. He screams. It’s a sound combining all things gut wrenching into one, continuous pain.
He lands on the steps and the floor at the same time. You can’t hear him fracture, you’re caught holding your hands on your ears. You can feel warm liquid flowing from the damaged ear drums. How can you be dead if you’re bleeding?
You couldn’t hear him break but you can see it. A plume of dust blasts from the ancient thing. It still refuses to expire. It screams and flails and slams into the floor with overt and ridiculous strength. The scent of mint and cinnamon and cloves overpower your already fragile state.
A figure moves, running towards you from an adjoining hallway. Something flashes in its hand. The man strikes Death too many times to count. He works on the boss’s already shattered parts and severs them. Its slow. You close your eyes.
A waking dream brings images of street corners and blood. Something rights itself inside you. It hurts at first and brings the taste of bile and vomit but it passes. Soon you feel better than you have in a long, long time.
A finger taps your shoulder. Your driver is looking down on you, smiling, covered in Death’s dust, holding a pair of kitchen shears in one hand and a piece of parchment in the other. But now he’s not just your driver anymore. You smile. Your jaw works slowly and you speak.
He smirks, cocking his head to one side. He helps you to your feet, pushing the paper onto you.
“No shit, Sherlock.”
You refuse to ask how or why or any of those other questions that would detriment the good feeling all of this was bringing. You both step over Death’s body. You decide to leave it there. There is no illegal in this world anymore. As long as you keep the ball rolling, there won’t be any repercussions.
You look to your friend. He nods to the list. It’s a long one. It’s the master file, the names that have been evading the other reapers. It’s time to show everyone how the pros do it.
“What’s the name?”
You smile. You’ve heard people talking about this one.
“He’s going by Dean Geralds right now. Looks like he’s kept the first name for a while, he must like it.”
Watson nods, clicking the shears’ blades together. His idol was an odd choice but so was his complete compliance. You used those very tools to dismember him. You can’t sense any anger from him. Why should there be? What would it do? He gives you a sideways glance.
“So, what’s he going for?”
The grin spreads itself across your face. You wrap the rope around your forearm and pull the mask from your pocket. There are no more rules, but it’s still fun to have a ritual.
“His number’s finally up.”
Posted on 05/31/2011, in Short Stories and tagged aaron, aaron shively, character, characters, dark, death, errant, errant studios, fantasy, funny, horror, humor, literature, men, monster, monsters, myth, sci fi, shively, Story a day, studios, thriller, updates, weapons, writing. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.