The rattling baritone echoed throughout the cavernous study; reverberating off the many heavy wooden shelves and rich, black drapes. It softened to a gentle susurration as the Grim Reaper sat forlornly at his desk.
In his hands he was holding a black fedora.
Death sighed again.
‘Is everything alright?’
It was Albert.
He shuffled slowly across the carpeted floor towards the expansive desk, a cup of tea gently tinkling in his trembling hand.
‘OH, I WAS JUST THINKING,’ said Death. His voice had a unique quality to it by both sounding faraway and at the same time as if it was being spoken from directly inside your head.
‘Again?’ asked Albert, a wince crossing his face as he lowered the teacup on to the exquisitely polished wood of his employer’s desk. Well, not as exquisitely as it used to be, thought Albert with no small amount of remorse. He just couldn’t seem to make it shine like he used to. Granted, Albert would never live out his final days as long as he stayed within Death’s domain, but that didn’t seem to stop the aches and pains from mounting up. Albert didn’t like to complain, though. He was far too proud for that.
‘I WAS JUST THINKING ABOUT THE DUTY,’ said Death, as much to himself as to Albert.
‘What about it?’
‘SOMETIMES IT DOESN’T SEEM…FAIR.’
‘It’s not meant to be fair,’ said Albert, with no small amount of bitterness towards the mortality of man in his voice. ‘It’s just meant to be…well, there!’
Death said nothing.
He turned the black fedora over and over in his bony hands, staring intently at it. Of course, when you’re Death and can never blink or close your eyes, staring intently is pretty much all you can do, but Death seemed very taken with the hat, and his thoughts surrounding it.
‘You’re not…getting ideas again, are you, Master?’ asked Albert hesitantly.
‘You know, of abandoning the duty again.’
‘Oh I know it wasn’t your intention to cause such a mess, but that’s what happens when Death goes AWOL.’
‘WHAT’S AWOL?’ asked Death, mildly curious. ‘IS IT A SMALL ISLET SOMEWHERE?’
‘Absent without leave, Master,’ said Albert, irritably. ‘Basically it means buggering off when you’re not supposed to.’
‘BUT I AM DEATH. WHOM DO I NEED TO SEEK APPROVAL FROM TO TAKE LEAVE, SHOULD I WISH IT?’
‘It’s not the seeking approval part that I take issue with, Master. It’s the seeking forgiveness from the poor sods, of which I’m usually one, who have to pick up the slack every time you start feeling sorry for humanity and you go on one of your little…excursions.’
Death looked up at Albert, the deep-set pools of blue eternity fixing the aged ex-wizard with the same expression that everyone got from the Pale Rider.
‘AM I REALLY THAT MUCH BOTHER?’ asked Death.
‘You can be, begging your pardon,’ said Albert.
‘WELL, I AM SORRY FOR ANY INCONVENIENCE CAUSED.’
‘Apology accepted, Master. Now, tea?’
Death placed the black fedora on the desk as Albert busied himself around the study. He cast the occasional furtive glance at the hat as he drank his tea.
Again, Death sighed.
Death looked up as fragments of crockery and errant teaspoons cascaded to the floor. The resultant clashing and clattering, mingled with Albert’s continued swearing, momentarily filled the study with more noise than it had experienced in an age.
‘Sorry, Master. Old fingers not what they used to be.’
‘ARE YOU ALRIGHT, ALBERT?’ asked Death, rising from his chair. ‘YOU DON’T SEEM YOURSELF LATELY.’
‘Just old, Master,’ said Albert, trying to sound defiant but falling somewhere short of the mark. ‘I’ll be okay.’
‘ARE YOU SURE?’
‘Yes, as long as you don’t wind up talking yourself into going off somewhere again!’
‘WHAT HAS THAT GOT TO DO WITH YOU DROPPING THE TEA TRAY?’
‘Because, Master, if you do one again…’
‘Run off. Scarper. Do a bunk. Leg it.’
‘IF I LEAVE, YOU MEAN?’
‘Yes! If you leave, again, you can bet your bottom dollar that I’ll be the one who’ll have to come and fetch you back, again, and I’ve got barely any time left to play around with.’
Death was silent for a moment.
‘ALBERT, HAVE I CAUSED YOU TO ADVANCE IN AGE?’
‘Indirectly, yes, Master.’
‘AND THIS IS WHY YOU HAVE DROPPED THE TEA TRAY?’
‘Well it hasn’t bloody helped!’
‘I AM SORRY, ALBERT. IS THERE ANYTHING THAT I CAN DO TO HELP?’
‘Huh, hire me an assistant?’ said Albert, sarcastically.
Death thought on this for a moment.
‘But we can’t do that, can we?’ said Albert, pulling the conversation, he felt, back to reality. ‘Last time you did that the universe was nearly destroyed and your daughter ended up eloping with the little perisher!’
‘YES,’ said Death, not really paying attention.
It could work. And why not? Death made the rules in Death’s Domain, after all. And if Albert really needed the help it was the least he could do.
Death walked back to his desk and snatched the black fedora up with a swipe of his hand.
‘Master?’ Albert looked up from clearing the mess the tea tray had left just in time to see the trails of Death’s robe disappearing out of the study door.
‘Bugger!’ said Albert, to the universe in general.
It would have taken Albert a long time to find Death, had he not had a very good idea of where he was going.
It was the hat. That’s what set him off.
Albert shuffled wheezily into the hour glass room and made his way along the seemingly endless shelves. Glass orbs and strange, ethereal lights hemmed the old man in on both sides, but Albert stared straight ahead. He didn’t need to check where he was going; he knew what he was looking for. Or, more accurately, he knew what would be missing when he got there.
I knew it!
Albert spat another curse into the universe, turned on his slippered heel and shuffled back off along the shelves.
Me and my big mouth, he thought as he left the hour glass room and hurried as best he could along the corridor.
He was going to be too late, he knew it, but the stickler in him would never forgive him if he didn’t at least try and have a good moan about this.
Albert rounded a corner and saw light emanating from under one of the doors.
You’ve bloody done it, haven’t you? You’ve gone and bloody done it!
Albert threw open the door and stared at the two figures that were standing in the middle of a circle of various occult symbols. He knew what each and every one of them was for and he scowled uncontrollably as Death handed the black fedora to the newcomer.
‘I BELIEVE THIS BELONGS TO YOU.’
‘Thank you,’ said the new assistant, as he adjusted the hat to the right angle.
Death turned to face Albert, who was still scowling.
‘ALBERT, I WOULD LIKE YOU TO MEET YOUR NEW ASSISTANT. YOU ARE RIGHT; I CANNOT NEGLECT THE DUTY, WHICH MEANS I CANNOT REVERSE WHAT TIME HAS DONE TO YOU. I CAN ONLY APOLOGISE FOR PAST CARELESSNESS AND HOPE THAT THIS SMALL GESTURE OF HELP WILL MAKE UP FOR IT IN ANY WAY.’
Albert stalked into the room and circled the newcomer like a lion eyeing up its next meal. In the privacy of his own mind he knew that the help would be useful; he’d just have liked to have been asked first.
‘Right,’ he said, after a long pause. ‘Ever mucked out a stable before?’
‘No, but I’m willing to give it a try.’
‘Well, get yourself outside and we’ll see how much of a pig’s ear you make of it.’
‘What do I call you?’
‘My name’s Terry, nice to meet you.’