Have you ever had a time where you thought things were going really well and life could hardly be better? Lies.
I’ve met Life. She delights in being unfair and favours only those who fight her and… well, perhaps I’d better start at the beginning.
My name is Cal Thorpe. Of Harcourt Marketing? I had just finished up a highly-successful marketing campaign for a sports medicine doctor who had written a book about some journey in some foreign country where he discovered the secret to life or some such nonsense. It was an overdone idea, but I had marketed it and done fantastically well. I was just that good.
Anyways, I was walking through the park on a shortcut to a celebratory dinner. Old lady Harcourt, the widow of the original owner, was being generous enough to treat me and a few of the other executives at a steak house across the city. When you got in with her, you were in. I could see a vice presidency in my near future. I was making money faster than I could spend it. I was practically rolling in new clients. Even now, my phone was vibrating with requests from people to take them on.
I was on top of the world.
And then, I wasn’t.
“Give me your wallet.” A pressure in my side. I panicked. There was a man mugging me in the middle of the park. He had a gun. “Give it to me!”
“A-alright,” I said, holding up my hands. All the success in the world couldn’t stop them from shaking. I reached into my jacket pocket and tried not to pass out.
“No funny business,” the man growled, pressing his gun deeper into my side.
“N-no o-o-of course n-not,” I stammered. I was reaching into my pocket when a dog barked from not far away. My mugger cursed violently and jerked against me. I felt time slow down. Then, there was a spectacular roaring clap and I was certain I was going to die.
“Good evening, Mr. Thorpe.”
I gaped at the figure in the three-piece suit. He had a hat on and it shaded most of his features. All I could see was that he was tall, slim, dressed in clothes that cost more than my last pay check, and that he was floating two inches above the ground. Oh, and he hadn’t been there two seconds before.
“I’m dead,” I said stupidly.
“No, not yet,” the figure said, striding casually forwards. His hands were in his pockets, completely relaxed and at ease. Didn’t he realise that there was a man with a gun right here? That I had been shot?
“I’ve been shot!” I’m fairly certain my intelligence had flown out the window.
“No, you are about to be shot. There is a difference.” His voice was kind and gentle, not at all judgemental for my panic an incoherence. “Look. See.”
I jumped away from my attacker and stared, mouth open like an idiot. The mugger — hood up, jeans torn, gun shining — was perfectly still, desperation twisting his features. Where I had been standing, was a single piece of metal. A bullet, suspended in mid-air, not moving. Had it continued on its path, I would most certainly be dead.
But I wasn’t.
“Am I hallucinating?” I asked carefully.
“That depends,” the figure shrugged, “how creative are you?”
“Uh-huh. I’m lying on the ground, bleeding out and this is what my brain comes up with to make it all better.”
“If you like. How about we go sit on that bench and have a talk.” He nodded to a spot not five hundred feet away. “This might make things clearer.”
“Alright,” I agreed. It wasn’t as though I had much else better to do. I was never going to make my dinner. Somehow, I doubted that the old bat would take dying as an excuse. Oddly enough, though, I didn’t really mind.
We sat on the bench. The light from the lamp post filtered down so that my companion’s face was still completely in shadow. I could see his hands though. They were long, elegant and black as charcoal. It seemed an unnatural colour, not quite human. I had known plenty of black men and women and had never seen someone whose skin seemed to just absorb light.
“I have come to offer you a job,” the figure said. I blinked.
“Really? My hallucination offers me a job?”
“I would like you to be my publicist or marketing specialist or whatever the term is.” He ignored my dig about being a hallucination. I wasn’t sure what that meant.
“You want me to be your PR guy?” I scuffed my shoe over the concrete, flattening a few blades of grass that managed to spring through the tough material. “Are you having image problems? Bad publicity can kill a career, you know.”
“Oh, I know.” I got the impression that he was smiling. I wanted to see his face, but the part of me that had learned good manners wouldn’t ask. So I just nodded blithely.
“You sure picked a bad time to ask me to represent you,” I jerked my head back to where the mugger stood, frozen.
“It was the only time I could ask you. I am bound by certain rules. But here, in my domain, I can do as I wish,” the figure said. I frowned. His domain? I was beginning to think that I wasn’t hallucinating. I wasn’t nearly this creative. I had failed my creative writing course during my undergraduate degree. And it was supposed to be impossible to fail that course.
“Who are you?” I asked, a bit rudely.
“You don’t want to guess? No? Very well.” He reached up with those long fingers and removed his hat. Some part of my mind started screaming, but I was too well trained in image preservation to do more than raise my eyebrows in surprise.
Like his hands, his skin was blacker than black. Shadows seemed to wreath around him, keeping the light away. His face was thin, gaunt almost, and he had a pleasant smile, though his teeth were not showing. He had no hair, no eyebrows or beard or anything. But that wasn’t the most startling thing. No, it was the fact that he had no eyes. Not just skin where eyes should be, but empty sockets. The darkness was vast in those two holes, and if I stared far enough for long enough, I would probably start seeing the end of the world. As it was, I saw my own life flash before my eyes. Except it was ending in several different ways.
Suicide by jumping.
I gasped and forced myself to blink, breaking whatever hold this thing had on me. He just raised his brows, an unusual expression in what was basically a skin-covered skull. “Do you understand, now?” he asked kindly.
“Why don’t you spell it out to me,” I gasped, my heart racing. There was no doubt in my mind that I was not lying on the ground bleeding out after being mugged. Whatever this was, it was horrific and far too real.
“I am Death,” he said gently.
“Ah,” I said. I fought the urge to put my head between my knees and breathe slowly. “I see.”
“Do you? So many have a difficult time accepting this,” Death replied, obviously pleased. I swallowed down a whimper.
“I can’t believe I’m sitting here with Death, being offered a job,” I muttered. I could believe it, actually. I just didn’t want to.
“Yes, now you see my problem. Why I want to hire you?” Death folded his hands neatly in his lap.
“You definitely need a PR specialist,” I agreed. My heart was racing, I was probably seconds away from passing out, and I was talking calmly with Death about marketing. Maybe being shot was the better option. “I… I can’t just take you on as a client through Harcourt, you know.”
“Of course not. Your world is not ready for such things,” Death scoffed, brushing some imaginary lint off his knee. “No, you would have to come with me. You will be well compensated. I can offer you a place to live, staff, resources, whatever you need.”
“But I’d have to leave,” I said. “I couldn’t just… freelance for you?”
“Unfortunately, that is not how this works.” Death’s voice grew colder. He nodded over to the frozen mugger. “I stopped you in the Instant of Death. I have only two options. Either I take you into my employ, which means that you are bound to me and my realm, or I return you to die. That is how this works. That is all I can offer.”
I swallowed, feeling a pain in my chest. “I’d never get to come back here?”
“Not as you were. I could, occasionally, allow you back under a special dispensation, but you would not be as you are now.”
“Why not?” Great plan, Cal. Ask stupid questions. If I go with Death, of course I wouldn’t be the same. Well, I could hope, couldn’t I?
“Because I will have removed you from the fate of the world. I could not simply let you return, to play havoc with fate. You would be separate, removed. And that requires certain changes.”
I swallowed again, leaning back against the bench and looking at the sky. There were no stars. It was just shadow, reflecting the lights of the city. It might be my last time looking at the sky, and there weren’t even stars to look at. “I don’t want to die.”
“Not many do.”
“I mean, I’ve just gotten to the good part of my life. I’m doing well. I’m a success! I have a purpose and a reason to get up in the morning,” I pleaded. Death looked at me and I suddenly felt very, very small. Okay, sure I wasn’t as tall as he was. I was an average person, with an average life and average looks. My hair was even an average shade of brown and I wore glasses. But it was my average life. I was doing well at it. I didn’t want to give it up.
“You would still have a life,” Death pointed out. “You would still be marketing, still have a purpose. It would just be in a different place. With wonders to occupy your every moment. And magic most people never even dream about.”
“But I would have to give up everything I have here,” I said.
“Yes,” Death nodded. He paused, then, “Well, not everything. I could let you take your belongings with you.”
“But everything else. Friends. Family. All gone.”
“Yes,” Death nodded again, still infuriatingly calm. “Though it does not much matter, really. Your choice is not between a life working for me and a life working for Harcourt. Your choice is between life and death, as it were. No pun intended.”
“Mmmm,” I smiled weakly. I took a deep breath and tried to be reasonable. Think logically. My options were death or Death. Obviously, there wasn’t much of a choice. “Alright,” I said. “But I have to tell you, there are a few things. First, I’m your PR person. All your decisions that might be seen by anybody, you run through me. I’ll be needing as much information as possible about your activities. That way, I can make sure they’re painted in a good light… Do you have social media wherever it is we’re going?”
“Indeed,” Death said, frowning. “It is a pervasive thing to spread so far from this realm.”
“Good. I’ll get started on your accounts first thing.”
“So you agree?”
“Didn’t I just say I did?” I snapped. Snapping at your new boss, Death or no, is probably never a good idea. I was having a bad day.
“Very well,” Death smiled again. “Then I insist we shake hands.”
He held out his shadowy appendage and I could feel the raw power coming off of his skin. I coughed nervously. “Is that strictly necessary?”
“Actually, yes,” Death said. “It binds you to me and seals the contract. It will not kill you.”
“Ha ha,” I replied drily. But I took his hand.
Power flooded through me, touching every nerve ending I had and setting each and every one of them on fire. I was pretty sure I screamed, but my brain was too overwhelmed by whatever was happening to take note. I saw colours swirling around me that didn’t exist in nature. There were sounds running through my head, somewhere between a scream and a song. I could see Death, as calm as ever, sitting there, looking not at all regretful about what was happening.
Then, I passed out.