After my trip to Franco’s, I head over to Alan and Nat’s house. The Chicago Death Leaders socialize regularly, but if Franco ever asks, we’re making sure that our numbers coincide. This profession can get lonely, and if it were up to Franco, we’d all really look like death. Replenishing—even for Death Leaders—is a must.
I knock on the door a few extra times so that they can hear the sound and see me standing outside of their door. It is something that Death Leaders do particularly well: listening to a sound and gaining a visual picture from it based on the sound waves that something makes. I can tell by the footsteps that Nat is on her way to the door. Like the rest of us, Nat and Alan stay in a humble apartment on the west side of Chicago. Nat and Alan are married, which isn’t technically forbidden among Death Leaders, but it isn’t common. Marriage is looked at as a distraction, but since Nat’s family name is well known [and revered], Franco doesn’t say anything about it. Their apartment has two bedrooms with a spacious black and leopard themed living room—not something you’d think that the Death Leaders for natural causes and accidents would have, but I’ve learned that in this business, anything goes.
“Hey, Chris! Come on in!” Natalie says enthusiastically as she opens the door. A fresh, warm scent of chocolate chip cookies hits me immediately. For Death Leaders, eating good food is like going on a roller coaster at an amusement park: a thrill but not in the least bit a necessity.
Nat brushes back some stray hairs with her hand and keeps her smile on like it’s something she’s rehearsed all week. She is gaunt, which really highlights her cheekbones. Her cheeks curve inward instead of pucker out. Those features combined with her small stature make her look her age. That is, her true age, instead of the 16-year-old bodies and faces that each Death Leader has.
I notice Joseph sitting on one of the black leather couches and can’t help but wince. Everything on his face—nose, chin, cheekbones— comes to a point. He looks like a cartoon version of Satan. Alan and Nat have never seemed to mind him, but I’ve never trusted him.
“How’d the bee thing work today?” Nat asks me before I sit down.
“It worked fine. Thanks again,” I say, watching Joseph out of the corner of my eye as I sit. Nat has found a way to inject the bees with the purple liquid that I use to spread disease throughout the body. Using Alan’s knowledge on mind control, she’s also engineered the bees so that they only sting my intended target. I think it’s genius and want to tell her that again for the fiftieth time, but with Joseph there, I barely want to mention my name, let alone information about my work.
“They’re not gonna be effective forever. Eventually their species will evolve to overcome being controlled by the formula I gave them. You know that, right?” she asks, smirking at me.
“I know,” I say smirking back. “But at least that gives me a hundred more years or so to think of something else.”
Although I can’t see him yet, I hear Alan call to me from the kitchen. “Hey, Chris!” he says. He sticks his head out of the small kitchen and looks at me happily.
I casually wave to him.
“Hey there. How’s it been going, Chris?” Joseph asks with a snarky grin.
“It’s goin’,” I reply. I turn my attention back to Alan. “Hey, what are you baking in there? Smells burnt,” I tease Alan. He runs his short fingers through his black hair nervously and chuckles.
“I’m working on a new formula,” Nat says cutting in. “It keeps things fresh for longer. Ingredients and chemicals and whatnot. Alan thought it might be interesting to try it out on food to see if I’m on to something, I guess.” It doesn’t surprise me that Nat has been working on a formula for the hell of it. She’s always dabbling in some type of science experiment. What I do wonder is what she needs to keep fresh and why. I don’t ask out of fear that I’ve already overstepped my boundaries.
Alan’s a smaller guy with deep brown eyes and a wide nose who looks and sounds like he could probably be intimidated easily, but nobody would say the same about me. My voice doesn’t have that nasally teenage sound to it like his does; It’s low and calm, like a sage’s. My eyes are almond shaped and so dark that they’re almost black. My jawbones are defined, even when I’m not clenching them. I am also the biggest out of the entire group at 6’4 and 225 pounds of natural muscle. I have no idea why I’m so big. I guess my birth father was. A big black guy with bronze skin and straight, coarse hair.
I can tell by Alan’s silence that he thinks I’m being condescending again. I bite my bottom lip and nod nervously. Nat takes an empty seat next to Joseph.
“Just goin’?” Joseph asks, looking at me. He sits with both arms spread out on the back of the couch and one foot crossed over his knee like he is king. At times I think he forgets that he’s just one of us, no better or no worse.
“Just goin,” I answer back. I am growing suspicious of why Joseph has taken a sudden interest in me, but I try to remain cool. “Hey Al, are those chocolate chip?” I ask.
“They sure are,” he says as he comes to sit down next to me, forgetting about my earlier offense.
“Really because I heard that you got a rather interesting assignment earlier today, so I’m just checking to see if it’s just goin’ or if you had any questions. You know…special missions require special attention. Meticulousness. Care.” Joseph says, sparking up the conversation again. If I did have any questions, Joseph would be the last person I’d ask about it. Someone from another quadrant told me that he botched his last twelve assignments. Only one person in each assignment was supposed to die. Instead, that number had skyrocketed to 27 in less than a few months. I’m almost positive that Franco only keeps him around just in case he gets in a bind and needs to reduce the population quickly. Though it’s not ideal, a high rise in crime is one of those things that you could get away with in Chicago. Out of my last twelve assignments, I hadn’t botched any and had executed them all perfectly. I wonder what gives Joseph the confidence to think that he could help someone like me.
“How do you know about my assignments?” I ask coolly, hiding my annoyance.
“Seth told me. You must be some kind of special,” Joseph says. Each quadrant has four types of Death Leaders: accidental, crime, natural causes, and disease/illness. Seth is the disease Death Leader for the Loop.
“Really?” asks Nat. I can’t tell whether she’s intrigued or jealous.
I clench my jaw. Who said I wanted the other Death Leaders from my quadrant, and outside of my quadrant for that matter, to know that Franco had given me a special assignment? I could punch Joseph, but it’s too late. The cat’s rotten, stinking remains are out of the bag.
“Yeah, he said something about Disease having more power and influence than the other three deaths. I can’t imagine. So yeah, I know that’s a lot of pressure for you to be under. Did you have any questions that you needed to ask me?” asks Joseph flippantly.
“Questions? Why would I have questions for you? You’re not even a disease Death Leader. You have nothing to do with this,” I say, trying to remain calm. I struggle to not let Joseph see me clench my jaw.
“Touché, touché. I was just offering my help. You know, just a little assistance from someone who’s done this a little longer,” Joseph says. He tries to make it sound genuinely helpful for Nat and Alan.
I know what Joseph is getting at. There had been a few deaths that I had not been able to finish, but that number didn’t compare to the amount that Joseph had botched. Everything he touches turns rotten. It’s what he’s known for: being a screw up.
“Longevity doesn’t always equal success. I’m sure you can attest to that, right?” I say to Joseph.
“And success doesn’t always equal longevity…would you agree, Chris?” Joseph says.
Is that a threat? I contemplate on what Joseph has said and answer casually to show him that he hasn’t gotten underneath my skin that easily. “Thanks for your offer to help,” I say to Joseph. “You’re right. You definitely know what you’re doing. You know, Franco mentioned that the numbers for crime in Chicago are a little high. So high that the numbers seem to be a smidge… off. Unnatural, even.”
Joseph snarls at me. He can’t deny that the numbers for crime on the west side of Chicago are out of control. His control. His reputation of epic screw up is starting to solidify. Just like his father’s bad name remains, so will his. Like father, like son.
“The numbers on this end have been pretty consistent for the most part,” Natalie says in her raised, controlled voice. She is smaller than most Death Leaders, and female. The command in her voice can make you forget that, though.
“Not many old people dying, Nat?” Joseph says with a chuckle in his voice.
“What is with you?” I ask him. “Why are you always so rude? Cut it out man.” My patience is running thin with Joseph and he knows it.
“Right. I’m sorry, Nat. I didn’t mean to offend. Can you forgive me?” he says.
“Yeah, I’m sure he didn’t mean anything by it,” Alan says.
Nat doesn’t reply.
I had debated talking about Tracy, my latest assignment. Sometimes you could really learn some things from the other Death Leaders in your area if you just talked to them about your assignments—a point I picked up from my father. The problem is, Franco always discourages us from doing this since he thinks that we are supposed to be learning through observation rather than rumors or word of mouth. Rumors or word of mouth could be false and could cause an illogical diagnosis. What you see with your own eyes is what’s real, at least in our line of work anyway. If I asked anything about her, I would have to be careful about word getting back to Franco. The one exception to that rule is Nat. She and I have similar jobs, only her disease and illness assignments are over the age of 80—she understands me better than any other Death Leader in our quadrant. If I didn’t have her to talk to and help me out here and there, I don’t know how I’d make it.
Joseph, on the other hand, is someone who I’ve always felt like I had to keep a close eye on. Today, there is something that makes me especially uneasy about him. He is on edge, looking for something to pick at and hover over. I decide to discuss Tracy with Alan and Nat when Joseph isn’t around.
“Door Scene?” Alan asks us. Door Scene is a behind-the-door charades type of game. Two Death Leaders go behind a closed door and the other two Death Leaders on the opposing team try to guess the scene that the other team is acting out. To make the game more difficult, and impossible for non-death leaders to play, the players behind the door are not allowed to speak; they are only allowed to make other sounds that don’t involve voice. Nat, Joseph, and I make the same sour face at Alan’s suggestion. We have played Door Scene at least eight times this month so far.
“Door Scene was last time,” Nat says.
“Last time was two days ago,” Nat insists.
Alan throws his hands up politely in frustration.
“How about a word puzzle? We haven’t done that in a while,” Joseph suggests.
Nat and Alan nod but seem indifferent.
“There should be some in the closet. I know I’ve got some old puzzle books and probably a board game from the old days,” Alan says.
I watch a small smile spread over Joseph’s face. Nat and Alan think that he is pleased that they are pleased. What he is really excited about is being able to control yet another situation.
Joseph volunteers to go look for the game in the hallway closet. He walks past the door that’s always shut, and probably locked. Nat seems apprehensive about anyone going near it and I can see her eyes follow Joseph as he walks down the hallway.
Like me, Joseph is taller than both Nat and Alan, although his shape really does resemble a gangly teenager’s. I watch as he grunts and moves a few things out of the way on the top closet shelf, then walks our way, smiling with a red, dusty, tattered board game box in hand. I watch him as he sets it down on the table and makes casual conversation with Nat and Alan, like they are best friends. I watch him closely for the rest of the night.