Death stands at a dark crossroad, fingers drumming against his leg as he waits. Through the foggy silhouettes of his surroundings, he can see, vaguely, a white pinprick of light in the distance. But that’s all he sees. It wasn’t that long ago when he’d been able to look around, even in remote locations like this, and could see at least three little souls within a hundred mile radius.
The population surges is one of the reasons why he’s now standing at this crossroad, waiting.
Finally, out of the fog, a young woman appears. Her tangled hair remains as black as the first day she’d dyed it. Smierc was one of his first recruits, but she wears her age well. Her black jacket and jet pants are as tattered and unkempt as his own, though… There’s never any time to fix them.
Smierc gives Death a deft salute, her expression grave. “I’m sorry for the delay. Another soul cropped up right as I was about to leave.”
Death merely shrugs. “As is the way of things at present,” he notes. “So, you wanted this meeting. What’s wrong?”
Smierc turns and walks to the edge of the intersection, looking east. It is a bad habit of hers. Even after centuries of traveling around the world, helping Death, she always seems to gravitate towards her place of birth. Death, as usual, cannot fault her for it. He is always looking up for roughly the same reason.
He can tell something is eating at her. Long pauses never bode well. “Smierc.”
She sighs. “We need another recruit.”
Ah. So that explains her hesitancy. She had been there for each new recruit Death had been forced to make, to handle the constant rise of lost life. Death’s power is vast; it must be, to do the work that is required. But he can only be in one place at once, and though his people help keep souls from getting out of hand, each new recruit must be able to take at least some of his power. And, vast as it may be, it is not limitless.
“What is the current death rate?” He asks, running a hand over his tired face.
Again, that pause. “A little over six thousand per hour, sir.”
He nearly chokes. Of course it is high; it has been since the eighteenth century. His people are skilled, but not that skilled; Smierc is only one of about one hundred others. Death can do the math. They would have a minute to take care of each soul. An easy enough task, if traveling didn’t take quite so long. If the odd soul didn’t drag their feet more than usual. And he knows it will all only get worse.
Of course, one hundred helpers has already taken its toll on him. It is why he feels so tired even though Smierc and the rest have demanded he hand over some of his workload to them. Another recruit will make him a little slower, feel a little more drawn. But they’re going to need all the help they can get.
“Alright, Smierc. I’m assuming you have someone in mind?”
“I do,” she says. He appreciates her confidence. It makes things marginally easier. “She was born bilingual and –”
Death immediately raises an eyebrow. “She?”
“Yes. It’s the twenty-first century, sir. It’s about time I stopped being the only woman in the business.”
Death grunts. “It’s not about gender equality or lack thereof,” he says sternly. Smierc is old enough to have earned the right to talk back to him like that, but he is still far older. “It’s knowing how short a time we have to work with each soul, and that time gets shaved down significantly if they all have to ask Death is a female?”
“I’ve been dealing with it for a long time, and I’m still one of your fastest workers.”
He grimaces, but raises his hands in defeat. Time is something of a commodity in their line of work, and can’t be wasted on arguments. “Very well. But considering death shares a common tongue, being bilingual doesn’t exactly help her case.”
Smierc shakes her head and scowls. Death knows he’s trying her patience, that she just wants to get this thing done, but beyond hesitating to give up even more of his power, he also recognizes the long-term commitment. “Alright, I give up.” She tosses a bound file at him, and he catches it on instinct.
Inside the file holds the woman’s more important details, as well as a photograph. He immediately can tell why Smierc likes her for the job. A youngish looking woman named Laura, she appears soft and resilient where Smierc is harsh and steadfast. A woman to lure souls to the end rather than bully them to into it. With her, femme fatale would take on a whole new meaning.
“I can do the convincing, sir, if you would like,” Smierc says politely.
He knows it’s not meant as an insult, but he peers at her over the edges of the file anyway. “I’m old and drawn thin, Smierc, but I’m still more than capable of this. Alright. I’ll go to see her. You should be heading back, if we’re to keep from getting too far behind.”
Smierc gives him a small shrug, and though he notices her hesitation, she’s disappeared back into the fog of the in-between before he can say anything. Not that he would have.
With the distraction gone, Death can return to inspecting the file. He notes that Laura is a Christian who believes she’s been good enough for Heaven. She will not like what he has to say, though of all the Christians he’s had the honor of sending to the other side, she certainly won’t be the worst. He scans the next few pages. At the last, a small note flutters to the ground. He frowns, and reaches down to pick it up. The note is in Smierc’s hand. “Don’t lie to her,” it says. That is all.
The frown deepens, but he slides the note back in, tucks the folder in the pocket of his jacket, and navigates through the empty space between the living and the empty nonliving fog. He starts to count down from sixty. Five are gone by the time he steps inside the apartment building at the center of some nameless town in Kentucky. An odd place to find someone for this line of work, but he will take what he can get.
There is a little white light pulsing before him, just as Smierc promised. Death pulls open one side of his jack and pulls the scythe from the pocket within. These are little parlor tricks he will likely have to give up after this recruit, or the next if he is lucky, but he has every intention of making use of them until then.
He passes through the building walls. After all, for him, they are made of nothing but fog. Once he is in the same room as her, the white light takes on the shape of a midde-aged woman with blond hair and those doe eyes from her file. She is looking down at her body, and Death can imagine he knows what she’s thinking.
“Quite unfortunate,” he says. The woman jumps and spins around, but he continues. “Dying in one’s bath tub. Do you know the chances of that? Somewhere between one and a million.”
She blinks. “Is that what’s going on? I’m dead? But…” Laura’s eyebrows pinch together. “This is not heaven.”
Death fights back a laugh and resists the urge to ask her how she could possibly know what heaven looks like. He would not want this to be it, either. If they had time, and perhaps they will if she agrees to this, he would empathize and tell her how unfortunate the truth about the end actually is. Instead, he must speed through what she’ll want to know and get to the biggest request Death can make.
Laura opens her mouth, only a half-step ahead of him, but Death is not so old he cannot reclaim lost ground. “I’m terribly sorry, miss Laura, but we must hurry through this little party and get through to the fun stuff. The terrible news is that your body is dead. It’s no longer working. Nothing to be done.” Death straightens his jacket, looking somber. This is where she will kick up the most fuss, he knows. He considers lying, but only for a brief moment. The note in his jacket pocket burns. Don’t lie to her. “The other bad news is that heaven does not exist.”
As expected, horror dawns across her face like a black sunset. “What…”
“The good news,” he continues, hoping to cut the blubbering in its tracks, “Is that it doesn’t matter, because I have a proposition for you, miss Laura Bodes.”
She surprises him by stepping away. “I will not agree to anything. I know what you are.”
“You… what?” Then it dawns on him, and he wishes to shake the woman unconscious. Death wishes Smeirc had found an atheist, though he knows from experience that atheists aren’t always the best choices. “I’m not the devil, or some demon looking to make a deal. My name is Death, as I am Death, and you, Laura, have limited options. The dead outnumber the living, but the dead have had their time. You have. It’s time to make way, to let go, or…”
Laura flinches. “Or?”
“Or help us.” The voice does not belong to Death. It is a female, one he recognizes well. One he wants to throw something at.
Smierc swaggers in with a lopsided grin that says she knows you’ll agree with her even if you don’t know it yet. Her confidence was why Death chose her as his first helper all those centuries ago.
She comes up beside him and snatches at the frayed edges of his jacket. “My, my, Laura, just look at the state of the man who has come to claim your soul.” Smierc tisks, and he swats her fingers away. Whatever she was up to, he hasn’t quite figured it out yet. Smierc shrugs, giving him a toy grin, and pulls out a file. He can see over her shoulder that whatever is in it is blank. “Do you know how many people die every day?”
Laura shakes her head, still staring at them both blankly as if she’s not sure where this is going.
“Over one hundred and fifty thousand. See, now, we’re more than up to the task, Death and I, but that’s quite the large number. I’m sure you’d agree?”
Laura nods blankly, and Death again resists the urge to laugh. It’s not her fault she must hear the truth. It’s actually quite unlucky for her, because otherwise she would have been told whatever she wanted to hear.
Smierc stands sagely between Death and Laura. Not exactly between, of course. As always, the east pulls at her. “It all boils down to one simple choice for you, Miss Laura Bodes. If you’ve had enough of life, we’ll go ahead and start this whole spiel over and you can just float away into oblivion. Or, if you’re as good as you think you are, you’ll don the black, have a taste of that immortality we can give you, and you’ll help us help others float away into oblivion.”
Laura doesn’t answer right away. She just stands there, brows pinched together. “Are you asking me to become death?”
“No,” Smierc says crisply, grinning tightly. “He’s Death.”
Death waves at her in case she’d forgotten he is there. “I think she means death, lower-case, Smierc. Doing what we do, so on and so forth. The answer to that question, then, would be yes.”
Laura doesn’t answer. Her eyes are still blank.
“Ever heard of the Lorelei myth? Think of it that way.”
Smierc steps closer to him. “Doesn’t that have a nice ring to it? Lorelei.”
“Come on, Laura Bodes,” Death says, well aware they’ve likely hit their sixty seconds. “Immortality. I know you’re not ready to disappear quite yet. No one ever is. This is a way to do the world some more good, and you don’t have to die for it. You’re a good person, we both know that. Do a little more good, then.”
He sees that what he’s said has sparked some thought in Laura. Her eyes are darting back and forth between Smierc and him. Death wonders what’s holding her back, if she doesn’t believe him when he says there is no heaven and that he is no demon. He thinks it will come down to a question of faith versus morality. He thinks he knows which one will win out.
“What you do is… good?”
“The best. For the living, and no doubt for the dead.”
She looks down at the ground, at the foggy silhouette that is her body. “You’re right,” Laura says with a sigh. “I’m not ready to let go of this world. If you can swear that this is good, I guess I will come with you.”
“I swear it,” both he and Smierc said together. Her with a little more conviction than him.
Death shrugs off his jacket, pulling out all of the things he’d taken to hiding in there. With a quick snap of the wrist, his jacket morphs into the long black cloak of old. Better to do it now before he finds himself incapable.
Laura pales, but if her resolve wavers, she doesn’t say it. He gives her his best smile.
They’ll have themselves a Lorelei.