Death awoke to the most stupendous hangover he’d had in years. He felt like someone had just planted a scythe in his brain.
“Oh fuck. How much did I drink?”
He vaguely remembered trying to poor tequila into a hollowed out skull and had a sense that it had gone badly.
The necrophone beeped. Death swore, stumbled out of bed and began rummaging through the pockets of his robes. There were handfuls of loose change, a bottle opener he must have taken from the bar, and a scrap of paper with the scrawled phone number of the recently divorced woman who worked in HR. Half a memory began to float back to him but remembering made his brain hurt. He let it drift away.
Eventually he found his necrophone. His ‘To Slay list’ had just been updated.
Death opened the app and read the message. Cyril Snodgrass’s 9am car crash had been downgraded from fatal to coma-inducing. He was now not due to die until 5:18pm three weeks on Tuesday when the soon to be widowed, Betty Snodgrass, would agree to turn off life support.
“Thank Hell for that!” said Death collapsing dramatically back down on his bed.
He checked the time. 6:45am. He had nothing until Wilma Pilchard at 2:34pm. And that was a natural causes job – piece of cake.
He snuggled back under the covers and promised to himself that when next year’s Doom Mongers came around – the legendarily boozy award ceremony for employees of GrimReaper Terminations – he would make sure he had other plans.
When Death is portrayed in works of fiction, whether they be comic books, movies or just stories to scare the grandparents, he is usually portrayed as a solitary figure. The notion is, of course, ludicrous. Approximately 150,000 people die each and every day. To expect one person to oversee so many expirations is nonsensical. It would be a recipe for disaster.
An unsupervised death is very dangerous think indeed. There are reports from the 18th Century, long before GrimReaper Terminations became the smooth-running efficient outfit it is today, where the lack of qualified Deathnicians often resulted in the consciousness of the dying to leap into a nearest available container. If the rumours are to be believed, Sir Robert Thackery, who was killed falling from his horse in a farmer’s field, spent the first 5 years of his afterlife inside the mind of a goat. It was even worse for Elizabeth Hulme, who fell into a well, and awoke to the unnerving realisation that she had become a bucket.
In the UK alone, GRT employs a dedicated workforce of 700 Deathnicians, each dealing with somewhere between 2 and 4 cessations a day. GRT prides itself on being an equal opportunities employer and proudly boasts that over 200 of its field operatives are women. A sign of progress in what has traditionally been a male-dominated industry. By 2030, it’s hoped that the male to female ratio among Deathnicians will be a 50-50 split.
This particular Death, the one who we last saw trying to sleep off a crippling hangover, was called Barry.
Barry Death – Deathnician 6745 – Assigned to Northeast Sussex Subdivision C.
Barry Death awoke for the second time that day shortly before noon. His headache had gone but he was left with that strangely vacant feeling that so often follows a hangover – as if he were watching himself from a couple of paces behind.
He sat up and, making an immediate decision that he was not yet ready for such rigorous physical exertions, lay back down and turned on the TV. There was a political debate on. With the election for the new Reaper General only two days away, there was nothing but political debates on at this point. Barry watched the candidates with no real interest. Like everyone else at GRT, he knew that there was only one logical choice.
Despite recent calls for reform from more progressive elements, the Reaper General still held ultimate power within GrimReaper Terminations. He appointed his own ministers who formed the Executive Panel and were responsible for drafting and enforcing all death related legislation. In theory, it was supposed to ensure everyone pulled in the same direction. In practice, it left room for massive abuses of power, such as when the infamously lazy, Protracted Death, (Reaper General 1967-1971) decided that no one should be allowed to die in the last four months of his administration because he didn’t want to fill in any more paperwork. Funeral parlours went out of business, hearse drivers were laid off and gravediggers were pushed to the very brink of starvation. It was a disaster.
The upshot of all this is that to have any chance of being elected Reaper General these days, you must be seen as a safe pair of hands. Someone who won’t be over ambitious but also will not seriously bollocks things up.
This year’s safe pair of hands was Angelo Death. Already working within the administration, Angelo Death was loved by no one but admired by all. He had a record of achieving very little and of consistently resisting change. He was the perfect candidate.
And he was owning the debate. While his opponent, the notoriously left wing Painless Death, was outlining detailed plans on how to reduce slayings in the most overworked districts – by transporting the terminally ill to remote Scottish islands, where Deathnicians sometimes went months without a job- Angelo spoke in broad empty platitudes explaining how he’d do nothing at all. The audience lapped it up.
Barry was beginning to doze off when he was startled by a banging on his door.
“Good afternoon Barry.”
It was Violet Death – Deathnician 1228 – Assigned to Northeast Sussex Subdivision B. Violet was GRT’s most efficient operative, she had been given the much coveted Death Time Achievement award at last night’s Doom Mongers to prove as much. Violet was young, confident and as sexy as it’s possible for a skeleton to be. Despite humanity’s continued predilection for procreation, the population in her district had decreased every year since 1998. She was a killing machine. And Barry despised her.
“What do you want Violet?”
“You seemed to be enjoying yourself last night sweetheart,” said Violet ignoring Barry’s question. “Hope you weren’t feeling too squiffy this morning.”
She was still wearing her Doom Monger medal, Barry realised, and she was smiling that hideous false sincerity of hers.
“I just popped over to check you were OK, darling. Not like you to miss a job.”
“I didn’t miss a job. It’s been put back to next month.”
“No, not old Snodgrass. Winchester, sweetheart. I’m talking about Winchester.”
“Who the hell is Winchester?”
“The old boy you were supposed to be bumping off at 10:14. It’s all on your necrophone. Aw sweetie, you must have slept through the update.”
Barry checked his phone. There it was. At 9:58am he had a received an update for a Stanley Winchester – heart attack.
“9:58? Sixteen minutes before expiry? That’s bullshit! Don’t think I don’t see through you Violet. I know this is your doing.”
“Whoa. Easy big boy. Don’t worry. I took care of him for you. That’s what friends are for, right?” She laughed, a mocking, superior little giggle and the lowered her voice almost to a whisper. “Just between me and you, you made a bit of a fool of yourself last night. I was worried about you sweetie.”
“Oh just piss of will you. I’ve got to get ready for work.”
Violet feigned offence and then replaced it with a sympathetic, understanding smile.
“Oh, I almost forgot. The boys at Central Office asked me to give you this.”
She handed him a black envelope with the insignia of GrimReaper Terminations in the top right corner.
Barry took it and slammed the door shut.
Barry Death – Deathnician 6745 – Assigned to Northeast Sussex Subdivision C
It has been brought to our attention that on the morning of January 21st at 10:12am you failed to carry out the scheduled slaying of Stanley Winchester.
This is an unacceptable oversight. Consequently, you are removed from your position with immediate effect.
Kindly report to GrimReaper Terminations Sussex Central Office at 1:45pm this afternoon for Obliteration.
GRT would like to put on record our thanks for your many years of loyal service and wish you every success and happiness in the remaining 90 minutes of your existence.
The Office of Angelo Death,
Minister for Death in Western Europe
Barry thought about running. It was a stupid thought. He knew better than anyone, you couldn’t outrun GrimReaper. Plus, they’d probably send Violet to slay him and he couldn’t handle that.
He thought about fighting. That was even stupider. He’d undoubtedly be asked to surrender his scythe before he went inside and the whole place would be swarming with guards and Deathnicians.
He thought about arguing his case. This was the stupidest thought of the lot. They always argued, the victims. Always begged or bargained. ‘I’ll live a righteous and worthy life from now on’. ‘Take my sister instead.’ A Deathnician never makes deals.
No, he had to face facts. He was done.
Barry Death put on his robes for the last time and left his bedsit flat at 1:11pm. He walked the two miles to the Sussex Central Office and arrived there about 10 minutes early. He contemplated going up straight away but decided to have one last cigarette first.
He hadn’t smoked in years but he knew there was a smoking area round back. He was sure someone would have a spare.
” You should have seen his face, sir. If he had eyeballs, I swear he would have started crying. It was beautiful.”
Barry stopped and then peered around the corner. Violet had her back to him but it was unmistakably her. Even from behind, she looked smug. But it was who she was talking to, that interested Barry more. Someone who he’d never met in person but whose image was known by every Death operative worldwide. Angelo Death – the Reaper General elect.
“So, we’re on track?” Angelo said.
“One thousand, three hundred and twenty-eight of the world’s most troublesome and principled Deathnicians are just about to check themselves in for slow and painful Obliterations.”
Slow and painful? That was hardly procedure. It didn’t sound good. Barry took out his necrophone and began videoing.
“Good, that should serve as a message to the rest of them. I need no dissenting voices on this.”
“Of course, sir.”
“For too long we have put up with this crap, only taken the ones on the list. It’s bullshit. We’re the ones with power. The power to take them all. This should be our world, not theirs.”
“And it will be sir.”
“Damn right it will be. Humanity is the past. The future is Death.”
Barry raised a bony hand to his mouth to stifle the gasp. He couldn’t believe what he was hearing. Deathnicians played an essential role, of course. Death was part of life. It was what made life so special. It motivated the living to get off their arses and do something because if you didn’t give humans a deadline they would do literally bugger all for all eternity. But he understood the pain and suffering that went along with his job. That’s why you could never take anyone who wasn’t on the list, however much you wanted to. Not even bankers or tax collectors or Piers Morgan.
And now the next Reaper General was talking about… what exactly was he talking about? Random slayings? A worldwide cull? The destruction of humanity? Whatever he was talking about, he needed to be stopped.
Barry began to upload the video. There was still time. If he could get this online, show the others who Angelo really was, not only would the bastard’s political career be finished, he’d be Obliterated too.
Four and a half minutes. That was all it would take.
Suddenly, his necrophone exploded with the sound of the Stayin’ Alive by the Bee Gees. It was the recently divorced woman who worked in HR. Why did she have to call now?
Angelo and Violet swung around at the sound and saw him. Barry ran. Violet gave chase.
She was faster than him but he had a head start. Barry ran back to the front of the building, across the road and back down the street towards his flat.
“Obliteree escaping,” Violet yelled. “Get him.”
A stream of Deathnician’s poured out of the GRT Sussex Central Office, each clutching a scythe menacingly.
Barry took a sharp left down a narrow side street and then right into a maze of alleyways. Violet might have the edge in terms of speed but this was his territory now and he knew it like the back of his metacarpals. He vaulted a chain link fence with ease and risked a look over his shoulder. Six or seven Deathnicians were at the other end of the alley but they wore the robes of West Sussex, he could lose them no problem. Violet was nowhere to be seen. He glanced at his phone. Two minutes to upload.
The knee hit him with such force it almost broke his skull. The fall to the floor fractured his tibia and he’d lost his scythe which was now at the other side of the alleyway. Violet had jumped off the roof and kneed him hard in the top of the head. But she had underestimated the height of the fall and overbalanced upon landing. It wasn’t much but it gave Barry enough time to roll out of the way as her scythe slammed into the paving stones.
He scrambled to his feet before she get in another swing and dived through a window into the kitchen of a Chinese restaurant. Violet followed him in but Barry was waiting for her. As she landed he grabbed her head and dunked it into a boiling pot of wonton soup. Before she could recover, he threw an entire vat of sweet and sour sauce.
Violet swung her scythe from side to side but the stickiness of the sauce on her robes would not allow a fluid motion. Barry grabbed it by the blade, losing two phalanges in the process, and pulled. Violet slipped on the sauce, relinquished her weapon and hit the floor. In a millisecond, the scythe’s blade was at her throat.
“Don’t move,” said Barry. “If you stay where you are for another 60 seconds, I won’t have to kill you. Although I’m not sure GRT will be so forgiving when they see this little video.”
He held up his necrophone.
“Very good. Very good indeed,” said Angelo Death, applauding sarcastically. “Now, drop it.”
Barry turned round slowly. Angelo had nine diners from the restaurant lined up against the wall with his scythe raised threateningly.
“You’re clearly so keen to defend the living, here’s your chance. Give me the phone, there’s a good chap, and these lovely people can continue their unidentified meat meal.”
“And let you wipe out the whole lot of them?”
Angelo sighed. “What have the living ever done for you, old sport? You think they appreciate what you do? No, they hate you. They hate all of us. You should be celebrating, old bean. Things are changing. This is our time. Now I’ll ask you again. Please, give me the phone.”
Barry looked at the upload status. Another twenty seconds and it’d be done.
“How about you go f-“
He didn’t finish the obscenity. Violet may have been descythed but the kitchen knives were sharp enough to cut through bone. Barry’s hand was cut clean off above the wrist and he watched as the 27 bones along with the phone they had been holding crashed to the floor. He instinctively swung the scythe but with only one hand to guide it, his slash was unwieldy and Violet dodged it with ease. She sliced again, catching him in the shoulder and forcing him to drop the scythe. Barry scrambled for a weapon, found one and swung it forcefully at Violet’s head. It connected and had it been a knife, it might have ended the battle. Unfortunately, it was a chicken satay which not only made little impact, but also had no right being in a Chinese restaurant in the first place, clearly being Indonesian.
Violet was too fast. She was too agile. Barry fired off a rapid burst of frozen spring rolls but she dodged them effortlessly. In the same movement, she jumped onto a stainless steel worktop. Her feet barely touched it before she was back in the air. She rotated her body and, with one fierce blow, she severed his spinal chord. Barry’s skull remained where it was briefly, then toppled off and hit the floor, bouncing twice before coming to rest right next to his necrophone.
“Ow!” yelled Barry. “That really fucking hurt. You cut my head off.”
Angelo stepped forward, rolled Barry’s head away with his foot and picked up the necrophone.
“Ah, just in time.”
He held the phone in front of Barry’s detached skull as he stopped the upload. “You know what I think. I thi-“
Barry never did find out what Angelo thought. Before the sentence was complete, the bastard’s head was also on the floor of the restaurant, a piece of prawn cracker poking through his left eye socket.
“And you can leave him alone too,” screamed a maniacal voice.
A swooshing sound.
And then there were three dismembered heads. Violet’s had landed in the fish tank and was now being examined suspiciously by a pair of goldfish.
“Upload the video,” Barry cried.
“OK, keep you cranium on,” replied the maniac. “Right. Done. Now let’s sort you out.”
The feeling of having his severed head picked up and carried past a group of increasingly confused diners was a strange one and not one that Barry would particularly like to revisit. Even worse was having said severed head dipped into a pot of spare rib sauce. However, he had to admit, as far as improvised adhesives for refixing skulls to cervical vertebrae go, it did a pretty passable job.
He pushed his head down hard with his one remaining hand until he was satisfied it would hold. He looked at his phone to confirm the video had been sent, looked at the sprawling pile of bones who would have destroyed humanity and the sprawling pile of bones who would have helped, looked at the maniac who had certainly saved him and probably saved life itself.
“Thank you,” he said. “Fancy a coffee?”
“I thought you’d never ask,” replied the recently divorced woman who worked in HR.