The Grim Reaper drummed skeletal fingers against his jawbone. He was bored. Still.
He let his consciousness drift to the people he was releasing from their lives, delicately separating soul from flesh with his silver sickle. He could tend to everyone without thought, just as mortals drew breath without consciously expanding and contracting their lungs. For each death, he positioned an avatar of himself at the right shoulder of the one fated. Then he made the final cut.
It used to be a thrill. Lately - not so much. He wasn’t sure why. Maybe people used to be more passionate about life. Maybe technology had mutated humans, zombifying them so death was less of a transition. Despite all the creative ways people now had of killing each other, death had gotten monotonous. He used to take pride in giving personal attention to each of his clients. Now he rarely bothered to notice the cause of death.
With nothing better to do, he focused his attention on his job and drifted alongside some of the doomed. He wielded his sickle at exactly the right moment, humming Mozart’s Requiem and muttering as he worked. A Turkish tourist wasn't going to make it through the Running of the Bulls. “It ends here,” he said, flourishing his weapon. The Chinese crackdown on a Tibetan protest march fatally wounded a monk. “You’re done.” Fallujah was humming with sectarian violence. “That’s it for you. And you. I’ll be back for you tomorrow.” A therapist was about to drift left of center and crash head on into a tractor-trailer as she texted. He shook his skull. “You should know better.”
The glare of headlights and the blare of an air horn had him flinching in the passenger’s seat of the therapist’s Mazda RX-8. A flying cell phone cracked into his nasal bones as the coupe swerved back into the proper lane, narrowly missing catastrophe, and skidded to the shoulder of the highway. Gripping the steering wheel, the woman turned and stared at him, her pupils dilated and her Prada glasses akimbo.
The Grim Reaper stared back out of the red embers resting in his eye sockets. "Crap. Did I say that out loud?"
"Oh, my god, you’re the... that means I’m dead, right? I just died?" The woman pressed her hands to her temples.
"You can see me?" he asked. She must have Nephilim blood in her. Those descended from the union of angels and women could often perceive more than pure humans. He turned up the fire in his eye sockets and smoothed his cowl. Were his bones white enough? His sickle needed polishing. So few could see him anymore, he’d let himself go.
She nodded, the ends of her Frosted Wheat Blonde-dyed hair brushed the shoulders of her charcoal silk Armani jacket. "I can’t be dead. I don’t feel any different.” She pinched the bridge of her nose. “I must be hallucinating.”
"You’re not. That was a fatal crash back there."
The therapist twisted around and stared at the smooth flow of traffic. She looked back at him, an eyebrow raised.
He shrugged his shoulder socket. "OK, so the accident didn't actually take place. It's still your time to go." He raised his sickle. “Hold still.”
"Wait! I should get clemency. There was no crash."
"Only because you heard me talking to myself and got out of the way. I'm the Grim Reaper. I can't save lives, only take them."
She cringed back against the driver’s side door. “I can’t die now. My patients need me--my Borderline Personality is on the brink of a breakthrough.” Her brow furrowed and her eyes darted back and forth. “I have five cats to take care of--my brother would take them straight to the pound if I died. Plus, my parakeet has an anxiety disorder, and I’m the only one who can get him to take his meds.”
“You want me to go take care of them when we’re done here?”
“No! No. Look, Mr. Reaper..." her voice trailed off. Her eyes became glassy and her shoulders slumped. She exhaled. The power of his presence was affecting her, that dissociation that soothed the panic and allowed his clients to accept fate, like the mouse that goes limp in the jaws of a cat. "Is there nothing I can do?" she asked.
He hesitated. He should just make his slice and move on, but this odd American made him feel something he hadn’t felt in a long time. Interested. "Well, since the crash was averted, I think--yes--I’m sure that I can allow you to choose how you die. But it will be still be in this moment. I can't give you more time, just control over the method.” He leaned forward in the leather seat. “So what'll it be? Going in your sleep is popular. Drowning is peaceful.” He tapped the distal phalange of his forefinger against an incisor. “Dying by decapitation takes longer than you would think; I wouldn't recommend that. Hey, how about..."
"I want to be eaten by the Loch Ness Monster."
He slapped the flat of his sickle against his metacarpals. "You're playing games with me."
"I'm not! If this is going to be my last earthly experience ever, I want it to be amazing, adventurous, unique, even if it is painful and horrific.”
"You’re trying to cheat me. You’re asking to be killed by something that doesn’t exist. There is no such thing as the Loch Ness Monster."
Her shoulders slumped. “There isn’t?”
She smoothed her skirt. “I’d always hoped there was. Silly, I know.” She slid him a glance. “I don’t suppose you could arrange for there to be a Loch Ness Monster? It was kind of on my bucket list to catch a glimpse.”
Death leaned back in the passenger's seat. He thought for a second. "You know, maybe I can. Leviathan and I go way back; he might be willing to help. We could meet him in Scotland." He went still and concentrated, then relaxed. “He’s in. Are you sure that’s how you want to go?"
"I'm sure.” Her hand shook as she straightened her glasses. “What happens afterward?"
"That is not for me to know, or you either, until you cross over.” He observed her clammy skin and glassy eyes. She’d shaken off the dissociation and now she was frightened. Damn. It wasn’t her fault he’d mucked up her death. “Do you want something to calm your nerves? There's this great endorphin I can release for you."
She jerked her head in a negative. “I'd rather be clear-headed.”
“OK. Here we go.”
He transported her to the middle of Loch Ness, where they floated in a weathered teak Scaffie sailboat on the Guinness-colored water. Great pewter clouds had beaten the sunlight into submission, and mist danced above the choppy water in the chill air. On a distant promontory, ruined Urquhart Castle stood silhouetted against the slate sky. The diffuse light softened the faint lines on the woman’s face, making her look younger than her 34 years, three months and two days. She fidgeted, turning her face towards the breeze that fluttered her hair back.
The Reaper tapped the shaft of his sickle against the deck. “Sorry to keep you waiting. I thought he’d be here by now.”
She smiled. “I don’t mind.”
“Good, good.” This was beginning to get awkward.
More time passed. He was seriously considering going back on his word and whacking her when she said, “So tell me a little about yourself. While we’re waiting.”
He tilted his skull to the side. He had never been asked that question before. He wasn’t sure what to say.
She leaned her elbows on her knees. “How did you become what you are?”
Was he allowed to talk about that to a mortal? Even one who was doomed? He couldn’t see the harm. “When the Fourth Seal was opened, I came forth on my pale horse with the power to kill.”
Her brow furrowed. “You’re one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse? Like in the Book of Revelation?”
He swept a bow. “Death, at your service.”
“Where’s your horse?”
“He couldn’t very well fit in your car, could he? I’d have brought him here, but he gets seasick.”
She rubbed her hands on her arms. “So does that mean Judgment Day is at hand?”
“Oh, yes. The Sixth Seal was just opened last century. I’m not sure how many centuries until the last seal opens, though. I have April 18, 2469 in the betting pool.” He had the strangest sensation sitting there on a boat, talking about nothing special with this mortal. It felt...pleasant.
“I always imagined the Four Horsemen worked together,” she said. “Thundering down on some doomed city, wreaking havoc.”
“We used to.” He leaned back on the rail and hooked an elbow over the side. Spray from the loch dampened the linen of his sleeve. “Back in the day, we hit Babylon, Egypt, and Rome together. You ever been to Rome? You can still see some of our work.”
“Just once. Amazing city.”
“Yeah, Rome was great. Nothing could top what we did in Soddam and Gomorrah, though. Complete shock and awe.” He trailed off, reminiscing.
She pushed at her cuticles as she shivered in the damp air. “Go on. Why don’t you ride with the other horsemen anymore?”
It was odd how energizing it felt just to talk about his glory days. This lady was something special. He’d never had this kind of conversation with anyone before, and he liked it. “Well, Conquest was always a bit stand-offish. Hated sharing the credit for the kill, you know? When he figured out we weren’t required to work together, he took off. War, Famine and I kept going for a while, but one thing and another came up and I guess we just drifted apart.”
“How long has it been since you’ve seen...”
Leviathan broke the loch’s surface ten yards away, and a head the size of a Smart Car whooshed upwards atop a fifteen-foot elephant-skinned neck streaming with water and smelling of peat. He posed in profile, one mottled yellow eye glaring down out of a face like a gargantuan bald possum.
Startled, the Grim Reaper stood and held up a bony forefinger. “Hang o--”
Leviathan pounced, snapping the therapist in half. Her waist and legs flopped to the bottom of the boat, twitching, as the rest of her body was torn away in the monster’s mouth.
“Oh, hell.” The Grim Reaper gripped his sickle in both hands and opened his senses as he swung for the connection between body and soul. Terror and tearing teeth and spongy wetness and pain and heat and stench. Shock and disbelief and fear and thrill and regret and satisfaction. Weakness and relief and serenity and hope and joy and euphoria as a bright light enveloped all.
The cut complete, he slumped and leaned on his weapon. Leviathan chewed once, swallowed, and winked as he sank below the waves.
The Grim Reaper watched the monster’s wake ripple until all trace of its passing was gone, then he lowered himself back onto the bench. With a thought, he transported the woman’s carcass back to America, a few miles from where her abandoned car would be found. He felt he owed it to her, so her remains could be laid to rest by her family.
He drifted on the loch, re-living the intensity of her demise and replaying the conversation over and over in his mind. The regret he felt that he couldn’t talk to her anymore made him realize why he’d been so discontented of late.
He was lonely.
How could he enjoy his role in the human experience, indispensable though it was, if he didn’t have anyone to share it with? As he dematerialized from Loch Ness, he made two promises to himself. First, from now on, he would give the doomed the quality service they had a right to expect from Death--he’d get a new hooded cloak, sharpen his sickle and focus on his clients. Second, he would organize the First Annual Reunion of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.