The Collections Men

No one knows who first started saying it, but now we all say it. We all say it because it’s the best thing you can say to let them know that something’s different, that something’s fundamentally changed, and for them to stop a take a beat. Which, of course, is exactly what they need to do.

You see, they’re always surprised to see us when we turn up. To learn that there is no Grim Reaper; just us suits, us mortals working our day jobs, day-in, day-out. I guess it all really is kind of strange, when I stop to think about it. But in the short time we’re talking I don’t really have time to get into how I became a suit, or about Hell Inc., or why He decided they should outsource their collections back to our mortal plane, and insisted on such secrecy around it.

Derek had to explain to me my first week on the job, you see, that they don’t remember. Even if they die in some horrific fashion, like getting crushed by a falling scaffold or blown away by a policeman’s shotgun or even doing the job themselves with a bathtub and razor blade, they never remember. They just wake up, confused and unharmed, with us suits staring back at them and then we say it. It’s the worst for the ones who die in their sleep, when they wake up and think it’s just a regular morning, and we’re there to tell them they’re going to Hell. And that there is no Heaven. But we don’t really have time to get into that either.

“I’m beat,” I said to Derek, “I’m going to call it a night.”

“Sure man,” he said, watching a cop car scream by with sirens flashing. “I’ll get the last one. Cya tomorrow.”

“Cya.” I went home and collapsed into bed. I didn’t even bother take off my suit.

When I woke up Derek was there in the house waiting for me, sitting in the chair in the living room, cigarette in hand, its long plume rising toward the ceiling.

“What’s up?” I said. “Another early start, or some fire to put out?”

Derek turned toward me with a look in his eyes I’d never seen before.

“Please, just take a moment.”

We’ll Meet Again

I saw him as soon as I came in the door. He sat at the bar, his arm bent at the elbow, clutching his cheap Mexican beer, staring up over the bottles of spirits behind the bartender to the glowing television screen above.

It was when I saw the tattoo that my body screamed for me to turn and I run. In that horrifying split-second I imagined that this is how a deer in the headlights of an oncoming Mack truck must feel; terrified but immobilized, knowing that something horrible is coming and coming fast but unable to move or resist or change the inevitable doom barrelling down upon it.

He turned to face me, slowly, so slowly, and the recognition washed over his face even slower than he’d turned. It was like he was expecting me. Slowly he stood, his giant swarthy form commanding the space around the bar stool. I was petrified. My heart screamed for my body to run but my legs were jelly.

When he looked into my eyes it all came flooding back: I saw the green leaves of the tall trees swaying in the humid jungle breeze, the angry cries of men beneath the din of automatic rifle fire, the explosions, the limbs flying clouds of power and dirt and gore, and the blood. Oh God, the blood. And I saw him floating above it all, not as he was now but as when he’d been then with that long black cloak flowing downward, untouched and unaffected by the bullets whizzing through the air, and his face a bleached skull of death, and his bony fingers outstretched, his hand pointing down from up above in that cloud of smoke. At me. Letting me know he was coming for me.

He smiled a wicked smile, showing all his teeth. “It’s been a long time, but we both knew this day would come,” he said. “Sit down, and share one last drink with me.”

I could only obey.

Hindsight

“My chest!” I cried through the pain. “Oh God, it’s like something’s crushing my chest!”

A small white-haired man entered the room, clad in a tweed jacket and tortoise-shell spectacles. He hovered over the bed and peered down at me disapprovingly.

“Please! Help me! Oh god, I think I’m dying!” I reached out my hand out toward him, but could barely do so – the pain was spreading into my arm and numbing it. My chest felt like it was being crushed by a thousand tons.

“Yes, that you would,” the cross man said, sitting next to me on the bed. “But did you ever stop and really think? At all? Ever, in your life?” He made no effort to hide his disgust.

“Please…”

“Did you ever think about what it all meant, Sean?” How did he know my name? “Did it ever” – he stood again, his voice raised now, anger coloring his words – “occur to you whether every magazine you read, every beer you drank, every material possession you so carefully amassed, every minute of television you watched,” – louder and angrier, he paced furiously now – “every photo you took, every goddamn click and text and phone call and email and word you spoke ever really meant anything? Or did you just spend your whole life pushing everyone away while you focused on the things that didn’t matter?”

“Help me!” I cried again. “Whoever you are, please help me!”

“I can’t help you,” he said. “Your time is up. But I’ll be seeing you soon.”

He walked to the door and slowly closed it behind him, and the hinges squealed in protest.

Into the Fire

“It’s so beautiful,” Jennifer said, staring into the fire. The orange flames leapt on the logs, the wood from the garage that had sat drying for so many previous winters. The fire popped and crackled.

“Yes, so beautiful,” I agreed. I smiled at her and clinked my wineglass against hers. She smiled back and all of the beauty in the world seeped into the room around her. We kissed and life was gorgeous.

The fire spat and sputtered and crackled and roared in the hearth. We watched the film network television had decided was the one we should watch that evening – Casablanca. Classic.

The night wore on and we cuddled on the couch and watched the closing credits of the film, as the closing credits of the darkening sky brought late evening into night. Jenny yawned and rubbed her hand against my knee beneath the afghan.

“I’m tired,” she said. “I’m going to go to bed, honey.” She got up from the leather of the couch our bodies had warmed.

“Okay my dear,” I said, leaning forward and kissing her on the lips again. “I’ll be right up after you. Just let the fire die out.”

She headed upstairs. The room was dark save for the dim orange glow of the fire. I opened the hot glass door with the poker, turning the handle on its brass side with the black end of the instrument.

I turned the pieces of wood which were breaking down into coals. This one, onto its back. This one, atop the other.

Suddenly I felt the air in the room grow cold, and then heard a roaring come from the chimney, the sound of the wind. The fire sputtered, then gained strength, then flared outward, larger and larger. The small orange flames grew bigger and turned bright red, then an acidic blue.

I backed away from the fireplace, confused – what was happening? The fire grew in strength and vigor, and from the blue depths of it I saw a ghostly spectre appear, then take form in the darkness of the living room. He was clad in a black cloak and his face was bones. In his hand he held an ancient scythe with a thirsty blade.

“What… what are you?” I stammered. This couldn’t be real. I was losing my mind.

“I’ve come for you,” he said, his voice permeating my reality. “Your wife shall sleep soundly tonight, but you will join me in hell.”

He swung his sickle.

The Grim Reaper is on Trial for Insurance Fraud

“I’m afraid things don’t look good,” I said, laying out the paperwork on the glass of the low table. Death sat across from me, stolid, leaned back in the leather chair. Smoke poured out from the dark depths of his cloak’s hood from the Malboro he was smoking.

“I hired you because you’re the best,” said The Reaper. “You gotta fix this for me. I’m busy. I’ve got work to do. I don’t have time to put up with this bullshit.” His voice was low and dark. He scared the shit out of me but I knew what I was getting into when I took this job – and the payoff was going to be tremendous if I could pull it off.

“I’m aware,” I said. I took my pen out of my jacket’s inner pocket and clicked it. “But they have a strong case against you. They have all your paperwork, your tapped emails from after they got the warrant, and record of all your phone calls – including the 2 AM ones with your insurance agent and those with your ahem associate from uptown New York.”

“Those could be anything.” Death ashed his cigarette in the brass tray on the table. “How is that a strong case?” He leaned back in the chair again.

“Are you even listening to me?” Careful, Morris. Think about who you’re dealing with. “Death, think about how these things look. You know, not just evil but the appearance of evil? It all looks fishy. If they get the legal clearance to get the recordings of your phone conversations we’re dead in the water.”

“Whatever,” Death said dismissively. He lit another cigarette and it disappeared into the blackness of his cowl in his bony hand. I could see the red ember glowing in the darkness.

“Those things will kill you, you know. ” He blew smoke across the table and into my face. “Death, this is serious. You’re on trial for insurance fraud.”

“I’m aware,” his voice became harder. Another cloud of smoke from beneath the hood. “It’s a white collar crime. Even if they prove I’m guilty, what are they going to do? Slap me with a fine? 5 years probation?”

“Death,” I was becoming agitated. My neck felt hot beneath my tie. “We’re talking about hundreds of millions of dollars here. You took out insurance policies on thousands of people and then were the instrument of their demise by the ways that paid you out the most. How could you be so reckless? If we don’t get a not guily verdict they’re going to throw the book at you.”

He chuckled. “Let them try.”

“Death, you will go to prison,” I said, trying to impress the gravity of the situation on him. He was such a child. So impetuous. So careless. “For life.”

“I doubt it.” More smoke from beneath the hood.

“You will. And do you know what that is for you?”

“What?” I heard concern in The Reaper’s voice for the first time.

“Eternity. You’re immortal. You’ll be in prison for the rest of time. Who will keep humanity in order? Who will collect the souls of the dead?”

“They won’t convict me,” Death said, assured of himself. “They wouldn’t dare. And it doesn’t even matter if they do. I got a guy to cover for me.”

The stupid ghoul wasn’t even looking at the paperwork. I gathered it up into my attaché.

“Look, if you’re not going to take this seriously, I’m going to go. My time is valuable too you know.” I got up from the seat, fuming.

“Suit yourself,” Death blew more smoke into the cold air of the room. “I’ve got other lawyers.”

I left the room, my mind spinning. Death was the hardest client I’d ever worked with. I took the elevator down to the open high-ceilinged lobby and walked out toward the revolving door. My phone vibrated in my pocket. As I walked through the door, I saw my new text message:

DEATH: Pleasure working with you

I felt cold. I stepped out of the door and looked up straight above me, just in time to see the falling piano.