October 12th, 2007
Death’s Courtship

“You’re wearing that?”

Death glanced down at the white jacket, white trousers and the white shirt accented by a silky blue tie—all of which offset his darker skin tones and midnight black hair superbly, even if he did say so himself. “Does it not appear as though I’m wearing it?”

“It looks like a pimp suit,” the youngest of his brothers said from the doorway.

The twin who’d escaped being youngest by only a few minutes shook his head. “Reminds me of Mr. Clean.”

“Mr. Clean. You mean the one in the commercial?” This from the brother currently calling himself Azrael and who had started the conversational assault on Death’s clothing.

Death huffed. No wonder he was in need of a vacation.

Not that anyone would notice. His brothers had been chomping at the bit, tugging on the reins for ages, each one of the five thinking he could spice up the role of Grim Reaper, could put a new spin on it, a new twist, do it better.

Well, here was their chance and more power to them.

He took in the jeans that the twins were wearing, the holes in the knees and across the thighs making them look like garments scavenged from a dumpster. And Azrael’s garish pink tank top—

It was a blow to the eyes. Elegance was wasted on his brothers.

“I’m hardly in need of your fashion advice. Now step aside, as you’ll find out for yourselves soon enough, the business of managing death isn’t all fun and games.”

His brothers parted, allowing him to escape. But standing in the cobblestone courtyard among the family vehicles, a small fissure of worry opened. A pimp suit? A costume from a television commercial?

He shuddered and the elegant suit became a thing of the past, replaced by black jeans and a shirt in the same blue as the vanished tie.

From inside the house came shouts of laughter and Death’s humiliation was complete. No doubt they’d placed wagers on whether he’d change his clothing.

Well the last laugh would be his. His immediate future held no misguided souls, no disenfranchised spirits, no death. In fact, no Death. Unless he chose otherwise or his brothers made a mess of things, he could take whatever name he desired and be whomever he wanted to be. He was on vacation.

Death created an identity for himself. Not that he didn’t already have a name, he had a slew of them, all affixed to him by others, including a particularly atrocious one given to him by his mother. It was one of the reasons he’d taken refuge in Death. It was simple. Elegant. A name and a title. A clear definition of his role and his duties.

But a man on vacation was entitled to leave all that behind. He chose Denali as a last name because he’d trekked in the Alaskan national park by that name and thoroughly enjoyed the cold snow of Mt. McKinley. He chose the first name of Atticus because unlike his brothers, who thought culture was found in an Xbox, he was a reader and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird was a favorite.

The name, of course, was the easy part. The destination far, far trickier.

As if the very act of pondering where to go drew them from the house, Azrael emerged along with Sammael, the oldest of the five, and Jonah, the youngest.

“So where to?” This from Sammael. “Some ancient haunt?”

“What about Mount Olympus?” Jonah volunteered. “Or Valhalla?”

Azrael snorted. “Those places are all about wine, women and song. Death is hardly the life of the party.”

That brought another round of laughter at his expense.

“Go away,” he ordered.

They remained.

Despite the human world being essentially one trouble spot after another for Death, he felt that’s where he’d find the most enjoyment. And beyond that, he didn’t intend to let the energy he’d expended on preparation go to waste.

It’d been particularly tedious gaining permission from the Oracle of Amun to become fully human for the span of his week-long vacation. Really! One would think that after centuries on the job he could be trusted not to run amuck like some new god who’d only just received the proverbial breath of life that came from human belief.

No. The human world it was. For some reason—not that he’d tried very hard to examine it—he couldn’t seem to shake the notion that’s where he needed to go for his vacation.

He frowned as he mulled over the collection of black vehicles. An elusive worry skittered along the boundaries of his psyche, a thought just out of reach. He shook it off.

“The dune buggy is a sweet ride,” Jonah said, following it with a snicker.

Sammael manifested a coin like those collected by the ferryman for passage across the rivers Styx and Acheron and walked it through his fingers. “Take the hearse. You’ll be more comfortable in it.”

Azrael tucked his thumbs into his back pockets, the act sliding the jeans lower. It was a surprise they stayed on at all. “Yeah, the hearse is a good fit.”

Death decided on the vintage Aston Martin DB5, its early fame a result of the James Bond movies that were so popular in their day. It was the perfect automobile for Atticus Denali.

“Stay out of trouble,” he told his brothers before slipping behind the steering wheel to face the moment of truth. Where to go?

It was the last choice, the last bit of power he could wield until it was time to return home and take the mantle of Grim Reaper from his brothers, the now-acting Brothers Grim.

A laugh escaped at the pun. But if he shared it, they’d roll their eyes and discount his sense of humor.

Oh, they thought him lacking. Hopelessly dull. A stick-in-the-mud.

He’d come to think of himself as a stone under a constant drip of responsibility. And from that analogy was born the desire for a holiday.

Where to go?

What would Atticus Denali choose? Death asked himself, trying to get into the new persona, his vacation identity.

The answer surprised him. Land wherever he landed and wing it! Leave the destination up to chance.

The elusive worry returned, skittering along his spine and reminding him of the nervous ghost stallion that had been retired when the idea of the four horsemen became passé. Just as well, really, the horse added an unpredictable element to the business of seeing souls on their way. He shook the oddly unsettling sensation off as pre-holiday jitters.

Leave the destination up to chance?

Well, why not?

* * * * *

“Got a live one on the phone, Bryn! You need to put a hustle on if you want to collect. Double your fee if you go right now!”

Bryn DePalo silently groaned, knowing it would be wishful thinking to assume the caller on the other end hadn’t heard the comment. “Sheri—”

But this week’s temporary assistant was already reading back an address and saying, “She’s on her way. Cash due when services are performed. We don’t bill.” And then the receiver was slammed into its cradle with the energy of a victorious NBA player dunking the ball.

“Hot damn! This is better than telemarketing,” Sheri said and Bryn resolved to have another conversation with Marietta. To date she’d had five of them but she refused to lose her optimism. One of these days she’d be able to convince the woman who owned the temp agency to stop sending help as a way of showing how grateful she was that Bryn had banished her abusive ex-husband’s ghost.

It was all in a day’s work for Bryn, and though she often bartered her services for things she needed—the small office space with living quarters in a run-down, nearly abandoned office park being one of them—Marietta had paid in cash and as far as Bryn was concerned, the matter was settled. Unfortunately, Marietta didn’t agree.

Bryn picked up the piece of paper with the potential client’s information written in large, bold, purple script. She didn’t bother reminding Sheri that she wasn’t responsible for screening clients. Today was Friday and Monday would see a new assistant on her doorstep.

Sheri blew a bubble and popped it. “You need backup?”

Bryn doubted she’d be going anywhere once she called the potential client back. “I’ll be fine.” She checked her watch. “It’s close enough to quitting time. Why don’t you go ahead and get a jump on the traffic.”

Sheri surged from the chair with a jangle of bracelets. “You’re the best!” She opened the bottom desk drawer and pulled out a fuchsia-colored purse large enough to hold a medium-sized dog. “Oh, by the way, lover boy called ten times. He finally broke down and asked for you on the last one. I told him you were seeing someone else and he needed to get a life.”

Bryn groaned. “Sheri—”

A laugh interrupted the half-hearted reprimand. Sheri shook her head and sent her multiple earrings swinging. “Don’t thank me, Bryn. It was no biggie. See you on Monday, maybe, unless Marietta thinks my services are needed more urgently elsewhere. Have a good one!”

Sheri left and Bryn reclaimed her desk chair. She called the potential client. The line was busy.

Waiting a few minutes, she called again. Still busy.

Worry compressed her stomach then turned it inside out. Money was tight and she couldn’t afford to get a reputation for not showing up. A small laugh escaped. As though being called a ghost exorcist wasn’t a bad enough label.

Still, the article in one of the freebee newspapers had generated some real business. It had also led to a lot of prank phone calls and several that were downright creepy, which was what made the expense of having a number for business calls, along with her private cell number worth doing. A few of the weird calls had made her wish she did have backup, maybe a tall, dark and handsome guy who could also serve as her boyfriend.

Right. Boyfriends were harder to come by than clients and often carried more baggage than a lingering ghost.

Lover boy, as Sheri called Mark Bildner, was the perfect example.

Bryn wanted someone who could accept her and what she did for a living. Mark had, but only because of his fixation on his mother’s ghost. And despite the daily calls and the weekly delivery of flowers, she wouldn’t go out with him again. She’d made that clear enough times that her conscience didn’t bother her when she screened her calls and dropped the flowers he sent off at a local nursing home.

Not that she never got asked out, she did. She just hadn’t met the right man and she didn’t see any point in pretending to be someone she wasn’t by denying her unique gift.

Been there, done that, she thought and a familiar knot of pain formed in her chest. Her parents were conservative, church-going people who’d been content not to have children but were given an unexpected gift late in life—a gift that had, by their own admission, turned into their worst nightmare.

Bryn tried the phone number again. Still busy.

She pulled a map program up on the laptop and typed in the address. It was far enough away she needed to get moving if she was going to make it there in a reasonable amount of time, but not so far it would be a huge waste of effort if she reached someone on her cell phone and ended up turning around.

Regardless of what her mother and father had accused her of in the chilly conversation that sealed their estrangement and finally allowed her to move to the west coast with no regrets, she had no interest in feeding the paranoia of mentally sick individuals or stealing from the misguided and lost.

Either there was a ghost that needed to be sent on its way or there wasn’t. She wasn’t a shrink or a counselor. She wasn’t a witch or a con-artist.

She was just someone who wanted to use her strange, sometimes scary talent to make a difference. Because as terrifying and heartbreaking as dealing with disenfranchised spirits could be, the thing that gave her nightmares was the image of herself as a ghost, a specter trapped in a bleak eternity by regrets.

“I’ve got to stop thinking about them,” she muttered, recognizing the downward spiral that was always triggered by thoughts of her parents.

She got in her car and drove, singing along with the radio to keep her mind cleared of worries and unhappy memories.

When she turned onto the street where her prospective client lived, she tried the phone number one last time. Still busy.

“Well, ready or not, here I come.” The houses were old, most of them single-story, the stucco painted in peach, blue, green or white. The majority of the yards sported browned patches of grass and a couple of trees, most with an overabundance of fruit scattered and rotting at the base—the huge downside to fruit trees planted for shade.

Bryn checked the address and the name attached to it, Claudette Haddon, then found the house. It was at the end of the street, on the right-hand corner, the blue paint a little more faded than the rest, the yard a little worse for the summer heat, the curb in front of it blocked by cars.

She winced at the sound of loud music blaring from the side yard of the house next to Claudette Haddon’s then rounded the corner, did a u-turn and parked across from her potential client’s house.

Climbing out of her car and getting the full effect of the music, Bryn grimaced. Must be a determined ghost to stick around and listen to this. Or one who’s trapped.

An elderly woman wearing an old-fashioned cooking apron opened the door before Bryn could knock. The expression on her face was so grateful that Bryn braced herself, knowing how easily and quickly hope and gratefulness could give way to disappointment or anger.

“You came,” Mrs. Haddon said. Tears forming, she clasped Bryn’s hand between warm, boney fingers that shook slightly though her grip was strong enough to pull Bryn into the house.
Relief surged through Bryn as she felt the faint tendrils of a phantom breeze that marked the presence of a ghost.

“Do you need part of the payment up front?” Mrs. Haddon asked. “I don’t have all of it. I’m afraid I don’t drive anymore. My son usually takes me to the bank.”

Bryn cringed. “I’m sorry, Mrs. Haddon, my assistant got a little carried away. Can we sit down somewhere and talk about the haunting first? Then I can give you a better estimate of the fee.”

Mrs. Haddon shuddered. “Let’s go to the kitchen.”

Bryn followed her there, taking note of the dinner preparations on the counter. A large bowl of salad. Meat marinating in something. A towel-covered bowl that probably held rising dough. Pots, pans, a rolling pin, a heavy cutting board with a knife and a pyramid of cheese cubes. It was a lot of food for one person.

Mrs. Haddon’s gaze darted to the wall clock. She wiped her hands down her apron several times before clutching the material. “Will this take long?”

Bryn felt stirrings of misgiving. “I can come back another time if you’d prefer.”

“No. No. Please. Can we start? I’ve got candles and a Bible. And some holy water. I wasn’t sure what else you might need.”

“Mainly I need information. Spirits stay for a reason. A lot of the time just finding out why they’re present resolves the situation.”

Mrs. Haddon’s hands clenched and unclenched the apron. “I don’t know why I’m the only one who can hear them. They come every night at dusk.” Her gaze darted to the clock again. “My son’s afraid I’m going crazy. Billy. Bill. He doesn’t like to be called Billy now that he’s an adult. He’s afraid I’m going to hurt myself. That’s why he sold my house in Virginia and brought me here, because I fell. But there weren’t any ghosts in that house.”

Her eyes sheened with tears. “If I can’t get them to stop I’m afraid he’ll put me in a home. A woman at the senior center gave me an article about you. Can you really make them go away? It’s worth every penny I have if you can just make it stop.”

“Mrs. Haddon, I—”

“You’re not going to get your hands on any of my mother’s money,” an angry male voice said from the doorway before Billy, the hulking epitome of a schoolyard bully plus about thirty years and fifty extra pounds, stomped into the room.

Bryn’s stomach dived to her feet and threated to make them clumsy. “I—”

“Get out of my house and don’t come back!”

“Billy, please! Just listen to what she has to say. Give—”

“No!” He lunged toward the counter and the knife on the chopping block.

It was a scene straight out of a Stephen King novel and for a split second Bryn was frozen in place. But when he touched the knife’s handle she was out of her chair and out of the room.

Get to the car! It was her only thought as she fumbled to open the front door then nearly plowed through the screened-door.

There was a curse behind her, the frantic call of Billy’s mother. But Bryn didn’t turn around to look. She didn’t stop.

Get to the car! Get to the car!

She dashed into the street, surrounded by screaming, tortured music and envisioning the homicidal Billy.

Bryn never saw the car that ran into her.

Or rather, that she ran into.

One minute the street was empty, the next she was sprawled on the ground.

I’ve died and gone to heaven, she thought, staring into the face above hers.

What else would explain the heated appreciation in gray eyes that reminded her of fog-shrouded ghostways? What else would explain the sense of rightness she felt as a strong, masculine hand cupped her cheek? What else would explain the fairytale-like expectation that in a moment he’d forever change her life with a kiss?

Breathtaking didn’t do justice to his features. Elegant might come close. Maybe. Possibly.
It was easy to imagine him dressed in a tux and attending a ball, the black material of the suit deepening midnight-colored hair and the dark, endless centers of his eyes.

Did that make her Cinderella?

The ludicrousness of the thought jolted Bryn back to a reality where pebbles dug into her back, the smell of hot asphalt burned her nose, and her ears were assaulted by horrendous music.