by David Smith
Death was not having a good day. In fact, it was hard for Death to remember when he'd last had a good day.
“I don't know, Genghis,” he said wearily, “must be getting old or something.”
The horse whinnied sympathetically and Death gave a wheezy, bone-rattling laugh.
“That's good, isn't it?” he said, his voice heavy with irony. “The greatest immortal of them all, feeling his age.”
Of course, it hadn't always been like this, he reflected.
When the Boss had first put the proposal to him, it had all sounded perfect. Plenty of travel, flexible working hours and, of course, immortality.
That was the one thing the Boss had really stressed; Death couldn't die.
No, thought Death, but he could get bloody tired.
In The Beginning, astride a fleet-footed stallion with sparks cascading from its hooves, Death had rampaged through the twilight Interplane that separates the living from the Void.
The Departed hadn't so much shuffled off their mortal coil; they'd been whisked away, almost before they'd had the chance to realise that their credentials for inhabiting the earth had undergone quite a fundamental change.
The traditional scythe had been kept honed to such sharpness that, on more than one occasion the Reaper had felt obliged to count his fingers after using it.
That was before The Breakdown, of course.
That had been sometime during the fifteenth century, Death thought, although he couldn't really say for certain. All he knew was that, thanks to the combined efforts of War, Pestilence and Famine, he'd been kept so busy that, in the end, something had had to give and it had been his nerves.
These days, the speedy stallion had given way to an ex-dray horse that Death had liked the look of when he'd gone to collect the horse's master a couple of centuries ago.
“Nice horse,” he'd commented, readying the scythe.
“Yeah,” the drayman had said nervously, “'e's orlright, I s'pose.”
“Named after Genghis Khan, I daresay?” Death had said, not really interested but it had been an unusually slow day and he'd felt like chatting.
“Nah,” the drayman had replied, “after my bruvver-in-law, Genghis Brown, 'cos 'e looks like a norse.”
“Oh right,” Death had said abstractedly, as he'd swung the scythe.
During his whole life, and subsequent death, Genghis had never attained any speed higher than human walking pace and that suited his new owner just fine. Even so, now and again there were days when Death couldn't even manage to swing himself up onto Genghis' back and was obliged to hitch lifts from unsuspecting buses and the occasional lorry.
Immortal, invisible and knackered.
Even the scythe, the tool of his trade, was different now.
When the original, beautifully crafted implement had become just too heavy and awkward to wield, a lighter one made of aluminium had been provided as a replacement.
The new scythe was just as efficient as the old one had been, Death conceded, but it wasn't the same; somehow it just didn't feel right.
And having to work with people like Frank, the Custodian of Waystation 127, did nothing to improve matters, either.
The Waystations were a damn stupid, new-fangled idea, developed over the last hundred and fifty years or so. The idea was that they would handle all the mundane administrative details and also collect the more run-of-the-mill travellers. This would, in theory, leave Death free to concentrate on those who were deemed to warrant his personal attention.
Death snorted disgustedly at the very thought of the word “travellers”.
Political Correctness, he mused, had infiltrated even his domain now. What was wrong with calling them bodies, or souls, or dead people, even? After all, the departed were usually too pre-occupied with coming to terms with the fact that they were deceased to worry about how they were being described.
But Frank, the pasty-faced Custodian of Waystation 127, had coined the term and, somehow, it had caught on and was now in general usage.
That was only one reason why Death disliked Frank.
Another was the Custodian's habit of referring to Death as “GR.”
“GR,” he'd said, nudging Death in the general area of his ribs, “Grim Reaper, geddit?”
One perk of being a Custodian was that immortality went with the job, although this didn't prevent Death from fantasising.
One day, he thought, one day I'll be better and then, my lad, I'll take great pleasure in reaping you.
Death gave another sigh and reluctantly put this pleasant thought aside. It was time to go back to work.
He had one more collection to make and Death consulted his printout, the “D list”, as Frank had called it.
“D list?” Death had queried, fully expecting to regret having asked. He had not been disappointed.
“D for dead, departed, Death, even,” Frank had replied with a smirk. “Take your pick, GR.”
Death had gritted his teeth and had said nothing.
Now, he looked at the name on the list.
Selwyn Morgan Davies, 62, apothecary.
“Now, I wonder what makes our Mister Davies so important, eh, Genghis?” mused Death as they came to a halt in the alley at the rear of the apothecary's premises.
The horse whinnied softly and nuzzled a bony arm.
“You're probably right,” said Death, “nothing at all, except that Frank couldn't be bothered to do his job properly and slipped the name onto his precious D list, I expect.”
That had been happening quite a lot lately, Death reflected; maybe he ought to mention it to the Boss at his next Monthly Review.
Death sighed again and patted the horse on the neck.
“Just wait here, Genghis,” he said, “this won't take long.”
He walked purposefully through the brick wall.
Selwyn Morgan Davies was working in his dispensary when he suddenly became aware of a distinct change in the ambient temperature.
He turned slowly and seemed only mildly surprised to discover the identity of his unwelcome visitor.
“I know who you are and what you want,” he said, in the singsong accent of the valleys.
“Yes, well, I suppose the old hooded cloak and the scythe are a bit of a giveaway, aren't they?” replied Death caustically.
It had been a long day and he was in no mood for small talk. He looked intently at the wiry little man and hefted the scythe in readiness.
“Come on then,” he said, “let's get on with it. Do you have any last words?”
“Well, yes, I have, as a matter of fact,” replied Davies and Death groaned softly.
Last words were a pain in the coccyx but it was traditional; even though some people tried to spin them out forever, he still had to let them have their say.
“All right, then,” he said, propping the scythe up against the dispensary counter, “but don't make a meal of it. I've had a hard day and I want to rest my bones.”
“Mm, yes, you do look a bit peaky, if you don't mind my saying so,” said Davies, casting a professional eye over Death's appearance.
“Is that it?” said Death, reaching for the scythe.
“No, no,” said the little apothecary hurriedly,” I haven't started yet.”
“Go on, then,” said Death replacing the scythe.
“Well, it's like this, you see,” said Davies, speaking quickly, as if he thought that Death might suddenly change his mind, “I'm only 62; that's no age to go, is it? I'm nowhere near ready to die yet.”
He peered closely at Death.
“You, however,” he went on, “you look worse than Death warmed up, if you'll pardon the expression.”
“And your point is?”
Death was getting impatient and his hand was moving towards the scythe again.
“Well, I thought that maybe we could do a deal,” said Davies hurriedly, “you know, I help you, you help me.”
Death considered for a split second.
“No, I don't think so, do you?” he replied and a look of panic appeared in the apothecary's eyes.
“No, wait,” he said, and even went as far as to lay a restraining hand on Death's arm. “I can see how exhausted you are,” said Davies, still speaking quickly, “but I can change all that for you.”
“You can?” said Death, interested now in spite of himself.
“Yes, yes,” said Davies eagerly, “I can make you up a potion, an elixir that will completely rejuvenate you.”
“You can?” repeated Death, his mind exploring some wonderful possibilities.
“Certainly,” confirmed the little apothecary, “absolutely guaranteed, it is.”
“And in return, I suppose,” said Death, “you expect me to delay your departure from this so-called vale of tears, yes?”
“Well, you know,” said Davies, spreading his hands out in front of him, “quid pro quo and all that, isn't it?”
“Mm,” mused Death, “and what sort of delay do you think would be appropriate, then?”
“Well, I'm not greedy, you know,” said Davies with a wink and a sly grin, “twenty-five, thirty years, something like that, shall we say?”
“Mm,” said Death again, and came to a decision. “OK, make up your elixir and, if it works, you've got a deal.”
“Oh good, very good,” said a delighted Davies and began rummaging in cupboards and drawers, rooting out mysterious looking phials and powders. “Oh, you won't regret this,” he said, “I guarantee it.”
“Yes, well, we'll see about that, won't we?” said Death, adding, “while you're about it, you'd better make up two potions.”
The little apothecary smiled, almost pityingly. “Oh no,” he said, “you'll find that one will be quite sufficient, I assure you.”
“Mm, that's as maybe,” said Death, “but if this stuff is as good as you say, I'll probably need some for my horse as well.”
The results were immediate and spectacular.
By the morning after his meeting with Selwyn Morgan Davies, Death felt as if the clock had been turned back five hundred years. All his old zest and enthusiasm had returned and, once again, the Interplane echoed and reverberated to his barnstorming progress.
And, thanks to the extra potion of the elixir that he'd slipped into Genghis' nosebag, he also had a horse that was able and eager to keep up with him.
The original scythe had been taken out of its protective wrapping and lovingly cleaned and oiled. Death had then spent half an hour putting a really sharp edge on the blade.
His work rate increased so prodigiously that, at his first Monthly Review after taking the elixir, the Boss had told him that the Waystations were no longer necessary.
Death had felt his bones almost tingling with satisfaction. “Presumably then,” he'd said carefully, “the Waystation staff are also surplus to requirements.”
The next day was one that gave Death immense job satisfaction.
He materialised at Waystation 127 and Frank's complexion turned even whiter than its customary shade of pale.
“Hallo, Frank,” said the Reaper softly, “any last words?”
The ex-Custodian quailed beneath Death's flinty gaze.
“No amusing phrase to go on the old headstone?” enquired Death with a cold smile. “No? OK, off you go, then.”
The scythe swung and Death had never felt so alive.
Selwyn Morgan Davies was working in his dispensary, humming softly to himself.
It was nearly a month since he'd struck his bargain with the Reaper and he was still congratulating himself on his perspicacity. He'd always known that his specialised knowledge would stand him in good stead but he'd never dreamt that it would turn out to be, literally, such a lifesaver.
Suddenly, Davies sensed that he was no longer alone and turned to see Death regarding him solemnly.
“Hallo,” said the apothecary with a weak smile, “come for some more elixir, have you?”
Death returned the smile, but it was grim and humourless. “Oh no,” he said, “I've come for you.”
“But you can't,” spluttered Davies, “you said another twenty-five or thirty years.”
“Yes, I know,” said Death.
“This isn't fair,” wailed the little man, “you owe me.”
“Yes, I know,” repeated Death, hefting the scythe with newfound ease.
“We had a deal,” said Davies, his voice rising to a scream, “you promised!”
The last thing Selwyn Morgan Davies saw on earth was the glittering arc of the scythe sweeping towards him.
And the last thing he heard this side of the Void was a dry chuckle and Death's cold, rasping voice.
©2004 David Smith
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