Death and the Detective
by Anne K. Edwards
My name's Joe Davis. I run a small detective agency that handles the usual type of case found in a small town like Meadeville. Runaway mates and divorce cases our specialty. Occasionally, we get a case with more hair on it, but never anything like the one that just wandered in off the street one day.
It was a typical July afternoon when even the sidewalks were sweating. I sat in front of an open window with a small fan blowing on my face as I leaned my back against the desk with my feet on the sill. The copy of Playboy I'd been lusting at slid off my lap when the door to my inner office opened.
I jumped up and got into my desk chair and tried to look busy. The hair on my neck and arms rose as if an electrostatic charge had passed over me as I sat. I glanced up. I never should've done that.
A character dressed in a black robe was blocking the doorway. His face was lost in the folds of an overlapping hood.
"Come in," I said. Never should've done that either.
The guy--well, he wasn't a guy... Couldn't tell what it was. He just stood there.
"You are Joseph Daniel Davis?" His voice was deep with gravel in it.
"Yeh. What do you want?" I didn't like the get up. "It ain't Halloween," I said. Made me hotter just looking at him and besides, he give me the creeps.
"You find people?"
I didn't like twenty questions with the door open. "Close the door and we'll discuss it," I said.
You can imagine my shock when he turned to close the door. A huge, long-handled scythe with the blade pointing back rested on his shoulder.
I blinked and shook my head. Couldn't be. Some stupid prank.
I pulled my pistol from the side desk drawer where I keep it and pointed it at him just in case.
He set the scythe against the wall with a large crack in the plaster and approached my desk. Then he pushed his hood back so I could see his face. I wished he hadn't done that. He didn't have a face!
I froze in my chair. My pistol fell onto the desk. I had trouble breathing. Death heads do that to me.
He loomed over my old wooden desk so I had to look up at him. A skull doesn't have any expression but I swear those empty eye sockets could see me.
I couldn't even shudder.
"What do you want?" I did manage to croak.
He pointed across the desk at me with a fingerbone that poked out of his sleeve.
"You can stop being afraid," he said. His jaw moved, but I didn't see how he could form any words. His voice sounded like rocks rolling around in a tin can.
How was it I could understand him?
I tried to breathe again. I stammered, repeating, "What--what do you want?" I still couldn't move.
"I'm not here for you," he rattled. "I want to hire you."
"Is this some kind of joke?" I forced the question out. "Did my ex-wife send you?" I didn't really believe this was happening. He wasn't real. Somehow I was being had. And I thought my vicious ex was the most likely to set me up.
"I'm not a joke," he rattled again. "I want you to find someone."
"How do I know you're real?" I asked. "I don't think death has a physical form."
"You require proof. Very well." He touched the pot of the only other live thing in the office, an African violet my last secretary gave me. Its meaty leaves shriveled as the lavender blossoms turned brown.
Then he turned back to me. "Do you believe now?"
I was forced to, wasn't I? "Yes."
"Fine. Shall we continue?" he asked.
I closed my eyes. Ah...I could move my eyelids.
As if he knew what I was thinking, my visitor said, "You can move if you want. Fear paralyzed you. Not me."
I tried to move. I could. A little. My brain began to function, too. Well, sort of. I realized if he was Death and had come for me, I'd be gone. So maybe he was telling the truth about not coming for me. And maybe I was going to buy the Brooklyn Bridge. A guy in his line of work probably said anything he had to, to get the job done. I mean, he was one of those Four Horsemen.
"Okay, who is it you want found? And I gotta know why. For the records." I tried not to let him see I thought I found a way to get rid of him. "And I don't do nothing illegal." Meanwhile, I'd try to think of how to send him on his way--without me.
He straightened and moved back from the desk a few inches. "I want you to find Calvin Desmond James. It's his time."
That threw me for a loop. His time? "You want me to find some guy so you can take him?"
The skull nodded.
I started to shake my head when the weirdness of the situation hit me. I laughed.
He never moved.
I started to feel uneasy. "I can't do that. I can't be no party to no killing."
"You wouldn't kill him." Death said. "I will. He's going to be thrown from his motorcycle and I have to be there."
"Why do you need me?" I tried to figure this out.
"We don't know where he is."
Well, there went any theory I might have had. Death couldn't find somebody? I didn't believe that.
He read my thoughts again. "We need him."
"Who is he that he's so important? Why don't you just go on to your next vic--er the next person on your list?" My body suddenly went limp. I was free. I could move so I did. I slid my chair back against the wall as far from him as I could get.
"Several years ago they hired him to program our computers--we didn't know how--and when he was done, he said his work was guaranteed and if we had any problems to come get him. We found a problem and now we need him."
"What's the problem? I know several geeks who could probably fix it."
Death shook his head. "Mr. James left his name off our list."
"Just one guy. Why not forget him and go on to the next one?"
"He's not allowed to live forever. He's eighty-three now and it's his time."
This was really getting strange. "So because he's old now, you gotta take him? How did you know about him at all if he's not on your list?"
"We share data. The birth records have to match the death records. If we let him go, it becomes a bookkeeping nightmare. Always short one in the accounts closed column." He leaned over the desk again. "That would never do."
Death works for a bunch of bookkeepers?
"How do you know when he's supposed to go, if he's not in your records?" I asked. I couldn't figure out how they could know the time a guy was supposed to go and not know where he was. Didn't make any sense.
"The time of passing is included at birth. Each person has an allotted time. No more. Each one is different."
"Don't you keep track of him while he's here?"
Death shook his head. "That's the Life Department and they have trouble keeping their data up to date since the invention of the automobile."
I kept quiet for a minute. Let him think I was considering taking the job. Okay. One thing sure to drive him away.
"You'll have to sign a contract," I told him. "It's a standard form. I don't take any job without a contract. I have to protect my license and, in case you don't pay," I figured I had him here. Death wouldn't be carrying cash or have a credit card, "I have proof you hired me if we gotta go to court."
No response. Nothing. Several seconds passed and then he nodded. The hood fell over his skull again.
"I'll sign the contract," Death said in that rolling-rock voice of his.
How could he? For a few moments I didn't know what to do. He'd called my bluff. So I took it one step farther. "I require five hundred bucks up front for two days and expenses. I refund anything not spent and you get a copy of the expense sheet. A bill, if it takes longer than two days."
He nodded again. The skeleton of a complete hand came out of the sleeve this time with five one-hundreds in it. He lay them on the desk.
I opened the center desk drawer and took out a contract and pen. While I had it open, I put the pistol back, then pushed the form over to him. He appeared to stare at the form for a bit and then one word appeared on the line where the client signs.
I sagged in my chair. I had Death as a client. I was stuck. I figured if I tried to weasel out now, he'd take me for spite. Besides, I needed the money.
So, okay. I had a new client. He wanted a man found. I took a deep breath and found my backbone. Yeh, I know. Bad pun.
"Do you want to know what Mr. James looks like?" Death asked.
I shook my head. "Nope. Just tell me how you got in touch with him the first time."
He appeared to ruminate over the facts. "We ran an advertisement in the help-wanted section of the local newspaper."
"And he answered it?" I asked.
Death nodded, his hood fluttering in a breeze the came in my window.
I looked at the sky. A storm was coming in. There'd be lots of noise in those clouds. They were black as sin, black as Death's robe. I'd have to close the window and then I'd roast. The landlord hadn 't installed the new air conditioner yet.
"How long will it take you to find him?" Death asked, interrupting my train of self-pity.
I looked at him. Well, best get it over with. "Not long," I told him.
I pulled the cover off the computer and turned it on. I seldom used it, not being a techno-geek. It sat on a little stand in a shadowy corner out of the way. It always took a while to warm up. After a prolonged period of coffee-grinder sounds and grunts like a contented pig, the screen lit up. I clicked on the logo for my server and waited for the connection.
No, I didn't have the speedy service. Cost too much. I only used the machine to play games and visit a few adult sites. Yeh, I know. I had too much free time. My ex-wife says the same thing. I need to get a better job...
Finally, the server answered and I was on. I brought up the search engine I favored and clicked on the name find logo. When the screen came up, I typed in Calvin Desmond James, clicked and waited.
Death seemed taller now. His hood faced the monitor. I swear his bones rattled with excitement.
A screen came up, notifying me of sixty-six Calvin Desmond James in the country.
"I'll need Mr. James' last known address," I told Death as I started looking for an eighty-three year old man. The name find service I subscribed to included age, occupation, address, criminal record, date of birth, phone number, and other information.
"He never gave it to us."
I raised my head to look at him. "How did you pay him? Didn't he send you a bill?"
The hood moved in a negative fashion. "He was paid just as you have been."
Great. So now I had to check all the names.
I scrolled down slowly, discounting the first fifteen. On the sixteenth, I sensed that static electrical charge again.
Death pointed at the screen. "That's him. He's eighty-three."
"There might be more than one. Let me finish checking before you go rushing off and maybe get the wrong guy," I objected. Much as I wanted him gone, I had to be sure.
He seemed to be fidgeting with his robe, but he waited. I noticed though that he moved closer to the door and his scythe.
I rolled through the rest of the list and found no more of a matching age. I scrolled back up to the sixteenth name. "That's him," I said. And felt sad for the guy who thought he'd fixed it so he'd live forever. But bookkeepers are a persistent bunch. They'll spend hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars to find a missing penny so I guess Death is one of them.
Death opened the door and turned to me. "If we ever need to find anyone else, I'll be back." He vanished.
Wonderful. Just wonderful.