“How much does this pay?” I asked.
“Depends. If you do the job well we might call you back for more work, that’s where the real rewards are. I trust I don’t need to tell you not to screw up.”
He had dark hair, almost black, but with the streetlight shining down on him there was the faintest glimmer of colour. I could barely make out his eyes, he had his head tilted downwards so the light couldn’t reach them and his heavy brow gave more cover.
“What if I just do this one job for you?”
“Well that’s very rare. Most folks always want more work from us. But if you really don’t want to do us any more favours then we will pay you handsomely for all your good service.”
“So I could do this one little thing for you and just walk away?”
“Sure. But I doubt you will.”
I smiled. The man was willing to offer five hundred dollars for me to go and fetch some weirdo called Chris in an alleyway, and bring him to some shithole club. Didn’t even sound that far, I kept wondering why this guy didn’t just walk there by himself, but when I asked all I got was “Chris is lost, you’re going to help him reach his destination.”
“Alright, so where will I find Chris then?”
He pointed down the dark wet street, keeping his face pointed firmly at the floor.
“Just a couple of blocks down there, there’s a few alleys on the way but you’ll know which one he’s in.”
I looked down the street and shifted uncomfortably. It didn’t exactly look safe but this whole venture was hardly an exercise in ‘being safe’. I set off down the street but before I’d taken two steps I felt something cold and hard grab my arm. I couldn’t move; my entire body felt like it had lost whatever kept it going. My breath vanished from my lungs and what little heat remained in my face dribbled away.
With his other hand he shuffled around in his jacket.
“When you see Chris he might be nervous, smile and shake his hand, it’ll settle his nerves. Then give this note to the bouncer at the Highway club. Don’t read it. We’ll know if you’ve read it.”
He passed me a crumpled piece of paper. It was yellowish and soft; it could have been in his pocket for months. I took it out of his freezing hand and carefully put it in my pocket, trying not to rip it.
As he released me blood rushed back around my body and I could move again. I looked him up and down and he raised his head a little, his big brow still tucking away his eyes in a cave of shade.
“Don’t read it. We’ll know.”
With that I hurried off down the street, slapping my shoes against puddles. My fingers fumbled over the fraying paper in my pocket as my head kept saying to me “Don’t read it, don’t read it.”
After a block my feet were numb from the cold. Water had seeped between my toes, easily passing through the soles of my shoes. “I could do with a coffee right about now.” I mumbled to myself. I don’t know why but walking this block felt so tiresome. I tried to draw my coat around myself, clutching tightly at my arms but I couldn’t stop shivering. I tried to take my mind off of the cold. What was written on that note?
I ran my fingertips over the frayed paper; all the while my brain is screaming to me “Don’t read it. Don’t read it.” Curiosity made me grasp at the note as I looked back and ducked behind some stairs. My hand trembled as I held it within my hands, careful not to unfold it just yet. I looked behind me; I could just see the streetlight where I’d spoken to the man who gave it to me. My eyes scanned the area I’d come from, trying to see if he was watching me. But I couldn't see anyone there. He’d gone. I mean it was hardly surprising but something about him not being where I’d left him unsettled me. I recalled his cold death grip on my arm. My forearm, where his hand seized me, tingled with a vicious chill. I glanced at the note quivering in my hand and I tucked it back into pocket. I could almost feel that grip on my shoulder, sending crippling shudders through my body.
It was just another block to go now. I kept my eyes focused on the end of the street and walked quickly, my feet crashing into the sidewalk with rhythmic rapidity. As I drew closer and closer I wondered how the hell I would know which alley Chris was going to be in, there seemed to be so many. But the moment I wondered this, there came this sudden voice in my head. It wasn't in the back of my mind so much; more like it occupied the entirety of my mind for a brief second. It was voice that said in a plain and commanding tone “Chris is in that crooked little alley on the left. He’s tucked behind a green dumpster.”
I followed the thought, my feet ignorant to the cold all the while. Sure enough, in an alleyway on my left, sat in a crumpled heap of clothes next to a rusted green dumpster was a man that this same thought told me was Chris.
“Hey you.” I said loudly.
As he drearily lifted his head I saw a scraggly beard that had soaked up what looked and smelled like puke. He met my gaze and froze for a moment. His eyes widened as they looked into mine, they were pale, perhaps once they were blue but the iris had eroded away and blended with the bloodshot white.
I forced myself to crack a wide smile and reached down to the stinking hobo with an open hand.
“You’re Chris. I've been sent to take you somewhere.”
The smile seemed to work. He reached out a scarred naked arm wrapped in a leather belt. His hand was grubby and disgusting; I shook it and helped him onto his feet.
As we walked down the street Chris didn't say a word. My journey had been lonely up until now. But as we passed more convenience stores some of the customers hurriedly left with their late night groceries. I’d gotten used to people in New York barging past me, knocking my shoulder if I didn’t move quickly enough. But not one person even came within close proximity of me and Chris. Not one person even acknowledged the puke stained bum walking next to me. They all seemed to part before me, but it didn’t look intentional it felt purely coincidental.
We continued past the convenience stores and laundrettes until we came to where I knew the Highway club to be. The same knowing that led me to Chris guided me to a small stairwell that led down to a heavy door on a condemned building. I banged on the door, my fist rattling the rusty hinges.
It swung open immediately. Stood in the doorway was a tall slender man dressed in a suit with large sun glasses perched on his narrow skeletal face. His slim build and skinny face coupled with the suit and glasses made him look like Roy Orbison’s skeleton. He didn’t say a word, nor did his thin lips crack any kind of expression.
I reached into my pocket, and felt the frayed old note that had troubled me so much. I held it out to the tall skinny bouncer. Without moving the rest of his body his hand snatched the note from my hands. He adjusted his glasses on his rigid cheekbones and glared at the note, and then at Chris.
His near non-existent lips spoke to me in awful tone reminiscent of a gurgling plug.
“Christopher Castiel. We've been wondering when you would get here.” His spider like legs moved his body to the left and his long bony arm held the door open “Come in, both of you. You must be cold.”
Any nerves I would have had about entering this place had left me a while ago. Something very homely and ‘right’ about this place drew me in. There wasn't much inside however. All I could see was a long grey corridor that led down to the left with old splintering doors every six feet.
There came a loud clatter behind me as the suited spider slammed the heavy entrance door.
“Christopher, if you would be so kind as to follow me” said that unerring guttural old voice, like he was on the brink of death. He looked down at me as the two of them started down the long, seemingly unending corridor. “You stay here. You'll receive your payment soon.”
The two of them carried on down the grey concrete corridor, their feet crunching bits of grit beneath their soles. They walked until they reached one of the many doors. The slender suited man placed a scrawny hand upon Christopher’s shoulder, his bony fingers settling uncomfortably on the ragged fraying jacket. With his other hand he opened the door and guided Christopher into the room. I watched and listened but for a while I heard nothing, save for muffled voices trickling down the corridor. After a minute or so there came an orange light from the doorway, it wavered with the darkness and showed the unsettled dust of the corridor. The bright light blazed for a while until the door was abruptly slammed shut. There was nothing. No noise. I was alone without a sound to keep me company until my ears sang with a terrible scream. It was sudden, distressed, desperate, the scream of a man desperate to run away. But as soon as it came it went, cut off midway.
I was alone. For five minutes I stood in the same place. I tried to see how far the corridor went on for but the lamp above me illuminated very little. All the doors were identical, and spaced exactly six feet apart. They were splintered in the same places and their knobs rusted in the same pattern.
I couldn't contain myself. I’d been led somewhere strange, by what I could not say. How did I know to come here? How did I know how to find Chris? And what happened to him? I was sick of being left in the dark. Who the hell were these people? What were behind these doors?
I trembled as I reached out and grabbed the nearest doorknob. It was warm. The rust invitingly grazed my palm. I turned it and pushed the door open. Before me was a dark windowless room, just as grey and dark as the corridor.
“This isn't right…” I muttered; I was right. The room began to change. The blank wall started swirling and blurring with dark shades of crimson and black, transforming into clouds of billowing smoke. I stared; all I could do was stare into the bizarre mist twisting before me. The crimson and black smoke spiralled, spinning slowly into a bright red centre that grew and grew. Soon I saw a huge void of light surrounded by curved clouds of ebony and blood red. Nothing of the room remained, only a vast abyss of terrifying light and coloured smoke. In the brightness there were faces, twisted in anguished moments of torment. They moved around me, like vultures flying around a carcass.
I was paralysed by the madness but somehow managed to illicit a scream. As my piercing yell resounded in the sea of red light and tortured ghostly faces the horror began to fall away from me. The dull grey room began to burn through the light and smoke.
I stood in the empty room, panting, desperate, and relieved. What little breath there was suddenly snatched away and I felt a claw rest upon my shoulder.
“You’ll want your payment I presume?” said the old grating voice.
I turned to face the tall creature and nodded. His hand lifted off me and found a roll of bills in his suit which he presented to me. I meekly took the money.
“Why am I here?” I asked.
Instead of replying he handed me the note. I read the smudged handwriting.
Christopher Castiel will die from choking on his own vomit. A new Reaper will be sent to claim his soul.
“A new what?” I uttered as I read.
“Reaper. You were chosen to claim Christopher’s soul and bring him to us.” He answered.
“So Christopher is…”
“Being seen to. There are others, we always need more reapers.”
I dropped the note. The gangly man stared unwavering.
"Why... why would I want... this?" I asked, out of breath.
"It's not just money you receive. Certain things in life we can secure for you. Sex, property, and revenge, for instance. Some things will naturally slide in your favour sir. It cannot have escaped your attention sir but death wields a certain power."
"Will I be immune?" I asked "To death I mean."
"No. That we cannot give you. All reapers must be mortal. If not they will lose touch with what they trade in."
I stopped to consider what he said, what I had done, and whether I wanted to continue. Had I committed murder? And if so, why the disconnected feeling? Would the soul of Christopher Castiel have carried on wandering if I hadn't brought it here to be punished? And what exactly did he mean by slide in my favour?
"How long would I have to work for you?" I asked.
The man affixed his glasses, allowing for a glimpse into the fleshy concave sockets where eyes should be.
"As long as you want. As long as it amuses you. As long as you are competent. It takes little talent but a lot of discretion, we will know if you fail or if you reveal anything of what you see here. We always know."
He interrupted sharply.
"He is no longer your concern. You have completed that task. Now you must answer us. Will you work for us? Will you deliver the damned?"
I don’t know how many people I've delivered to them. The advice about smiling was useful, puts their mind at ease. I do it for all my clients, they don't run when you smile for them. What he said about reapers needing to be mortal made sense after a while. It puts death into perspective for you. You see, death won't come for you with a big scythe and a flowing cape, nor will he look like a skeleton Death will come for you with a big smile, an open hand, and he will look like everybody else.