All Reapers Come
by Ronald Linson
The phone woke Chad up. He reached out and snagged it from the nightstand. “Hello?”
“Chad, it’s Ruby. We’ve got an ARC. Come into the office immediately.”
He sat bolt upright, now fully awake. “Okay, yeah. I’m on my way.” He hung up, swung his legs off the bed and pulled on a pair of jeans and his shoes, not wasting time on socks. A glance at the clock told him it was 2:27 a.m. An ARC — an All Reapers Come alert — meant all hands on deck, no matter the time of day or night.
Seven minutes later, he was walking through the front door of the District 58 Grim Reaper Services office. He stopped short, taking in the scene.
Arthur, whose shift this normally was, was standing beside the coffee machine, cup in hand. Ruby, the office’s Know-Your-Customer specialist, was seated behind the secretary’s desk, phone in the crook of her shoulder, deep in conversation.
Mortimer, the third Reaper working in District 58, bumped into Chad from behind, almost bowling him over.
“Sorry, man,” Mortimer said. “I wasn’t watching where I was going.”
“That’s okay,” Chad said. “I wasn’t watching where I was standing.”
Mortimer laughed and clapped Chad on the back. “Coffee, then we see what’s going on.” He headed over to the coffee machine.
Chad needed coffee, too, but he wanted to find out the reason for the ARC first. He went over to the secretary’s desk and got Ruby’s attention.
She peered up at him. “I’m still getting all the details,” she said. “I’ll be with you guys in a few.” She typed something on the computer, then waved him away, making small affirmative noises to the person on the phone.
Chad poured himself a cup of coffee and left it black. It was too hot, but he didn’t care. He sipped it, glancing at Arthur and Mortimer.
The two men were as different as night and day. Arthur was thin and pale, a wisp of a man, while Mortimer was a former professional football player and looked it. Chad, on the other hand, thought of himself as a happy medium halfway between the two.
“Five bucks says it’s a train derailment,” Arthur said.
“I told you,” Mortimer said, “I don’t like speculating. It’s bad luck.”
Arthur turned to Chad. “What do you think?”
Chad shrugged. “I don’t know. I just work here.”
Mortimer guffawed and, after a few moments, even the stony-faced Arthur broke into a smile.
Ruby hurried over, clutching a sheaf of papers. Normally the picture of professional perfection, she looked exhausted. She had dark circles under her eyes, and her red hair was disheveled as if she had just awoken. She usually wore a pantsuit, but tonight she had on a set of rumpled sweats.
“Listen,” she said. “This is a big one. Districts 52 through 58 have been called out.”
Arthur whistled softly. “Plane crash. Has to be.”
Ruby blinked. “Why, yes, it is.” She began to shuffle noisily through her papers, dropping a few.
Chad and Mortimer picked them up and handed them back.
“Thanks,” she mumbled absently. “Ah, here it is. Time of incident, 3:04 a.m.” She rattled off the GPS coordinates.
“That’s in District 55,” Chad said.
“We’ve got about fifteen minutes,” Arthur said.
Ruby flipped through the papers some more. “532 casualties,” she read and held up several sheets printed with individual pickup orders.
Arthur gasped, and Mortimer dropped his coffee cup. Chad squeezed his own, sloshing hot liquid over his hand.
“That’s too many for a simple plane crash,” Arthur said.
Ruby shook her head. “Jumbo jet, apartment building, natural gas storage tanks, surrounding homes.”
“Damn,” Chad said, “We’d better suit up,” he told Mortimer. He wiped his hand on his jeans and took the orders from Ruby.
Suiting up was a simple process for a Grim Reaper. In the changing room, each man had his own equipment station, which consisted of a black, hooded robe hanging from a hook, and a large scythe mounted on brackets.
Chad took down his robe and slipped it on. It looked and felt like wool, but was surprisingly light and comfortable. When he fastened the single button at its collar, the rest of the garment sealed down the front of its own accord.
He watched his hands turn from flesh to bone, though they still felt the same to him. He flexed his fingers as he always did after the transformation, a habitual act of self-reassurance.
Lifting his scythe from the wall, he turned to find Mortimer was ready to go as well. Mortimer had pulled up his hood, and his face was now a white, grinning skull. Something in the magic of the office allowed one Reaper to identify another. Chad could discern Mortimer’s affable features behind the glamour.
Arthur met them in the garage. “I’m driving,” he said, holding up a set of keys.
The Grim Reaper Services van was rarely used, since Reapers could travel quickly to any point within their own district by means of teleportation. Going outside of the district required more mundane methods of transport.
“Shotgun,” Chad called as they stowed their scythes in the back of the sleek black vehicle.
After Mortimer had squeezed his massive frame into one of the rear seats, Arthur started the engine. The world outside the van changed subtly, as if it were being seen reflected in a mirror.
“Fasten your seatbelts, gentlemen,” Arthur said, putting the van into reverse.
Chad snorted. “I’ll pretend I didn’t hear that.”
“He always wanted to be a Formula One driver,” Mortimer said, laughing.
“True,” Arthur said. “No better way to practice than in Dead Time, when no one can get hurt, or get pulled over by the cops.”
“Are you serious?” Chad asked Arthur. “You really wanted to be a race car driver?”
Arthur shrugged. “A dream. I’m too short and too old now.” He turned to Chad as the van rolled backward out of the garage, passing right through the doors. “What did you want to be when you were a kid?”
Chad looked away, staring out the window into the night. “Rich,” he said quietly, expecting derision from Arthur and, perhaps, pity from Mortimer.
The ghostly lights of the city drifted by for several seconds before he realized that neither man had responded. He turned back to see Arthur nodding thoughtfully. In the rear view mirror, Mortimer looked sympathetic but not pitying.
The van’s engine growled as Arthur floored the accelerator. The streets were largely deserted at this hour, not that there was any danger of interacting with the physical world in Dead Time, the frame of reference in which Grim Reapers operated outside of human perception.
Once the van’s speed topped one hundred and fifty, the trip took mere minutes, subjectively. The destination wasn’t hard to find. An angry mushroom cloud glowing red, orange, and yellow was frozen against the skyline of District 55.
“Jeez,” Mortimer said. “Why would anyone store natural gas near a residential neighborhood?”
“Land is expensive,” Chad said. “They don’t want to pay for the acreage to isolate the tanks.” He shook his head. “That’s my guess, anyway.”
“Idiots,” Arthur said. “And ten bucks says the plane was hijacked by some terrorist whack job, who was aiming for the tanks and hit the apartment building instead.”
“Same results,” Chad said. “It could have been an accident, though. It does happen.”
“Yeah,” Arthur said, slowing the van. “I’m still betting on a terrorist.”
They parked alongside three other Reaper vans and got out. Nearby, a Reaper middle management type wearing black robes trimmed in silver was giving orders to a trio of Reapers.
“I know him,” Mortimer said. “That’s Ralph. He’s a honcho from the Northeastern regional office. I worked under him for a while before coming to 58.”
Ralph started pointing, and then the Reapers split up. Then he waved Chad, Arthur and Mortimer over.
Ralph’s hood was down, leaving his features unobscured by the Reaper glamour. He was about six feet tall, with a mane of curly blond hair, and a too-perfect handsome face. His azure blue eyes were determined as they walked up to him.
“You guys are from 58, right?” he said, his Brooklyn accent incongruous. “Oh, hey, Morty. How’s it going?”
“S’all right,” Mortimer said.
Ralph nodded. “Okay, listen. This is a real pooch screw. We’re forgoing the usual niceties. Just collect and move on. This scene is going to attract every shade for miles. I wanna get it over with before we have to deal with them, got it?”
Chad and the others nodded.
“Good,” Ralph said. “Okay, Morty, I want you over there, by the row of houses down there.” He pointed. “And you, the little guy.”
Arthur bristled at that, but kept his tongue.
“I need you to work with 56 down by the tail of the plane,” Ralph said, pointing to an area in full conflagration. “And you,” he said, turning to Chad, “you work over there.”
The place he indicated was apparently deep within the ruins of the apartment building. There were likely plenty of buried bodies in there.
Chad held up the printed orders. “How do we keep track of the collections?”
Ralph sighed and shook his head. “It’s a mess. Just try to get everyone in your area.”
Another group of Reapers had arrived and were waiting. Chad nodded to Arthur and Mortimer, then headed off.
Copyright © 2018 by Ronald Linson