It was dreary in the bar, a real dive.
An experienced connoisseur of places that stank of fear and desperation, I found this place dismal even by my admittedly low standards. Every stereotype was being played out here; the unfaithful husband on business but also on the make, the wayward wife supposedly out at ‘girl’s night’ but really looking to hook up with the stranger.
The place smelled of sweat, perfume of varying costs, spilled liquor and cigarettes. You saw the long-time alcoholic who had given up hope and drank alone in the corner. You saw the barman eying him, knowing exactly when to cut him off and send him on his way–likely to another bar. You saw the hooker who was sizing up who might pay her the most with the least effort on her part.
I was in a great place to view it all without being disturbed.
Mostly, because I was invisible.
At least to those in the temporal state.
What I am and what I represent is hard to explain. I don’t remember ever NOT being around. I don’t remember ever NOT being busy. Tonight, there was a lull in business, so I decided to take a well-deserved rest.
I had about an hour. An old lady with lung problems at 11:20. She would be found in the morning by her landlady, who had come to collect the rent. A young kid who wandered into a area with a non-fenced swimming pool would be at midnight. The parents would wonder how he got out of the house, which of them should have watched him more closely, and later would divorce over it. It was an old, sad tale.
Because of the nature of my busy trade, I had numerous staff who worked for me. They handle the usual sad, but inevitable things, the heart attacks, the car wrecks, the suicides and murders. These days, I picked only those that had some element of interest for me. Whether it was something about the person being dispatched or something about their lives, or impending deaths.
I suppose you’ve guessed by now, who I am. Over time I’ve been called a number of things. Anubis, Yama, Thanatos, or just plain Death. My favorite is the Grim Reaper. That one really cracks me up. For there is nothing grim about me. I’m the guy you’d gravitate towards at a really good party. Rod Serling had it right. If a human actor were to portray me, I’d more likely resemble Robert Redford than Billy Bob Thornton.
Tonight, I was just soaking up the atmosphere. I never expected to have company.
Here she came, though. Beautiful, sexy, the kind you would hate to see take their last breath. Long, raven hair, ruby lips with the perfect bow curve. Emerald eyes. The kind of woman who would be beautiful without makeup first thing in the morning. A full, womanly body, plump in all the right places. I’m not a man, never have been, but for a moment, this goddess made me wish that I were.
I decided to be casual as she approached me. Perhaps an applicant for a job? If so, she was hired. Who wouldn’t want to follow her to the grave–or anywhere else for that matter?
She sat by me, watched the scene as I did for a time, commenting on nothing. Then, slowly, almost as if thinking about every half inch she turned, she faced me. She drew out a graceful, slender hand. “Irkalla” She said, her voice sultry and appealing, just deep enough to make a man think of all sorts of delights. But then again, I’m not a man.
I thought quickly. No need to play games. “I suspect you know who I am,” I said, meeting her smoldering eyes directly.
“Yes.” She turned back to watch the predictable, sad antics of the mortals around us. “I have been one of them. Or, at least when it amused me to do so.”
“Oh yes. I’m very well traveled. Athens, Milan. Constantinople. London, most of Europe.” She drawled out the itinerary as if talking about a not particularly exciting grocery list. As if it had all become boring for her. I heard that bit of world weariness in her voice that made her seem for a moment….vulnerable?
With a momentary surge of a lust I’d never before felt, I leaned toward her, feeling greedy to savor this lush morsel, and not just in the earthly sense. Would she be an unexpected addition to my list tonight? It seemed odd that I didn’t know in advance. I didn’t keep track of all deaths, there were far too many, but as I said, I did stay informed of the impending interesting ones.
“Easy now,” She said calmly, reaching a hand to push at my chest. Gently, gently, she pushed, but the pressure felt like fire. I had never breathed, but I felt like I needed to catch a breath. I’d never had a heart beat, but something inside me was making a frightful noise. I felt the sensation of a new emotion….fear?
“I feel like we’ve met before.” I said, pulling back, hoping that these previously unknown sensations would go away. She smiled impishly, her green eyes seeming to reach out and grab at my own. Or what passed as my eyes. I had the outward appearance of a body so that I wouldn’t frighten those who I came to dispatch.
“We have.” She said, “In all the places I mentioned.”
Her hints were maddening. Yes, I’d been in all those places. Sometimes for prolonged periods of time, but not in centuries.
I again had the perception of having bodily sensations. I could feel blood pumping in veins where there should not be veins. A shiver in skin that had never responded to cold, heat or anything else. I’d been on ships–the Titanic, and guided hundreds out of life. I never felt the icy cold of those waters. Now, I felt a positive chill.
“Are you ready to go?” She asked gently.
“I’m not sure what you mean.” I said, fear now a true part of what I feeling. Who was this woman? What did she want with me?
She pursed her lush lips. “I’m disappointed. After all, I’ve told you my name.”
I thought hard, conscious of a headache, something that had never happened before. Those places she’d visited, places I too had once visited, long ago. They had a common thread, I was certain of it, something to do with my job…..
Milan. Constantinople. Europe. London.
I saw her smile. But she worked for me if that was what she was. She must. Why did she want me to come along with her?
“You don’t quite get it, do you?” She asked. I shook my head.
“Well, its nothing like a hostile takeover. I hate confrontation.” She held up a mirror. I looked, now completely horrified. The face looking back at me was not immortal. The hair was straw white, lusterless. The eyes cloudy with age. The face, lined as if it had survived multiple eons. The mouth, toothless. I was old beyond belief. I felt the ache of every joint in a body I now realized was my own.
I had become a man.
“Yes, I am plague.” She said, gently, putting the mirror down. “I’m also earthquake, I was there at Pompeii. I have been here forever. Long before you. You thought you were in charge of things. I merely let you work for me. But as with everyhing, there is a time to end things. You were getting too jaded. I need to promote someone else, who will take the job seriously. I am Irkala. Do you know me now?”
And suddenly, I did. Irkala was the goddess of the dead. I hadn’t heard much about her in a few millennia. Hadn’t known that while I was unaware of her, she was very much aware of me. She was in fact, if you wanted to call it thus, my supervisor, my boss.
“You may think I am unkind. I’m not. I fear that you might be at times. You were looking only for enjoyment from this job, not seeing it as a necessary part of life. Part of the order of the universe.”
She waved her hand, and I saw several heads drop on tables as if falling naturally to sleep. However, I knew that they were not asleep.
She touched my arm, and I stood up, following her towards the door. I took a last look at my bar-mates who were no more.
Soon, I knew, I would understand what it was like.