Monday, May 1, 2017

Witches Tales 9

“We can’t kill humans on the show!” Mr. Zeero said.
“Your ratings are in the toilet and you know it. This would give us a huge boost, the allure of cooking something that has been forbidden.  It doesn’t really matter what you make, as long as it is with the humans, they will watch.” Maleria, the Vice President of the network said.
“But, humans?  Gross.  No one cooks with them anymore.  We are past that and it just feels like a gimmick.” Mr. Zeero said.
“Exactly, it’s a gimmick.  Your show has bombed the last three seasons and the investors are looking for a change.  Your audience has grown tired of your same old routine.  They want something new.   If you show them something shocking, they’ll eat it up.” Maleria said.
“I’ve never cooked with humans before.  And the only recipes I’ve ever seen were in museums and on those terrible horror movies.  Do we even have real humans?”
“Yes. Neen, was so gracious as to scrounge up some humans on short notice. And you better come up with a good meal, you are cooking them tonight.” Maleria said.
Mr. Zeero sat at the table as the others left the meeting room.  Tapping a claw on the table, he racked his brain for an idea on how to cook the humans.  Most of the recipes he remembered were basic, skewer a human through their mouth and out their rump then stick them over the fire.  That was how their ancestors did it, before their eventual evolution to more advanced creatures.  Now, they cooked animals, plants, and grains.  Mr. Zeero was at a loss, until a producer came in with some sheets of hand scribbled paper.
“Mr. Zeero, I want to say, I am really excited about what you are going to do.  I think it’s great that you are going to do something completely different than what anyone has done before.  Cooking humans.  It’s amazing.” Neen said.
Mr. Zeero looked at the young producer standing in front of him. “It’s amazing?  More like barbaric. We are way past eating humans. I don’t think it’s good at all.  I think it is going to backfire on all of us.”
“I don’t know.  I think it might just be the thing we need.” Neen said.
“How long have you worked here?”
“Just a couple of months.  This is my first job.  Well, not first job, but first real job.  I’ve been watching you since I was kid.” Neen said.
“So, you’ve seen my work.  That’s nice.”  Mr. Zeero pegged the producer at around twenty.  Have I been on the air that long, he thought. “But, you are new.  So you don’t understand how the TV business works.  This is going to be suicide.  It’ll be bad for me and bad for the studio.”
“I think you’ll be surprised Mr. Zeero.  I’ve gotta go, but before I do, here is a recipe for tonight’s show.  It’s going to be killer.”  Neen said before he left the room.
The paper’s blue lines and frayed edges suggested it came from a notebook.  Mr. Zeero looked it over, trying to determine how the producer had a recipe ready for the show.  The ingredients distracted him from following that line of thinking. His mouth watered while he imagined the pieces mixed together into an amazing rustic soup, it was going to be delicious.
It had him cooking them in a soup with lots of herbs and vegetables, it also asked for a few cups of rice.  The ingredients would mask the gaminess of the human meat.  He would still have to cube the humans, which would be nasty business, but it could work.  I can’t believe that we are actually going to do this.

Neen watched Mr. Zeero looking over the recipe.  The recipe was meant to replicate what their ancestors had eaten before moving into houses with kitchens.  While at school, Neen and the other children had been taught that they had eaten humans.  Eventually they had evolved past it and moved on to eating in a more humane way.  They had pushed out their old habits, even looking down at them as a cruel way to do things.  The humans receded into the Wasteland, far away from their society.   But, something was going to happen.  Something tonight and Neen had passed the first key on to Mr. Zeero.
Blue and green skinned co-workers fretted about, pretending to work.  Neen walked past their offices, break rooms, and recording studios and could see they were focused elsewhere.  Their focus was on what was in the TV studio kitchen: two humans.  
Protesters had begun to line up on the sidewalks outside of the building.  Neen had passed them this morning on his way into the studio.  Before Mr. Zeero had entered the meeting, the studio heads and producers, including Neen, had been discussing the protesters.  
“Some how, the word got out that we were going to cook humans.  We’ll deal with that leak later,” Maleria said.
Everyone in the room eyed each other as the leak to the press. Neen shifted his green eyes back and forth, looking down anytime someone eyed “the new guy” as the one that talked to reporters. When Neen had started at the studio a couple of weeks ago, another producer had made it clear to him that as the new guy, all things would be blamed on him. So, of course everyone was going to assume it was him.  Which it was.
On Neen’s first day at the studio he had been given a tour of the building, and that was when he entered the biggest set in the studio, the kitchen. After handing Mr. Zeero the recipe, he went back into the kitchen.  He walked through the studio and seemed to transport to a demon’s home kitchen. The granite countertop on the island was cool to the touch as he dragged his finger across it. He could almost see Mr. Zeero behind the counter talking to the camera as he delivered a delectable treat and his usual homey wisdom.  Behind the island, Neen found two cast iron ovens, taller than he was.  A couple of years ago, these same ovens were used to cook a whole horse. A counter behind the island was stacked with the TV chef’s kitchen tools, Neen couldn’t resist touching them. His circuit of the studio brought him face to face to the humans, shackled to a wooden stockade.
Yellow and black tape circled the stockade, providing an invisible barrier between the studio crew and the humans.  Neen stood within that circle and stared at them.  An ancient feeling stirred in him, instincts that had been buried deep fought to come out. He resisted the urge by observing the workers who were doing their best to avoid the circle and the humans.
The studio crew was quiet and worked quickly.  He watched as they snuck peeks at the stockade before they turned back to their work.  A ladder had been set near the stockade, an electrician was fiddling with some cables in the rafters. He wasn’t paying attention to what he was doing, his eyes focused on Neen, and the cable came loose falling into the circle.  He cursed and banged his wrench on the ladder, than asked another electrician to bring him a new cable.  Neen picked up the one that fell and tried to hand it to the creature on the ladder. “I don’t want to touch that.  It probably has their germs all over it.” The electrician said.  Neen dropped it and left the uneasy studio.
On his way out he passed two assistants pushing a large item hidden under a white sheet. He stepped aside to let them pass.  “What’s under the sheet?” he asked.
“We’re not sure.” one of them said.
“We were told not to lift the sheet, that it was something special for tonight.” Another said.
“And you guys didn’t look?  I mean, I’m curious.  You guys have got to be too.” Neen said.
“Well, we were told not to.” The first said.
“But, I think it is some sort of cauldron, at least that’s what it sorta looked like from the bottom.” The other said.  The first one shot him a look that said he was going to smack him when the producer went away.
“Some sort of cauldron, eh?  But, where did it come from?” Neen asked.
“Who knows?  We were just told to put it in the studio and that the fabulous Mr. Zeero would be doing something with it.”
Neen nodded, satisfied that it would stay secret. “Mr. Zeero is fabulous.  Just you wait and see.”

Protestors outside of the studio held signs that called the studio and Mr. Zeero monsters. Mr. Zeero watched them heckle the early audience members as they tried to squeeze past them and head into the studio.  Mr. Zeero turned from the window and went to his desk.  On the edges of his desk stood stacks of haphazard papers, acting as a barrier between him and a reporter.  In the middle of the desk laid the recipe that Neen had given him.  He sat down and took a sip from his coffee mug, grimacing at the lukewarm bitterness inside.  The reporter coughed and tapped his notebook, waiting for Mr. Zeero to comment on the night’s show.
“I think that we are just trying to introduce something new to the audience.  Something they haven’t seen before.  Of course there will be protesters, there are always protesters for something.  We just can’t let them control everything we are doing.” Mr. Zeero said.
“Yes, but you have to admit that this seems to be a ploy.  An easy way for you to get views.” The reporter said.
Mr. Zeero tapped his coffee mug. Damnit, that’s exactly what I said. I knew I shouldn’t have done this.
“That is true.  We will get more viewers.  They all want to see humans.  I can’t help that.  And yes, I know all about the stories about what happens to us when we taste their blood.  I also know about the religious views when it comes to eating a human.  But, I’m a chef and I like to explore the more exotic tastes. You’ve seen my show, you know what I do.  Well, now it is time to taste the one thing that I haven’t tasted, a human.” Mr. Zeero said.
“So, you are really going to do it then?  I’ve heard from a source that you were against it.  But, have you changed your mind?”
I guess so.  I guess I am kind of intrigued by it all, he thought.
“You might say it is for ratings.  You might say it is for shock value.  But, we have two live humans in the studio right now, and I’m going to do it.” he said.
The reporter nodded.  He threw the notebook to the ground and jumped from his seat, holding his pen like a knife.  The papers on Mr. Zeero’s desk splashed to the floor as the monster flew over it and landed on top of the chef. They fell back into his chair, breaking one of the legs, before they toppled to the floor.  Mr. Zeero tried to fight the monster off of him, but he was too strong.  A large pendant fell out of the reporter’s shirt as he put the tip of the pen into Mr. Zeero’s neck.  An odd thought popped into Mr. Zeero’s head while he grabbed at the pen wielding arm. A religious nut, of course. The pen broke through blue skin.
Blood trickled down Mr. Zeero’s neck while he thrashed uselessly under the monster’s weight.  An arm appeared around the reporter’s neck and lifted him off of Mr. Zeero.  One of his security guards held the reporter in the air, while another one came to chef’s aide.  Mr. Zeero pressed his hand against his neck and looked at the reporter.
“We heard a noise and came in as soon as we could Mr. Zeero.” the beefy security guard holding the reporter said.
“He’s some religious fanatic.  How’d he get in here?” Mr. Zeero asked.
“He had legit credentials.  We assumed he was working with the paper.” An assistant said. Outside of Mr. Zeero’s office he could see the wide eyes and shocked looks of all of his co-workers.  He recognized some of the faces, even the new producer was among the crowd.
“I am a reporter.” The reporter said.  “But, I am also one of those religious fanatics that thinks what you are doing is wrong.  When I heard you were going to do this, I knew what I had to do.”
“Why?  Why is it okay to kill me, but not a human?” Mr. Zeero said.
“You don’t know what this is going to do, what is going to happen if you kill the humans in front of us.  It is going to put our whole society into a tailspin of destruction.  Where did you even get a human?  Who put you up to this?” The reporter said.
“I don’t know.” Mr. Zeero said.
“Think about it.  Something is going to happen and you are going to be the cause of it all.  Someone is setting you up.  You have no idea what you are going to do.”
“Alright, that’s enough.  Get him out of here.” Maleria said.  “I heard there was something going on and I had to check on you.  Are you okay?”
Mr. Zeero pulled his hand away from his neck and looked at the blood on his palm. He dabbed at the wound again, the wound burned.  “How am I going to look on camera with a pen wound in my neck?  It’s going to look like I don’t know how to shave.”
“So, I guess you are okay then?” Maleria asked.  She bent down and righted the toppled chair in front of the desk, then she picked up the notebook and sat down.  “Maybe we can use this.  We can tell the new stations how you were attacked and fought back against the tyranny of a religious order.  Maybe say something about how we all have the rights to do what we want.”
“Or we could just cancel the show and move on with our lives.  You see these papers all over the floor?  They are new ideas.  New ways to cook things.  New ways to do things.  Maybe we could do more stories out in the world?”
Mr. Zeero went to sit down, then saw the broken leg.  He went around his desk and sank into the torn leather sofa that was along a wall in his office.
“I think we had a good idea, but this is too much.  What if there is a nut in the audience?  Is it really worth risking all of these lives for one show?”
“We have it all figured out, don’t worry your pretty little head. It’s too late to cancel, too much has already been set to back out.  The security guards are frisking everyone and putting them through metal detectors.  Besides, we already have the humans.  We can’t back out now.”
Mr. Zeero wiped his face, leaving a streak of blood on his blue skin.  “Where did the humans even come from?  It’s not like you can just get them from a farm.  I didn’t think we could go into the forbidden zones.”
“One of the producers got them for us.  Said that you had told him where to go.  We didn’t ask, assuming that if you got them that you must have been on board.” Maleria said.
She got up and tossed the notebook into the trash.  She went to the door, then turned back, “You have half an hour to get ready before the show starts.  I’d clean up, put on your chef coat, and get downstairs.  And smile, this is going to put you back in the big time.” She smiled, revealing sharp pointed teeth.
“Did you know the reporter was crazy?”
Maleria shook her head, “Why would I do that?  Just get ready for the show.”
After she was gone, Mr. Zeero went to the trash can and picked up the notebook.  Scribbled on the pages in angry black marks were crosses, stars, and the seeing eye of the brood mother.  Scripture regarding the sin of shedding human blood, of tasting human blood, were sprinkled with the insane drawings.  Mr. Zeero shivered and dropped the notebook as if it burned his skin.
Neen knocked on the door, causing Mr. Zeero to jump. “Sir, they are ready for you in makeup.  Oh, and the cauldron is in the studio kitchen ready for your show.”
“Thanks Neen.  I’ll be right there.”
Cauldron?  Did I ask for a cauldron?  Jeez, Maleria is really playing this up.

Audience members buzzed at the prospect of seeing something perverse.  Many had watched his show when they were younger, but now found themselves changing the channel anytime they saw it was on.  But, this was new.   
Some hoped that the legends were true and that they would be there live to see armageddon. Some wanted this to finally prove that the religion so many followed was a lie.  Yet, hidden deep within all of them was the strange primal urge of their ancestors calling out for real human blood.
Neen was supposed to be in the studio control room, helping produce the show.  However, he wanted to be on the floor, close to the action.  He needed to be on the floor when the human’s blood was finally spilled.  His life had been built for this moment.  The moment when the monsters finally were released from their shackles of living like the humans.  He was on the crest of the wave that would crash onto the world and wash away the past.  The control room might be where the magic happened every night, but this night, the magic was going to be in the kitchen.
Lights dimmed, a hush fell over the crowd, the studio lights sparked to life, and Mr. Zeero entered the kitchen.  From where Neen stood he could see Mr. Zeero’s nervousness. The overflowing audience hollered and cheered.  Neen felt the excitement and clapped with the audience as Mr. Zeero smiled.  He watched Mr. Zeero avoid the humans and walk to his mark behind the island.  A director spoke up through the crew headsets; Neen listened as the cameras pointed at Mr. Zeero.  The show was now live.
“Welcome to the show everyone!  Tonight we have a special treat for you all.  That’s right, we are going to make a rustic human soup with the meat of humans.”  Mr. Zeero said.
He paused for a moment and directed everyone’s attention toward the two humans on the stockade.  Another stage direction came through the headset, a spotlight fell onto the humans. They were mostly skin and bones. When Neen received the two from an old shaman deep in the Wasteland, he hadn’t examined them.  And when he shackled them to the stockades the night before, the dark studio and his nerves kept him distracted from getting a good look at the humans. This afternoon was his first chance to look at them, but they didn’t look the same as they did under the bright lights.  The one with the long hair shuddered under the light and began to scream.  The other one just hung its head.  The audience gasped at the sight of them.
“Now, I want to take a moment to discuss with you, the audience, and those watching live at home.  I know that there has been a lot of discussion regarding the killing of humans.  It is against the religious believes of a lot of you.  And others might wonder why cook something we can’t have.  But, I believe that on this show we have a duty to explore the natural or unnatural.  I...” Mr. Zeero stopped.
The ear piercing scream from the long haired human interrupted Mr. Zeero’s speech.  As much as Mr. Zeero was conflicted about killing the humans, Neen knew that Mr. Zeero was a celebrity, and the screaming woman was taking the spotlight off of him.  Neen was impressed at how Mr. Zeero seemed to keep his composure through the interruption.
“Excuse me folks.  If you have worked in a kitchen as long as I have, you have no doubt worked with live animals.  Usually, they are quiet.  But, every once in awhile you get one that makes an awful racket.  In this case, I recommend you get out your trusty meat tenderizer.”
Mr. Zeero pulled out a large shiny hammer.  One side had rounded spikes, the other side flat.  “And what you do with this is bop the creature on the head.  I suggest one strong wack to the top of their skull.  It should kill them or at least knock them unconscious.”
Neen’s eyes went large as he watched the TV chef walk up to the human.  The studio was silent except for the screams of the human and the whirl of the camera.  Mr. Zeero lifted up the hammer and brought it down hard on the top of the human’s head.  A large crack went through the kitchen.  The human’s leg spasmed uncontrollably.  The smell of blood filled the studio as blood began to drip down the human’s face.  Mr. Zeero smiled at the camera and audience.  Then he dropped the hammer with a thud on the counter.
“Where was I?  Ah yes, killing humans. On my show, I want to share with you recipes that you might know, and some that you do not.  I’ve done a lot of shows and cooked a lot of dishes.  But, this is a new dish for a new era.”
Mr. Zeero walked back to his mark.
“My producers have told me that my show has run its course. That my loyal fans and audience are tired of the same old stuff.  So, I’m here to turn the page and give you something new.  Something that you haven’t tried before.  Because I think that is what my show is all about, giving you something new.”  Mr. Zeero paused again, this time he looked down at the counter.
Wow, this is such bullshit. Neen thought as he watched Mr. Zeero pause for dramatic effect. I guess it doesn’t matter, as long as he kills them, I don’t care what he says.  
“Finally, the religious aspect of this isn’t lost on me.  My audience is filled with those that believe in the religion and those that don’t.  I can’t discriminate against one without making the other angry.  But, I want to open up the world to you, show you something new.  If that means I break a religious vow, than so be it.  I’m foremost a chef, and a chef does things that might seem weird, or terrible, but if it is what a patron requested, then who am I to judge?”
Applause ripped through the studio.  Neen’s headset shook at the cheers from the control room.  He could hear Maleria say this is going to be an award winning episode.  Neen could imagine Maleria already practicing her emmy speech.  Neen prayed that after this night, there wouldn’t be any award shows; they were too much an aspect of the monsters trying to act like humans.   The audience quieted down as Mr. Zeero began to talk through the recipe.
Mr. Zeero began the long process of prep before he had to cook the humans. Neen paced back and forth.  He checked his watch.  He picked his teeth.  He did everything he could to distract himself from the fact that Mr. Zeero hadn’t touched the humans yet. The show was almost half over, and Mr. Zeero hadn’t prepped the main protein.  I gave him that recipe, I know that the humans need to be skinned, they need to be quartered, they need to be tenderized, and they need to be put in that cauldron! Is he chickening out?  Then it dawned on him. He’s delaying.  He is going to drag the show out and not cook them at all!  
The minutes ticked by, and Neen’s chance to bring about a new world began to slip away.  Mr. Zeero began to discuss the significance of the cauldron, how they would have cooked the meal before they had kitchens.  The audience seemed restless, Neen watched them as they looked around stifling yawns and talking.  The control booth was silent, yet Neen could feel the anger emanating through the headset.  Their anger almost matched his.  If he didn’t do something soon, he knew that Mr. Zeero was going to have someone let those humans free and there was going to be no death, no release of the father beast.
“Well, folks, we are almost out of time.  I know you wanted to see the humans get cooked, and even get a taste of this delicious soup.  A soup like this takes time, and sometimes, with a live show, that’s just the way it goes.  I still have a little prep work to do, but you’ll have to comeback next week for the results.”  Mr. Zeero said.
Neen had it.  Live show be damned, the humans were going to be cooked on the show tonight, and it didn’t matter who did it.  Neen walked onto the set.  Mr. Zeero dropped the knife he was using to chop onions.  “You need to cook those humans.  Now.” Neen said.
“What are you doing?” Mr. Zeero whispered. Then he faced the camera,  “Folks, we have our young producer here.  Neen wave to the monsters at home.”
The disturbance caught the attention of the bored audience, Neen could feel their eyes on him.  His headset hissed at him, “What the hell are you doing, Neen?  You are fired!” Neen threw the headset down.  He picked up the hammer that Mr. Zeero had left on the counter.  “If you are not going to cook them, I am.”
“Neen, my boy.  I don’t think you realize what you are doing.  We can’t cook the humans.  We don’t do that anymore, we’ve evolved.  We are better than what we were.  We’ve done great things.  If we cook the humans, what’s next?  Do we start killing each other?  Do we go back to being the playthings of a wicked god?  I’m doing the will of our new god.  She expressly forbid the taste of humans because she knew it would send us on a tailspin of destruction.”
“No! You lie!  You’ve been lying and delaying this whole time.  You are exactly like what the humans were, two-faced!   Clearly we haven’t evolved, we’ve become some sort of strange copies of what they were.  We were better than that.  Now I’m going to prove it and kill them!” He said, pointing the hammer at the two humans.
“I’m not going to let you.” Mr. Zeero said.  He moved between Neen and the humans.
Neen, filled with the primal rage of his ancestors, pounced on Mr. Zeero.  The audience began to whoop and holler.  Neen lifted up the hammer and crashed it down on Mr. Zeero’s skull.  The blue skin around Mr. Zeero’s face sunk in around the hammer.  Mr. Zeero began to twitch.  Neen brought the hammer down again, and again.  
An evil shape in the center of Neen’s brain tore at the pieces that made Neen act like a human.  The shape inside of him ripped and gnashed until all that was left was an urge to kill and offer up human blood to the ancient beings.
The sound of the audience screaming was a distant noise to Neen.  He ignored the shouts from the crew.  In the corner of his eye he could see the giant security guards running toward him.  He knew he didn’t have much time.  He reached up to the human with long hair.  With a loud rip and pop, the human, now missing an arm, was free from the stockade. A security guard was in Neen’s sight, pointing a gun at him.  The mission was too important for Neen to worry about what was going to happen to him.  He dumped the human into the boiling cauldron as a shot rang out.
Hissing steam bellowed out of the cauldron.  The studio filled with the fragrant smell of cooking meat mixing with vegetables.  Neen sunk to the floor clutching his shoulder.  Two security guards stood over him. Neen waited for something to happen.
He had imagined this night for years.  He imagined the cauldron shaking.  A loud boom as the thunder cracked in the studio, green and orange smoke filling the room.  He imagined snake like beast slithering out of the cauldron and everyone dropping to their knees worshipping it.  Instead, the cauldron continued to bubble, the human simmering in the soup and nothing happened.
Tears filled his eyes and realized that he had been a fool.  His life had been a big lie.  He curled up on the ground, sobbing and holding his wounded shoulder.  A large foot crashed down on top of him.  Why are they beating me, he thought.  Neen lifted his head up to see the two security guards fighting.  He looked past the island and saw the studio had become a bloodbath; the monsters were attacking and killing each other.
Neen stood up and watched the horrorshow in front of him.   Teeth, torn clothes, howls, and blood filled the stands.  Monsters tore into their family members, friends, or strangers.  He watched one eat another whole, swallowing it like it was a piece of pie. A claw grabbed his head and forced him over to the cauldron.  Before it could dunk him into the boiling pot his mind cracked as he realized he had gotten exactly what he wanted, they had reverted back to being monsters.

Thanks for reading!  I can't believe I'm almost to number 10.  This has been a fun ride and I want to thank you for sticking around through it all.  I think I'm getting better with each one, but if you notice something, please let me know.  I would love some feedback.  Please comment below and let me know what you think! 

Stick around, number 10 is going to be a good one.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Witches Tales 8

There is a business at the end of an alley that can put an extension on life.  The alley is one of those forgotten alleys where the bricks in the road appear to be escaping. Moldy newspapers clump together hoping for strength in numbers.  Humid air lingers between the walls of the alley creating a haze that masks how deep the alley is.  A rusty lamp protrudes from the wall, the yellow light casts a cone around a door.  And behind that door Jack can help you beat death.
Deals are made in Jack’s office.  A client entering the office would find it sparsely furnished.  In the corner is a metal filing cabinet filled with the paperwork to make the deal. A black ceiling fan moans and clicks as it labors to move around musty air.  In the center of the room a large wooden desk squats.  The spotless desk dominates the room and has been scrubbed to a glass like finish.  In front of the desk, the client would find two leather chairs, patiently waiting for the client to sit and plead their case.  And behind the desk, Jack is busy adjusting the position of the forms, ready to help a client with cheating death.
A procedure for a client can be complicated.  A client will request an extension on their life.  Jack will begin the paperwork, which includes a contract, a basic information form, and then hands them instructions on how to choose a trade-in.  The client will then come back with an update on the trade-in: who they are, what they look like, and where they can be found.  Dealing with trade-ins has become the part of the job that Jack has grown to disdain.  It’s too easy for him and doesn’t challenge him anymore. His love is the paperwork portion of it. The feeling of a completed form, a binding contract, and a system to handle it all, fills Jack with satisfaction.  Of course, there is money involved, but paperwork is easier to understand.  Collecting a trade-in, however, can be messy business.
Today, a client has just left his office with updates on a trade-in. Before heading out to collect, he busied himself with gathering his supplies.  He filed the paperwork into a drawer of the metal cabinet, then opened another drawer to get out his bag.  Hanging from a hook was a coil of rope, he placed that into the bag.  Inside of the top drawer of his desk was a tranquilizer gun and box of darts.  The young Grim Reaper prefered the bodies alive.  Jack didn’t know why, and since it was a part of the contract they had together, he didn’t ask.  He placed the gun and darts into the bag.  Then he threw in some leather gloves.  Finally, he grabbed his black duster coat, his keys, and went out into the alley.
Hunting down a human was surprisingly easy for Jack.  Maybe it had to do with his attention to detail.  Or maybe it was a strange skill that he had, similar to his focus when it came to documents and tax codes.  The more likely scenario, Jack thought as he walked past buildings to his van, was that his clients picked humans that all followed the same pattern.  
He tried to tell his clients to pick a person that wouldn’t be missed.  They usually winked or tapped their nose as if they were in on his secret, and told him they had just the right person in mind.   His clients weren’t the most respectable people, therefore the person was an enemy or a deadbeat that owed them something.  All of his clients gave him the same type of trade-in, and he never felt bad about the deal.
The trade-in idea was something that he fell into with Death.  The title of Grim Reaper is a job.  There are territories they cover, and new employees take on the robe and sickle.  Some like doing their job, and others just use it as a jumping off point to a better position in the afterlife.   Jack happened to catch his territory’s Grim Reaper fresh out of school.  And after a lengthy discussion, some paperwork, and shaking of flesh and bone, the two had made a deal.
Jack studied the file he had on his latest client’s trade-in.  A real winner.  The woman had made a name for herself tricking men into falling in love with her and then somehow giving her all of their money.  Apparently, Jack’s client had planned on marrying the woman, before she claimed that he beat her(which he probably did) and was sleeping with other women(which was also probably true).  So, through same fancy legal work, she was able to take his client’s house.  And now, Jack had to find her, drug her and take her to the graveyard.
Death had a list of soon to be deceased that he needed to collect.  There was a cemetery they would be delivered to, and Death would take them to the afterlife.  Jack’s deal with Death allowed him to find trade-ins that could take the client’s place.  Death hated dealing with the recently deceased, he much rather be tracking live subjects.  Therefore, Jack would get the list from Death and handle all of the paperwork.  Just like any other business, the afterlife had paperwork.  
The house was at the end of street, sitting a top of a hill.  It was the biggest and oldest house of the neighborhood.  The client was an older gentleman, whom through various means, both legal and illegal, acquired a lot of money.  And he liked to flaunt his money, hence the huge house Jack was driving toward.  The van had a security business name on the side.  In neighborhoods like this, it was easier to seem like you belonged if you had a name on the vehicle.  He drove up to a house next to the client’s house and parked.
This trade-in’s pattern was a lot easier than some of the others he had taken.  She stayed in the house, or tanned out on the porch.  Jack opened up his bag and loaded a couple of tranquilizer darts into the gun. He stuff the gun into his coat pocket and left the van.  As he walked up to the front of the neighbor’s house, he looked into the client’s backyard.  He smiled when he saw the woman laid out on the porch.
A quick knock on the door, a lie about checking security cameras, and he was up a telephone pole.  While he was pretending to work on a camera, Jack took out his gun.  The woman was in a bathing suit, laying on a beach chair.  With the girl in his sights, he pulled the trigger, sending a dart whizzing through the air.  He watched as it struck her in the arm, the red tuft at the end of the dart vibrating.
No one was out to watch him hop the fence to the backyard and collect his trade-in.  Her bathing suit seemed to reveal more than it actually did.  Jack looked away in disgust, the bare skin of any person made him ill.  He found a towel, and without looking at her tan body, draped the towel around her.  Then he lifted her up and put her arm around his shoulder.  He walked her through the house, doing his best to not think about her skin against his coat.  If anyone saw them as they left the house, they would have thought she was drunk and he was helping her.  In the van, he tied her with rope; he learned the hard way that some people’s metabolism worked through the tranquilizer quicker than others.  And Jack always learned from mistakes as well as always came prepared.
It was a long drive to the cemetery where he first met the Grim Reaper. The trip wasn’t long, but was enough for him to daydream.  His thoughts on trips like this usually drifted back to the night he first met the Grim Reaper.
It was a friend’s passing that had him at the cemetery that night.  He was sitting at his friend’s tombstone, finishing up one of his last bottles of alcohol when a gravedigger stumbled upon him.  His face was flush and he was breathing heavy.  
“Thank God you are here.  You won’t believe what I just saw!” The old man said.
Jack tried to focus his double vision and concentrate on the man, “What’s the matter?”
“Death!  I saw death walking among the tombstones.  Just now, right over there.” He pointed.
“Uhm.  This is a graveyard, right?  Death is always here.” Jack said.
“No, I mean ‘Death’.  You know, skeleton in a robe, carrying a big scythe.  He was walking right over there.”
“Sure.  I thought I was the drunk one.” Jack said. “Thanks for the laugh, but I’m definitely not in the mood for a crazy person right now.”
“You don’t believe me?  Come on, I’ll show you.” The gravedigger said.
Before Jack knew what was happening, he was being lifted up.  The gravedigger’s grip was surprisingly strong, his fingers dug into Jack’s shoulder.  He followed behind the old man like a child by a parent, as they walked deeper into the cemetery.  He tried to focus on the old man, but the green plaid shirt didn’t do much to help sober him up.  Then the old man ducked behind a tombstone and pointed.  Jack followed the direction of the dirty finger and proceeded to vomit.
In the distance, among the tombstones was the Grim Reaper.  Fog rolled around the spectre of death as it stood tall.  It was wrapped in robes too black to be made by a human hand.  Inside of the robes, Jack could make out the shape of a skull.  Its skeletal hand was stroking its bony chin.  The Reaper’s sickle rested against its shoulder.  Jack stared at Death and decided that he was never going to drink again..
“See.  Do you believe me now?” The old man said.
“I have no idea what I’m seeing right now.  Is he confused about something?” Jack asked.
“What are you talking about?  It’s Death!  We need to get out of here.”  The gravedigger said.
“Look at him.  He’s looking around like he is lost.  Can Death be lost in a cemetery?”
“Who cares?  Death is real, and he has come to take our souls!  Oh Jesus, I’m so sorry for what I’ve done.”
“Of course Death is real.  Again, you work in cemetery.  If he wasn’t real, you’d be out of a job.”
“You’re crazy.  I’m getting out of here.”
“Good idea.  You should probably leave.  I think I’m going to watch him for a minute.  I want to see what he does.”
The old man shook his head and low crawled away. Jack was fascinated.  He couldn’t believe that there really was a Grim Reaper and that he looked exactly like he was described. There were so many questions buzzing around in his head that he didn’t realize he had been spotted by Death.
Two white beams burst forth from Death’s gaze.  The beams got brighter until Jack was blinded and had to look away.  It was then that he realized he had been daydreaming and was currently behind the steering wheel of the van.  The beams were the headlights of a vehicle headed towards him.  He swerved out of the wrong lane to the sounds of an angry car horn.
The cemetery was close.  Even in the dark, Jack could recognize the trees and curve of the road that came before the graveyard’s entrance.  The two lane highway hadn’t changed in the years since he had started his business.  Sometimes, for fun, he would close his eyes and predict where a pothole would be, or when he’d have to slightly move his steering wheel to follow the gentle bend in the road.  A rusty wrought iron fence and a red reflector on a brick post marked the entrance.  Jack was at the cemetery.
Overgrown grass, leaning tombstones, and dead oak trees filled the oldest cemetery in the county.  Not many people used it anymore, it was deemed creepy by young families burying their loved ones.  It stayed open due to the amount of deceased residents that resided in the ground and mausoleum.  Jack found the disorder of the place unsettling, not due to it being a cemetery, but due to there being no pattern to how the bodies were laid out.
A two track path cut through the grounds, leading grieving friends and family through the graveyard.  Jack flipped on his high beams and cautiously drove the van toward the back where the Grim Reaper liked to hide.  He ran through his mental checklist: form AL-13, trade-in, rope, boots, gloves, snack, and latest Real Simple magazine.  He knew he had it all, but being prepared never hurt anyone.  His lights fell upon the marble stone that would be used as the location for the trade.
Life in the cemetery was dominated by the wildlife. The background music was filled with the hoots of owls, the chirps of crickets and the croaks of frogs.  A chill air gripped Jack as he left the van. Drool pooled underneath the drugged woman in the back of the van. Jack calmed his nerves, stuck his hands in his gloves and grabbed the woman.  He brought her out into the night breeze.  She shivered but didn’t wake.  Her towel fell to the grass, revealing her bare skin.  Jack dropped her and swallowed the bile that rose in his throat.  Jack walked to the side of the van and punched its side, the thud quieting the cemetery for a moment.
Jack knew he had to get over his issue of living skin.  Especially tonight, when it was close to the time the Grim Reaper was going to be there.  Even though they had a deal, Death didn’t like to be seen.  It wasn’t really clear why, maybe Death wanted to keep an air of mystery about.  Either way, Jack didn’t have long to get the woman tied to the post.  He steeled himself and grabbed the rope.  Then he began to drag her through the wet grass.
The marble post was a hulking monolith sprouting from the earth.  It was a leftover post from a building that had fallen apart due to a storm that had torn through the area years ago.  The post leaned awkwardly to one side, allowing Jack to stand the woman up and lean her against it.  The girth of the post was too wide for him to easily wrap the rope around, he had to walk the rope around.  Revolutions ticked away as he wrapped the woman to the post.  On his eight pass, he tripped on an exposed root and cracked his head on a rock.  
He cursed as blood oozed out of a gash on his forehead.  His stomach flipped and he couldn’t swallow the vomit.  The hit knocked the number out of his head.  With no time left to count the number of coils, he tied off the leftover rope. Then he placed the magazine onto the ground next to the woman and ran over to a nearby tombstone.
Watching Death wasn’t exactly micromanaging, but a good way for him to make sure he could check every box on his checklist. If this Death could be coerced into giving Jack the ability to pick who died, than there is a chance that Death might be coerced into not picking up the trade-in.  So, he wanted to watch to make sure the job was getting done.
Knowing everything that was going on around him was how Jack coped with life.  In past jobs, he always tried to get promoted as fast as he could.  His goal wasn’t to be in charge -- it was a perk -- but his goal was to be in the know. He hated not knowing everything happening around him.
And since he has been working with Death, directing who Death took, put him in the position of controlling what was going to happen.
The tombstone was cool against his back.  He could feel the texture of the stone, the grooves of names carved into the marker.  The moisture on the grass soaked into his coat.  While he waited he opened up his granola bar and ate.  
It never crossed his mind to think about the trade-in tied to the post.  The fact that he had taken one life and traded it for another.  This person could have lived for years, maybe done some great things, but Jack had just drugged them and sent them to death.  Instead of thinking of that, he enjoyed the sweetness of the chocolate chips and oats.  Peace came over him in these times of waiting.  The fragrant smell of overgrown grass, trees, and dirt washed over him.  A half smile formed on his face as he let his mind fill with nothingness.
A slight rustle broke the silence.  He quietly wrapped the half eaten granola bar in its wrapper and placed it in his pocket.  Then he turned and peeked out from behind the gravestone to watch the Grim Reaper come.  What he saw, however, was not part of the system.  The Grim Reaper was not alone.
Three bare skeletons walked with the Grim Reaper.  Each one held a clipboard.  The Grim Reaper was ahead of them, and he looked nervous.  He seemed to avoid looking directly at the trade-in and instead turned his head back and forth, looking for something.  In a very human gesture, Death chewed on one of his fingers.   The plan for tonight had taken an unexpected turn and Death appeared to not know what to do.
Jack slowly turned and slid down the tombstone, dumbfounded.  Something had changed, something that Jack couldn’t have predicted and now there was a chance that things were going to change.  He mentally cycled through contingency plans.  Nothing came to mind.  Who are these guys?  Could they be interns?  That can’t be it, Death never mentioned anything about that before.  Maybe it’s a new thing they do at their death collecting school?
Jack closed his eyes and tried his best to will Death to do the right thing.  If Death just acted like this was normal, maybe everything could be okay.  Then he heard their gravely voices, and the blood drained from his face.  
They were auditors.
“We know that the graveyard is your territory.  It’s stated very clearly in your job description.  And this is the usual level for rookies.” One of them said.
“What we don’t understand is why you don’t take us directly to subject MC-975? Do you usually wander the cemetery in a state of confusion?” Another asked.
“Er, no.  But, I thought you guys would like a chance to see the world.  Maybe a chance to feel the air on your bones?  I don’t know how often you get out.” Death said.
“We get out enough.  We are not here to see the world.  We are here to determine why your numbers seem to not match.” The first skeleton asked.
“I’ve never had a problem before.  My numbers are always at quota.  I bring them in on time.  I didn’t think there was anything else we worried about.” Death said.
“Yes, your quota is always met, and timing has never been an issue.  But, the problem is, you are bringing in the incorrect subjects.  You do realize we interview the subjects before processing them, right?  They don’t understand why they are here.  Which shouldn’t be a surprise for someone in this territory.  And after researching your forms, there seems to be an inconsistency with who was requested and who was brought in.” The skeleton said.
“It took us a while to track the error.  Your numbers match two out of three points, but it is that last point that is confusing us.  Something doesn’t add up.  So, we are here to determine if it is a glitch with our system or if something else is happening that needs to be corrected.” The third skeleton said.
“So, just take us through what you normally do.  Pretend we are new recruits and talk us through your night.  Relax, we are not here to do anything drastic.” The first skeleton said.
“Uh, cool, that sounds good.  So, uh,” The Grim Reaper paused and looked around, “right, I would come to the cemetery.  I would definitely not walk around and look up at the moon, or look for anyone living.  It’s one of the first rules, ‘do not talk to or interact with the living’.  So, instead of doing that I would pull out my clipboard and check the ID number which should correspond to the subject I’m bringing in.”
The Grim Reaper continued to explain in detail what he was taught in class. The three skeletons nodded and periodically checked their clipboards.  
Jack watched from behind the gravestone.  He listened to Death drone on.  It was fascinating to learn about the inner workings of how a soul was collected.  However, the more he listened, the more he could pick out the inefficiencies in the system.  Or, he thought, this guy didn’t really pay attention to class. The skeletons were not buying it.  
As the Grim Reaper continued his lengthy description of what to do, the woman was starting to awaken.  Jack saw her twitch and squirm in the ropes.  It was only a matter of time before she woke up and screamed.  If that happened, there was a couple of possible outcomes: Death would have to try to explain why a woman was tied up, they would want to kill her, or she would get someone’s attention.  Jack thought that maybe if they killed her, everything would be okay.  But the other two outcomes would not work out for their agreement.  He reached into his pocket and pulled out his dart gun.
Death and the three skeletons hadn’t noticed the woman moving.  She still wasn’t fully awake yet.  Jack steadied the gun on the tombstone and took aim.  He breathed in deep, settling his body, and squeezed the trigger.  As the dart flew, an errant wind came and pushed the dart off course.  It flew straight and true, right into the head of one of the skeletons.  It bonked him in the skull with a dull thud and fell to the ground.
All four of them stopped.  Death’s jaw hung open and stared at the skeleton that was hit.  The three skeletons looked at each other, then at Death, than toward the direction that the dart had come from.  
Jack had dropped behind the tombstone as soon as he had seen the dart fly toward the skeleton.  He sat behind the stone, sweating through his shirt.  The names of forms and file systems cycled through his head as he prayed that they didn’t notice him.  But, the crunching of grass under bone informed him he had only one choice left.  He stood up.
“Who are you?  Why did you fire a dart at my head?” A skeleton said, pointing at Jack with a bony finger.
“Who am I?  I’m Agent 207, on assignment in this quadrant to investigate the lack of procedures in the procurement of soul retrieval.  And I can see here that there is quite a mess.” Jack said.
The words came natural to him, even if they were complete nonsense.  His only hope was that they would recognize the idea of another system watching them and that there was a confusion with the different bureaucracies.
“Well Agent 207, we are with the Afterlife Regulatory Commission and are in the process of clearing up what your agency is calling a mess.  It still doesn’t explain why you fired a dart at me.” The skeleton said.
Jack froze midstep.  He had been coming closer to them, hoping to catch the Grim Reaper’s eye socket, which had been focused on the ground.
“I, uh…” Jack stammered.
“Was it some sort of office joke? Maybe there is some sort of playful rivalry between our offices? I don’t understand the joke, but maybe it’s funny for the living?  However, we have this under control.  You can leave and let your superiors know that the ARC is researching the issue.” The skeleton said.
Jack began to reach for something to say to keep him here and to let him knock out the woman again. “I guess you guys never shot each other with darts before?  It’s a ton of fun. Let me show you.”  
Jack pulled out the gun again, and nonchalantly aimed it at the woman.  
“It’s pretty simple, you just aim the dart gun at someone, like this, and squeeze the trigger.  A harmless dart hits them, and you have a good laugh.  It’s a great way to break up the monotony of the day.  Let me show you.”
He began to squeeze the trigger.
“Wait just a minute.”
The dart sat in the barrell, Jack’s finger a hair’s breadth from sending the dart.
“Let me try it, it sounds like fun!” The skeleton said with an outstretched hand.
“Alright.  Here you go.” He handed the gun over.  “How about we use this person here.” Jack said, pointing toward the woman.
The skeleton held the gun in his hand, and stifled a laugh as he looked over at the other skeletons.  The Grim Reaper finished studying the ground and watched the group with fear.  Aiming the gun at the woman, the skeleton began to squeeze the trigger.  Before Jack knew what was happening, the skeleton fired the dart into Jack’s leg.
“Gotcha!” The skeleton laughed.
Chemicals coursed through the dart into Jack’s bloodstream.  He could feel the effects instantly.  His arms and legs went numb, causing him to fall to his knees.  His brain began to fill with cotton.
“Why did you shoot me?” He slurred.
“You are not Agent 207.  You have been working with the young Grim Reaper here to trade in bodies for life.  We knew what was going on and wanted to catch Death in the act. But, with you showing up, it allows us to kill two birds with one stone, so to speak.” The skeleton said.
Death dropped his scythe and turned to run.  One of the skeletons stood in his path, stopping any chance of escape.  Even without muscle, he was strong, and able to subdue the Grim Reaper.  Death half-heartedly tried to fight, but knew that it was pointless, he wouldn’t be able to escape.  He hung his head and was ready to accept his punishment.
Everything in Jack’s head began to slow down, the cotton turning to sludge.  He watched as Death stood there incarcerated. He tried one last plea to save his life, “He made me do this.  I saw him a couple of years ago looking helpless.  I went to see if he needed any help and he threatened me to do his work.”
“That is a lie.  I didn’t make him do anything.  He came up to me and offered a deal.  I was too new to know any better!” The Grim Reaper said.  
“Enough you too.  Jeez, do you think we don’t know the truth?  We’ve been around long enough to not be tricked by two idiots.” One of the skeletons said.
“We knew the Grim Reaper here had worked out a deal with a human.  And we knew that you guys were meeting tonight.  We just didn’t know who or what exactly was the transaction.  Therefore, we filled out the proper paperwork, submitted it on time and requisitioned the time to come up tonight.  We are not amateurs.” Another skeleton said.
Jack rolled his eyes.  Even with the drug shutting down his functions, the inefficiencies set off flares of anger in his mind.  Maybe it was the drugs, but he couldn’t keep it to himself, “I’m all for regulations and rules, but for an emergency like this, wouldn’t it have been better to just stop him before he even came up here?  Also, what kind of training are you running where you’d let someone like him even be a Grim Reaper?  Hell, I could be a better one than him.”
“Exactly.  We might not have known it was you, but we knew whoever he was working with had skill.  It was all in the paperwork.”
Jack trembled at the word paperwork.  And he felt like he might know what was going to come next, the pattern forming slowly in his brain.
“Therefore, we wanted to come up here to see if we could meet you.” The skeleton finished.
“You are right to point out the issues with our training.  There were a couple of teachers who, for a lack of better words, were lax on teaching.  They wanted the most passed students in their classes.  They have been dealt with.  As for this one,” The skeleton pointed at Death, “we have ways to deal with those who let themselves be seen.”
The earth began to shake.  Tombstones tumbled over, trees cracked, and grass began to burn.  A jagged mouth split the ground open.  Out of the mouth came smokey black tendrils.  The smell of fire and blood filled Jack’s nose. The tendrils began to wrap around Death, burning his robe. A horrible noise tumbled out of Death’s skull as the tendrils intertwined with his ribcage and snaking through his eye socket and jaw.  Bones shattered and snapped, the sound echoing throughout the cemetery.  The tentacles pulled the Grim Reaper into the gaping mouth.  Then the jagged mouth closed and Death was no more.
The skeletons faced Jack.  He was swaying on his knees, on the verge of passing out.
“We want to recruit you.  You definitely have the knack for getting the subjects.  And we have a feeling you have a respect for paperwork and bureaucracy.  We can offer you a pass through most of the training.  You’d obviously still need to go through it so that you understand some of our unique rules, such as not being seen by the living.  That one is important.”  The main skeleton said.
“There are some great benefits and a promotion track.  You’d have to work the cemetery territory first, but with your skill, I imagine it wouldn’t be long.  As you progress you will have more access to our databases and files on the world.  For the most part you control your hours and while there isn’t pay, you do get to see the world.” Another skeleton said.
“But you can’t be living.  You’d have to forfeit your life to the company.  We brought the application form as well as AL-100, which says that you would like to give up living.”  The third skeleton said.
Even though Jack had a feeling that this was coming, it was still a shock. Could he give up his life? He thought about his office in the alleyway.  The days of sitting in the steamy room, working with terrible clients. Then there was all the bare skin he has to see everyday.   
“I’m in.  I am a little drugged up, however.  So can one of you help me sign it?”
“Of course.  We are so happy to have you on our team. ”  
Without skin it was hard to tell if they were smiling, but Jack thought he saw a hint of a smile on their skulls as they put the proper forms onto the clipboard.  They placed the clipboard under his hand and guided his signature.  The contract and form was perfect.
His head swam with the idea of finally having the perfect job.  All of the information I’m going to have access to!  He was giddy with the prospect of his new life.  I could get used to wearing robes, he thought.
The skeletons lifted him up and carried him into the growing mist.  Something nagged at the back of Jack’s mind, like he was forgetting something, something important.  The mist swallowed the four of them before he could remember what it was.
The cemetery slowly transformed to normal.  Frogs began to croak.  A raven cawed and flew into the night.  The grass glistened from the moisture of the fog. A woman squirmed in her ropes and was able to get loose.  She ran from the spot until she found a van.  A plan formed. He was able to trick Death into doing what he wanted. Seems simple enough for me to do that too, she thought as she got in the van.  She found an address on a business card, an address that pointed to an office in the back of an alley.
She went to the office and waited for the time to visit the cemetery and congratulate Jack on his new job.
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