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“No – no, no, no, no.” Pluto’s thin, white, icy hand descended to seize a fistful of the black robe I was trying to find a way into. “There’s a zipper at the back, Frey. Never tried on your father’s robe when you were a child?” he added with a low chuckle.
I found the zipper with somewhat trembling fingers. Pluto wasn’t all that scary, but even the words, “first day on the job,” don’t make one instantly comfortable. Thankfully, Pluto was a friend of the family. That meant Dad would kick Pluto’s a** if he didn’t treat me like a queen. Not that I wanted to be treated as such. Or that Pluto would lower himself to brown-nosing.
“Got that on, then? Shoes all covered up?”
I took a few steps and almost tripped over the hem of the sable silk robe.
“Good. Always make sure your shoes are covered. Year-old Nikes don’t inspire the brand of terror and awe we’re shooting for. Alright, now, grab one of these…” Pluto wrenched open a locker and tossed me a six-foot-tall scythe with some nicks in the handle.
I frowned at the nicks.
“No worries, Frey. That’s just for practice. You’ll get your own scythe tomorrow. Who’s first on the List, darling?” He uttered the endearment scathingly.
I tried to mentally beat off Pluto’s scrutinizing eyes as I battled through my enveloping robe to get at the piece of paper entrusted to me earlier this morning.
“Pockets in street clothes are fine, but a better place to put your List is up your sleeve. They have great space for just this kind of thing.”
I stuck that tidbit in my head. Unrolled the paper. “First is Margot Willoughby. 66 Clayton Court, East Hefton.”
Pluto nodded his head curtly. “You remember your geography, I’m sure, Frey.”
“Of course,” I snapped. He didn’t have to be like that.
He snorted. “Delightful. Take us to 66 Clayton Court, East Hefton.”
So I did. With one smart spin of my black robe, we were standing at Mrs. Willoughby’s garden gate. The day was absolutely wonderful. Birds frolicked through Mrs. Willoughby’s apple trees and danced about in her tomatoes. The sun beat down and commenced cooking me inside of my robe.
Pluto’s voice broke upon my reverie with all the enthusiasm of a zombie elephant. “So what have you done wrong already?”
I went through the checklist in my head. Shoes covered, List in pocket, scythe with me, proper location…
“Your hood, love.”
Grinding my teeth, I yanked up the hood on my robe. I could only see the ground. “Pluto, I can’t see a th-”
“Get used to it.” Using his scythe somewhat like a walking stick, Pluto vaulted Mrs. Willoughby’s garden gate and led the way up to the door. I followed in his wake.
After he rang the bell, I asked Pluto in a low voice. “What if she’s not home?”
“She’s home. Morrigan always makes sure the List is accurate.”
Mrs. Willoughby reinforced Morrigan’s accuracy by promptly opening her door. The little old woman’s blue eyes got very wide as she wheezed, “Is this a – a joke?”
Pluto lifted his scythe and growled in a voice not unlike his own, “Death has come for you, Margot Willoughby. It will claim your life before the moon rises this night.”
Mrs. Willoughby clutched her heart with one hand. “Oh!” she gasped in horror.
Pluto spun his robe. We were back in the locker room.
I couldn’t help but cry aloud, “That was wonderful!”
He threw off his hood and mock-bowed. “Why thank you.” The thanks were spoken with disdain, but I caught a flicker of pleasure in Pluto’s sharp eyes. “Are you ready to try you hand at Death?”
I avoided the question to ask one of my own. “How did you know when Mrs. Willoughby was going to die?”
Pluto shrugged. “I say what comes to mind first. Perhaps I have a gift.”
I rolled my eyes at that. “Joseph Tyson is next. 4159 Cornflower Loop, Morton.”
“Care to scare?” Pluto grinned. “No? Alright, one more example, and then Frey takes a turn. D’accord?”
I grimaced my concurrence, spun about, and concentrated very hard on Joseph Tyson’s location. It was a trailer park. The murky light descending from the overcast sky bore down remorselessly and unromantically on the trailer park in which Joseph Tyson lived. Pluto’s black-and-silver beard twitched amusedly when he glimpsed the look on my lips – the only part of my face he could see.
“The poor die, too.”
I flung a hand up to brush Pluto’s entertainment out of the surrounding air. “I know. Lead the way.”
The screen door on Joseph Tyson’s trailer was swinging back and forth. It was off one of its hinges. Tyson’s dog looked shaggily up at us as we mounted the trailer steps (a step ladder) and rung Tyson’s sticky doorbell.
“Coming!!!” bellowed a male voice from with the trailer. Sounds of a flushing toilet. Joseph Tyson wrenched open his door and gaped down at us over his stained, white, undershirt-clad beer belly. “Who’re-”
Pluto uttered with extreme harshness, “Death has come for you, Joseph Tyson. At the height of noon, you lose your life to whence it came.”
Pluto spun his robe. We were back in the locker room. Pluto dusted off those white hands of his. “Your turn.”
“How do you do the voice?” I asked him meekly. Before I could jump back, Pluto’s searing-cold hand was on my throat. “Get off!” I commanded, but not in my own voice. This voice was far different.
“There you are,” smirked Pluto. “With a little practice, you’ll have that down fine. A daughter of your father couldn’t but have the innate capabilities required here. Who’s next on the List?”
At the residence of Juliette Fortier, 47 Rue Blanc, Ville-Cinquante, I was complete rubbish. I now recognize that it was the first time I had ever told someone they were about to kick it, but I really did an awful job. My performance forced Pluto to teach me the grim-voice again, with his painfully cold hand on my throat. I also had to review the rules regarding shoes and the covering thereof. At Listee number four, I recovered a sliver of my poise and accompanying self-respect.
“Are you ready?” Pluto snickered from behind me.
“Shut up,” I growled at him, working the doorknocker in as sinister a fashion as I could. “This will be better than last time.”
William Steinkopf opened his door. What struck me about him immediately was that he couldn’t be any older than me. Barely twenty, at the most. I had a job to do here, though, and intended to do it and risk Pluto’s ridicule once again.
“Wh-” began Mr. Steinkopf.
“Death has come for you, William Steinkopf,” I moaned rather brilliantly. “You will feel its icy touch before the end of a fortnight.”
Just to show off, I stretched forward my pale hand and barely – barely – touched Mr. Steinkopf’s cheek. Pluto was laughing quietly when we arrived back at the locker room seconds later.
“You, dear, are positively splendid,” he informed me. I thought there wasn’t so much cynicism in Pluto’s cool voice as honest laud.
The rest of the day flew past, propelled by my consistently accumulating pile of effortlessly executed deaths. We took lunch in New Delhi, where Pluto helped me perfect my grim-voice. It was all too soon that my mentor withdrew an ancient, silver pocket watch from his sleeve and announced, “That’s it. Take us home.”
While Pluto got out of his robe, I sat down on a bench in the locker room and angrily examined the List. “We only made a dent!” I protested.
“That’s your List for the month – don’t feel too upset,” Pluto mocked me. He pitched his robe into a hamper in the corner of the locker room. “That’s where your robe goes. Baal doesn’t want anyone to have stains or dust when they’re out and about on business.”
I stepped out of my own robe and tossed it into the hamper on top of Pluto’s. He was supposed to take me home, so I purposefully took as long as I could brushing my hair and straightening my street clothes. Pluto gazed piercingly and unabashedly at my face as I applied lipstick.
“Who would have thought your father would produce such a looker,” Pluto mused.
I really couldn’t take a whole lot of offense at that. Not when Pluto was so good-looking himself. Even Dad always said I looked more like Mom.
Pluto continued, with a flickering of hesitation, “Surely a trainee like yourself wouldn’t have any pressing social obligations on a Friday night like this. Van Helsing’s having a Hallows’ Eve gathering at his place in Scotland. I hear Tyrone the Vampire will be there… perhaps even that werewolf from New York.”
“How about Corina Vukanovic?” I pressed, to give myself more time to think. I said the wrong thing, though. I forgot that Pluto and Corina had had a fling last summer in Thailand.
Pluto’s face darkened.
Quick, Frey, recover. “Really, it sounds like a fantastic time. I’m just not sure what Dad would think. You being a friend of the family and all.”
Pluto’s hand was clenching tightly. I couldn’t see the set of his mouth through his beard, but his eyes were searing. “Frey-” he began forbiddingly. Then he realized that I was joking. He remembered that I had never cared quite as much as an acorn what Dad thought. His eyes warmed.
“Will Van Helsing go over the finer points of Death with me?” I snickered. “He worked here for a few decades, didn’t he?”
Pluto just gripped my wrist and breathed in my ear, “Turn your List in to Morrigan, put your scythe away, and meet me at Van Helsing’s after eleven.”