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HABEAS CORPSES

It wasn’t the utility man plummeting past her window that Mercy found so strange.  Nor was it the fact that trailing in his wake, a can of black paint smacked hard against the window and spilled its contents, blotting out the sun.  What Mercy found odd was that it all happened at the exact same instant the office door burst open, as if part of some grand entrance.

A gust of icy air buffeted the legal secretary.  Papers scattered.  The electricity in the office caught, the lights convulsed, went black, then returned triple strength, X-ray strength, before cooling back down to normal.  Mercy crammed a finger between the N and the O in the filing cabinet and turned to see who it was at the door.

Yep, it was him all right.  Who else could it possibly be?  It was Death himself, the Grim Reaper, cloaked entirely in black.  He stood larger than life.

Darn it, she thought, here he is scheduled for a two o'clock appointment showing up a full forty minutes early.  But she should have known, she should have been prepared: Death always comes too soon.

Death paused, gravestone still in the doorway, unable — perhaps unwilling — to move, as if the very act of stepping into an attorney’s office caused him unspeakable agony.

She had been told what to expect: the improbable blackness; the hood that enveloped his face like the rim of a grave; the tormented murmurs (as if his very ligaments were dying souls) that bellowed from him whenever he moved or shifted.  Mercy was certainly dressed for the occasion: her dress, her shoes, even her nails were painted a dull black.  But while the black of Mercy’s trim, boxy dress simply seemed to avoid light, Death’s grim garment seemed to snatch a hold of light and imprison it deep within its folds.

With a clatter, Death jabbed his scythe into the umbrella rack and started towards her.  When he reached her desk his shadow fell over her like a mound of dirt.  Close up, Mercy could see variations in the fabric of Death’s cloak.  The cloth hitched over his body seemed coarse and unrefined, like peasant’s cloth.  There hardly seemed enough material to cover all the tangled knots and harsh right angles that jutted out from his bone-pile torso.  The hood was of a different material altogether.  It looked impossibly rich and lush, like some kind of otherworldly velvet.  It shone like a black pearl.  The hood encircled his face and folded back in fingers of cloth like a curtain, folds that resembled the intricate loops and swirls of a black rose.

Mercy pulled her smile tight and raised her eyes to meet his.  She searched the sewer hole of Death’s hood but could find nothing resembling eyes.  She saw a faint outline, a nose perhaps, and stared in at that.  Then the nose moved, skittering across the black expanse and burrowing out of site like a sand crab.

Struggling with a mad rush of hysteria, Mercy burped out a giggle, which percolated into a wild barking laugh.  Tears squirted from her eyes as she gulped down her delirium.  Her pupils spun to the edge of focus.  Madness gripped her like gravity.

Death shot her a look.  She could see some red swirly stuff happening inside his hood, but couldn't be sure — right then Death tripped on the hem of his cloak and teetered left, spun right, and nearly toppled over.  Watching this, Mercy could imagine a helpless little man under all that black fabric, and the idea soothed her.

"Take me to Jerry Prudence," Death commanded.

Staring up into Death’s hood, Mercy suddenly felt like she’d caught a glimpse up a woman’s skirt and looked away.

Death repeated his demand.

"Sorry," Mercy timidly replied, "but Jerry's in with his one o'clock.  Now if you would be so kind as to take a seat and—"

"Death waits for no defense attorney," his voice thundered.

"Now I don't know how things work in the netherworld but —"

Death flashed out a skeleton hand — bones with bits of decayed flesh — and snapped it open like a raven's wing.  Slowly, with great emphasis, he lowered it down on the Boston Fern on her desk.  Nothing happened.

Death was mystified.  He tried his left hand, and still nothing.

“It’s fake.”

“What is?”

“The plant is plastic.  It just looks real.”

Death scanned the office.

Mercy studied him.  Strange, but as he talked, the folds in his hood gathered and shifted, forming crude expressions.  On his face Mercy could see what looked like anger with an undercurrent of indignation.  And there was something else, something she couldn’t quite name.

“Is there anything in this office that is not dead?” he asked.

“Me,” she blurted.

Death craned forward and his hood rounded into a fierce oval.  Mercy felt like she was being stared at by an angry periscope.

“If you would like to remain that way,” Death said, “tell Jerry Prudence that Death has come."

Mercy narrowed her eyes and punched her mouth into a frown, and as she did, wrinkles spilled across her face and pooled around her eyes.  Mercy had a simple, pretty face that had just begun to bear the fingerprints of life’s ungentle touch.

"Oh, he knows you're coming,” she said, under strict orders not to interrupt Jerry’s one o’clock with Morty Fie, “he just expects you at two o'clock, which is when you made the appointment.  Now, if you please, you’re just going to have to find some way to kill the time until Jerry's ready to-"

"Do you have any idea what I do for a living?"

"Sheesh.  I wouldn't exactly call it a living."

"And yet you trifle with my time."

Suddenly, a vision struck her:  Her Uncle Charlie — her favorite Uncle Charlie who had died three years ago — cubed and diced and arranged on a spit like a shish kebab.  She recognized his feet with those stupid furry slippers he always wore threaded through the spike one on top of the other; she saw his hairy forearm with the washed-out anchor tattoo.  And jabbed up top was his neatly severed head.  As the spit rotated over the crackling flames, his hair — a comb-over gobbed thick with gel — flipped to and fro, off his head, on his head, like a dandy tipping his hat.

On the third turn Uncle Charlie’s eyes popped open and his pupils fixed on his niece.  His eyes pleaded with her, begging for her to put a stop to this.  Mercy jabbed down hard on the intercom button.

"Jerry.  Sorry to bother you.  But you’re two o’clock is out here and—"

“What did I tell you about interrupting me, Mercy?”  His voice carried that tone, that high-pitched tone that could make a dog sit up.

“I know, it’s just he’s standing right here...right in front of my desk.”

"Can’t help you, Mercy.  Just tell him to sit tight until I'm through with Morty."

Mercy offered Death her oh-well, what-can-you-do shrug, but Death still wouldn't leave her be.  He loomed over her desk.  And that smell: nobody had warned her about the smell.  She had smelled it before — it smelled like bad hamburger.

She checked her watch.  Thirty-three minutes before the hour.  “If you’re looking for something to do, there’s a cemetery two blocks down on Waverly,” she offered.

“What would I want with a cemetery?”

“Well I’m certainly not going to send you to a playground.  I don’t know, Death.  What do you like?”  

The question hung in the air like a noose.

“Cholera is making a comeback,” he finally muttered.

Mercy checked to see if he was joking.  Nope.  Just as serious as a seizure.

“You know Death, I always wanted to ask you something.”

Death remained silent.

“Do you enjoy what you do?”

Still no response.  Mercy was about to repeat the question when she glanced up and saw Death with his head bowed forward and his hands pressed together, as if in prayer.

All of the sudden she felt a solid thud reverberate from the floor.  Jerry's voice quickly followed over the intercom:

"Scratch that, Mercy.  You can send Death on in.  And be a doll and phone the morgue.  Morty just dropped dead."

Death glided past Mercy’s desk on his way to the attorney’s office.  At the threshold to the office, Death turned.

“What’s the one thing more painful than death?” he asked.

“I don’t know?”

“Birth,” he said as he lurched into Jerry’s office.

Jerry Prudence was one of the top defense attorneys in the country and had the huge corner office with river view to prove it.  Outside, on the oily industrial river, white caps boiled on the jagged stubble of the waves.

Jerry’s office was a blatant study in intimidation: one entire wall shimmered with the mottled sheen of medieval broadswords,  the stuccoed ceiling looked deep enough to impale a man, and the wood grain on his mahogany desk looked as sharp as barbed wire

Heaped in front of Jerry’s desk, bunched forward on his knees, was the body of Morty Fie.  His open mouth was crammed so forcefully into the floor that his teeth had gouged crop lines into the gray carpet.  Having pitched forward off his chair, his arm frozen in mid-gesture, Morty seemed to have suffered an acute case of dropping dead.

Jerry rose out of his chair with his arm cocked and ready to shake.  “If it ain’t the Big D himself.  So, tell me, how’s death treating you?” Jerry asked.  Death shrugged his mighty shoulders and entombed Jerry’s hand in his own.

Jerry was used to firm grips — hell, he had one of the firmest — but as his hand dipped into the tar pit of Death’s sleeve everything all at once came alive.  Fingers without beginning or end slithering and coiling around his arm like a fistful of rattlers.  One found the groove inside Jerry’s forearm and slithered up his arm.  Flustered, Jerry tore his hand free.

“Damn it, Death!  Are you always this much of a pain in the ass?”

“Sorry.  I don’t get much practice saying hello.”

“Yeah.  I guess you’re specialty is saying goodbye.”

Jerry pointed at the corpse on the floor.

“Death, I want you to meet Morty Fie.  Now, whatever you just did to him, I want you to undo.”

Death just stood there, lifeless.

“Come on, Death.  Morty has been my number one client for over two years.  Now bring him back alive before it’s too late.”

“I can’t do that.”

“You can’t or you won’t?”

“Resurrection is not my department.”

“Well Jesus H. Christ, whose department is it?”

“What’s done is done.”

Jerry stepped back and shook his head.  “You forgotten how the world works, old boy?  I scratch your back, you don’t kill my number one client.”

Jerry was seething.  He balled up his fists and pressed them tightly against his side.  He wondered if anyone ever dared throw a sucker punch at the ominous freak.  Just ram a fist inside that dark cave of a hood and see what you hit.

Ever so tempted, Jerry locked his arms in front of him.  Calm down, he thought, treat Death just like you would any temperamental judge.  Still, Jerry’s nerves were running high-tension, his jaw clenched tight enough to crack nuts.  He had to do something.  Jerry dipped down and wrapped Morty in a bear-hug then dragged him over to the window.  Jerry dumped the body in front of the window and yanked the curtain over him.  Oh well, his feet still poked out, but it was better then staring into that awful face.

Jerry figured that once you died, you were supposed to find peace.  Not Morty.  A man who spent every day of his past sixty-seven years obsessed with death and what did it get him?  He looked about as ready to die as a teenager struck dead on prom night.

Jerry guided Death to the chair by his desk.

“Please, have a seat.”

Death lowered himself in the leather chair.  Settling in, Death seemed to fold up like a rickety lawn chair.

CONTINUED

 

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