Habeas Corpses Cont'd
At last, Jerry held the higher ground. He could finally look down at Death. Standing tall and erect, the attorney looked the old boy over. Just as he had suspected, Death was dressed no better then a pauper.
“You got anything in your closet a little less dour?” the attorney asked. “Something in pastel, perhaps. I mean, come on, you look like you’re on lunch from the black plague.”
Jerry circled Death’s chair, trying to force him to swivel his head to maintain eye contact. Didn’t work. Death sat as still as the ocean. Jerry angled his chin down to give Death a full view of his best feature, his razor sharp eyebrows, eyebrows that angled down over his eyes like a twin-prow snowplow, eyebrows that looked like they had never experienced anything more then a light dusting of doubt.
“So what should I call you? Big D, Mr. Reaper, what?”
“Death is fine.”
“No, Death is not fine. Do you have any idea what twelve jurors would do to me if I have to keep saying Death this and Death that? You think that’ll win their sympathy? Face it, Death, the whole world despises you.”
“The whole world seems to have forgotten that I’m a necessary part of life.”
“Hey, you won’t get an argument out of me. Without death, we wouldn’t have any wrongful death lawsuits.”
Jerry quickly darted behind Death and moved close, edging him, crowding him, the tip of his black wing-tip ever so slightly brushing the spill of Death’s cloak.
Suddenly, Jerry felt a slight tug on his ankle. Then a distinct pull. My God, he thought, I’m being sucked in.
Jerry tried to back peddle but he was stuck, his foot rooted. Carefully, as if pulling his leg from quicksand, Jerry reached down and ripped his leg free. His leg tingled. No, it was more than a tingle, his leg felt like it was swarming with fire ants. Jerry slapped at his ankle, then at his foot, trying to restore the blood flow, hoping his leg was only asleep. Hobbling over to his side of the desk, Jerry dropped down into his leather chair with a loud puff of trapped air.
Safely behind his desk, with the feeling slowly coming back to his leg, Jerry tried to exude a strong sense of calm. He couldn’t pull it off. His lungs sounded like two airbags on impact. Death sat across from him still and silent. Jerry drilled him with a look of grave concern. More silence. Fine, Jerry thought, I’ll just fight silence with silence. Make Death speak first.
Two minutes passed. Dead silence.
“You got anything to smoke?” Death finally asked.
“I most certainly do. Or don’t you think I’d figure Death to enjoy a vice or two.” Jerry proffered a pack of cigarettes — hi tar, no filter — and Death snatched them out of his hand. Jerry snapped out a light, and Death was soon puffing out smoke like a crematorium.
“Now. About my situation,” Death said.
“I’ll be straight with you. We’re in uncharted waters here. From what I can tell, Death, you screwed up big time. But you did the right thing coming to me. If anybody can get you out of this mess, I can. I’ve got a few ideas.”
“Whoa! Hold your four horses, Big D. We got some things to hash out, some things to discuss, before we can even get to square one. I mean, I usually bill out at six hundred an hour. But for you, my friend...chk...chk.”
The knot on Jerry’s tie jumped tight against his throat, strangling him. His face purpling, his eyes bulging, Jerry steeled his gaze, conceding nothing to the big black blowhard. Jerry figured it didn’t matter who you are, you still didn’t kill your lead attorney. The knot burst loose. Jerry didn’t care what you were supposed to do in the face of death, he leaned forward and shook his finger right inside his open grave of his face.
“You be careful, Death,” Jerry rasped, “you harm this attorney, you’re going to have a hell of a lot more then a restraining order on your hands. Now, if you let me finish, I bill out at six hundred an hour. Obviously, Death, you are not a man of means. Matter of fact, you’re probably the poorest client I’ve ever taken on. So, as a favor to you, I’m charging nothing. Not a thing. But that does not mean it’s free.”
“Let me guess. You want eternal life.”
“That’s not what I had in mind, but if you’re offering.”
“We tried it once. Doesn’t work.”
“Oh yeah, why not?”
“Not enough TV channels.”
“Well we can discuss my mortality some other time. Right now, I want you to look at something.”
Jerry brought a rag doll out from a desk drawer and pressed it into Death's hands. "I want you to look this doll over carefully. Her name is Hope."
The doll wore baggy blue overalls and on her feet were patent-leather shoes tied with pink-ribbon bows. Two huggy arms, two stubby legs, a standard issue rag doll except for the face. Somehow, in the eyes, they captured something: eyes that understood, eyes that loved but never judged. And her smile, so sincere and kind, the smile of your best friend on a lazy summer day, it was a smile that stole a million kids' hearts.
"Hope was the number one selling doll this past Christmas. And as you can see, there's nothing to pop off, nothing to lodge in a kid's throat. Not one lawsuit has been substantiated against this little pest. As you can understand, for lawyers, for the whole legal profession in general, this doll has been an utter catastrophe.”
Death passed the doll back to Jerry but, instead of putting it away, Jerry set it on the edge of his desk.
"Take it with you. Inside Hope’s right pocket are the names of five families. Real all-American types. Cute kids. And you know what? Each one of those kids is the proud owner of a Hope doll. You’re creative, right? I’m sure you can figure out a way for those kids to harm themselves. Just make sure the doll is the cause of it. Know what I mean?”
Death looked like he’d been struck. "No, Jerry Prudence. Tell me what you mean."
“Look, I’m not some heartless son of a bitch. I don’t want you to kill the kids or anything. Just some mild disfigurement, you know. Something around the face. I don’t know, poke out an eye or something.”
Death’s twisted his body painfully sideways. His left foot started drumming away on the carpet.
If Jerry was reading things correctly, he had just found Death’s weak spot. His Achilles heal. And like any attorney worth his hourly, once you found it, you dug in.
“Now look here Death. I don’t like this anymore then you. Before you even stepped into my office today you’d already taken away one of my primary sources of income. So either you do this for me, Death, or you can find yourself another attorney.”
Death kept silent.
“I mean, it’s not like I’m asking you to kill the kids. I have children of my own, you know. So what do you say? We got a deal?”
“I don’t take requests, Mr. Prudence.”
“And I don’t work for free. Look, Death, just do this for me, this one thing, and I won’t ask for anything else. Okay buddy?”
“I don’t do injuries.”
“I only do death.”
“So let me get this straight. You’d have to kill these kids?”
After a pause Death offered a big, solemn nod.
“Well that changes everything. Courts award a hell of a lot more money for a dead kid. So lets say we pop for only four of the kids. Four out of five. We’ll save one. And I don’t even care which one it is. Matter of fact, I’ll let you choose. See that, Death, now you’re a real lifesaver.”
It hardly seemed possible, but the hole in death’s hood had grown two shades darker. Jerry’s eyes burned staring into the brilliant blackness.
Death turned and studied the wall of broadswords.
Jerry waited. With every second that passed the attorney’s smile grew. When ten seconds passed Jerry knew he had the deal in the bag.
As Death turned back to face Jerry his head moved with the slow grace of an ocean liner. “Fine. I’ll do it,” he answered in a soft, resigned voice.
Overjoyed, Jerry jumped up and whirled around to face the oak cabinets behind his desk. He threw the doors open wide to reveal his prize possession: a humidor, humming like a glass womb. Inside, mounted like guns on a gun rack, were his babies, his trophy smokes, fifty golden brown Cubans. Jerry slid two from the case, snapped the glass doors shut, then sat back down.
“Screw the cigarettes. Let’s smoke some Cubans.”
Jerry guillotined the tips off the cigars and passed one across. Death brought it to his hood, turning it ever so slowly.
“You ever smoke one of these?”
Death nodded. “I’ve done a lot of work in Cuba.”
Jerry palmed an Ohio Blue Tip, tensed his thumb nail against the tip, and snapped. The tip of the match cracked off and shot straight inside Death’s hood, right between the uprights, trailing a thin blue ribbon of smoke. What remained of the match in Jerry’s hand sputtered out.
Jerry stared after it, a ghost of the flame still dancing in front of his eyes. He studied Death, waiting for him to flinch, to at least bring a hand up to his face. Nothing. And the match tip never even seemed to hit anything. It just floated in and down. Christ, Jerry thought, maybe this is one big joke. Maybe there’s nobody even in there. Jerry fought an urge to wrench open the hood and stick his head inside and shout Anybody home?
“A light,” Death said, breaking Jerry’s trance.
Jerry sparked another match and applied it to Death’s cigar. The flame took and Jerry lit his own.
Jerry drew in and let the smoke linger in his mouth. Good. He could feel the traffic in his veins speeding up. Sure beat the stench coming off Death. To Jerry, cigars smelled like money. Not Death. Death smelled like antimoney.
“You know, Death. This is big. This is more than big.” Jerry expounded. “Do you have any idea what this means?”
Death shook his head no.
“Ambulances are going to have to start chasing lawyers.”
Jerry pulled out a file and snapped it open on his lap. “Now, about your case, Luke Jennings versus Death. Let me know if I’m missing anything. At twenty-nine years old, Luke Jennings was diagnosed with leukemia. At that time, the doctors gave him less than six months to live. But it didn’t end there, did it? Luke decided to have his DNA tested. And what did they find? That Luke had none of the genetic markers for leukemia. That there was no possible way Luke could even have leukemia. Ergo, he is charging you, Death, with reckless endangerment.”
“That was five years ago,” Jerry continued, “and pending a retrial, the leukemia was ordered in remission and you were issued with a restraining order. And now, because of that, Luke Jennings is as healthy as a horse.”
“Luke should have accepted his fate,” Death growled.
“Why should he? You know what this looks like, Death? It looks like you got lazy. Like you didn’t do your homework. Answer me, Big D, and I want the truth. How did you let this happen?”
“Clerical error,” Death offered.
“Oh, that’s great. I’ll just tell the jury, ‘Sorry, but Death made a mistake. You see, it’s all very simple, he had the right disease, he just had the wrong person.’”
“Luke Jennings was scheduled to die.”
“The first trial, the one you didn’t even bother to attend — at least not until the very end — ended in a hung jury. How you managed to fit all twelve jurors’ necks in one big noose is beyond me. Bad move, Death. From now on, you won’t even swat a fly unless you’ve first cleared it with me.”
“Death goes on.”
“Not until were through with this case it doesn’t. Because if you lose this case, Death, you won’t know what grim is.”
“Death is what I do,” Death said in a tone so low and rumbling that it sounded like the articulations of a freight train.
“Why don’t you get a hobby? Knit yourself a casket or something. Because you can’t afford another screw-up like Luke Jennings.”
Death slumped forward, and the folds in his hood drooping into a crude frown.
“Look. I don’t like this anymore than you. You have any idea what this has done to the legal profession? You should have been here this morning. There was a line twenty people deep in front of my office. These people didn’t want justice. They weren’t looking to sue somebody. Most of them were sick. Some of them were dying. Word has gotten out, Death. People are saying that while doctors can hold death at bay, lawyers can tie him up in appeals court. Now I did not become a lawyer to cure the sick or heal the lame.”
“I suppose not.”
“I guess science has finally caught up with you, old boy. You can’t just go around dropping people with a flick of your wrist anymore. From now on, your going to be held accountable for your actions.”
“What do they want? For death just to go away. They seem to forget that without death, there can be no birth.”
“Tell me. You ever heard of the Nuremberg defense?"
“The way I see it, it’s chain of command. I mean, it’s not like you create the rules, you just follow them. Am I right?”
“No, it does not depend. If that’s the argument, we both have to stick to it.”
“You read the bible?”
“Well you’re in it. You’re not a major player, but you do play a pretty big role. Now the bible might tell one hell of a morality tale, but as a legal document, the thing’s a mess. I mean, I read somewhere that a rich man has as much chance of getting into heaven as a camel does passing through the eye of a needle. But think about it. If you’re rich, you can obviously afford to build a needle as big as you damn well please. Build a needle big enough to stuff forty camels through.”
“What’s your point, Mr. Prudence?”
“We say God is your boss. I mean he is, isn’t he?”
“I won’t answer that question.”
“What will you say if they ask you in court?”
Death, silent, started rocking back and forth in his chair like an old grandmother.
“Please sit still and think about the question. What will you say if they ask you that question in court?” Jerry pressed in his cross-examination voice.
“I won’t answer.”
“Perfect. They’ll think it’s true.”
“I don’t like your line of reasoning, Mr. Prudence.”
“All we have to say is you get your orders from above. From God almighty. Now he’s a fine boss, don’t get me wrong. It’s just his instructions — like this bible — you can’t make heads or tails out of it. And I’m not just talking about you. We’re all confused. Nobody’s got any idea what’s going on.”
Death jumped up so fast his cigar left a comet trail of sparks. His tall thin body quaked with indignation. The folds in his hood looked sharp enough to cut rock.
Jerry, calm and cool, threw his feet up on the desk and offered Death a big grin.
“Save the theatrics for the courtroom, Death. You know I’ve got the winning argument.”
“No what?” Jerry asked, amused.
“I will not.”
“Look, Death. Right now it’s all we’ve got.”
“Well then, if you’re calling the legal shots, tell me how you want me to defend you.”
“Our time is up,” Death moved towards the door.
“So that’s it? You’re running away.”
Death did not turn, did not alter his plodding, funereal stride towards the door.
“Don’t worry, old boy, you’ll be back. I bet you’re back in this office by tomorrow afternoon.”
Death’s hand was reaching for the door when Jerry noticed the doll, Hope, still on the corner of his desk. He jumped to his feet.
“Wait, you forgot something.”
In one lightning motion Jerry grabbed the doll and flung it hard towards Death’s hood. He was trying to catch him flush in the face, brush back the hood and finally get a glimpse at what was behind. At least that was his intention.
As Jerry flung the doll, as he threw Hope, her pink shoelace looped over his thumb and snatched him up off his feet, dragging him right along with her. The two, Hope and Jerry, looked like they were taking flight as the two soared up and over Jerry’s desk, exposing the attorney’s soft pink underbelly to whatever sharp pointy things awaited him on the desk below.
Sitting on top of the desk was a sterling silver commemorative pen, standing tall and erect it its brass-plaque stand like a jungle spear. Funny, but Jerry had gotten the gift after his first successful courtroom defense, and although he never used it, he always kept it there, thinking that one day, when he wanted to write something significant, he’d use that pen.
The two, Hope and Jerry, fell together, face to face. The instant before Jerry hit the desk — before the fountain pen found the soft spot between his ribs — Jerry could swear he saw Hope wink at him.
Jerry crashed to the table and sharply recoiled as the pen-tip tagged his heart. He tried to lift himself up, push himself upright, but he only managed to free the pen from the stand. Perched heavily on the tip, right on the ball-point, Jerry lunged for the intercom button. Reaching, stretching, his innards unspooling, the intercom proved too far.
Jerry gasped and cried out for Mercy. A wave of blood crested over his bottom teeth. Then, as if his final support string had been cut, Jerry drifting slowly backwards off the desk as his arms dragging uselessly behind. He slid backwards off the desk and flopped dead on his back, the bloody pen still clutched in his rib cage. Left behind, amidst the blood and guts and post-its, signed in cursive, was a big, black D.
Death burst through the door and was headed for the exit when Mercy’s voice sang out.
“I have a child, you know?” Mercy said.
It stopped Death cold, as she knew it would.
Death jackknifed around to face her.
“Boy or girl?” Death asked.
“A baby girl.”
“What? Are you bored with her? Would you like me to dispose of her?” Death coolly inquired.
“Oh, heaven’s no. She’s an absolute angel.”
“Then what do you want from me?”
“I was thinking that, you know, now that I’m through with law, maybe I could give you some help.”
“You have no future with Death, Mercy. No one does.”
“Please, just think about it. I could keep your appointments, make sure you don’t mix up the cause of death, you know, that kind of stuff.”
“And you want nothing in return?”
“Well no, I wouldn’t say that.”
“Tell me what you want, Mercy?”
“My baby girl just turned three. I want you to stay away from her. I want her to know nothing about you until she’s well into her eighties.”
“What’s her name?” he asked.
“And what will you do for me?” Death propped his hands on the desk and leaned forward. For the first time, Death actually seemed relaxed. The folds in his hood loosened, and Mercy could see forms emerging in the darkness. What she saw was an emerald flash of green. A tiny, precious leaf pushing out towards the light.
“Come here. You’ve got something.”
Death craned forward and his hood slung open further. Two more leaves popped out, all connected at the base.
Cautiously, as if expecting a shock, Mercy dipped her hand into Death’s dark recesses. She pinched the plant at its root and plucked it out. It was just your basic garden weed, and she tossed it into the garbage can with a clang.
“What was it?”
“Just a weed. You should learn take better care of yourself. Instead of Death, people are going to start calling you decay.”
Death sighed. It sounded like a distant breeze. “This has been a long century.”
“All the more reason you need an assistant. Somebody to keep you organized and up-to-date."
“And you think you could be this person?”
“Why not. We could even use this office.”
“What about Luke Jennings?” Death asked.
“Leave him be. He’ll tire.”
“They always do.” Death answered. “You know, I had somebody once. Not a secretary. Someone I really cared for. And you know what? They killed themselves.”
“Oh no! I’m so sorry to hear that.” And she was sorry, as she was sorry about all of the other injustices in life. That’s what led her to work in law in the first place.
“You don’t understand. You can’t see.
“Committing suicide was the nicest thing anyone has ever done for me.”
“You’re right, I don’t understand,” she said, her face etched with concentration.
“Of course you don’t. You are Mercy, and I am Death.” And with that Death spun on his heels and was gone.
Mercy’s felt sick with anxiety, as if her stomach was coming down off the spin cycle. But still, she felt an inkling of hope, the same hope she had felt when she first came to law, when she thought she alone could right the wrongs in the world. Things hadn’t worked out that way. They never did. Like with Jerry Prudence. It was Mercy who had arranged Jerry’s appointment with Death.
Mercy considered her new job — for she was certain Death would return. In her mind, she composed her first memo from the offices of Death:
To whom it most gravely concerns:
I regret to inform you that on Tuesday, the 24th, you are scheduled to die in a traffic accident. I know this must come as quite a surprise to you but...but...
But what? How do you tell someone to stop wasting their precious days? Exactly what words do you use? And do you think that person would go anywhere near a car on that fateful Tuesday?
There must be a way, Mercy thought. Some way to ease the transition, to give people a chance to stop fearing death and start living life. Oh well, she never thought it was going to be easy.
Mercy smiled. At least she had spared her daughter, at least she had released Desire from the shadow of Death.
Outside, it was a beautiful fall day with just the chill promise of winter. Death loved these kind of days.
About the future, Death didn’t know; he didn’t have the slightest idea. He was simply going where he always went when he needed to clear his head: to a nearby park, to feed arsenic to the pigeons.