Alternative Culture Magazine


Alternative Literature




by John A. Broussard

Death was annoyed at agent Aleph 22R74rho069, but he had recently learned the futility of annoyance. Death Agent Aleph's scythe bore two large nicks. Even from his black throne, Death could see spots of rust. Aleph's hood, completely shadowing where his face should be, showed large stains that could be grease, could be blood. There was no excuse for such carelessness, but the Superintendent's new policies made disciplining more and more difficult-forms to fill out, reports to submit, board hearings to attend-none of it worth the effort.

"The Super wants you to take on a special assignment, Boss."

Boss! There would have been none of that gross familiarity in the old days. Aleph had always been an irritation. Yodh77L14omicron666 had reported that Aleph had been having a dalliance with one of the angels who accepted their deliveries. Well, that was the Superintendent's problem. In the old days, the most casual contact with even the downstairs workers, to say nothing of hanky panky with those above, just wouldn't have been tolerated. Of course, Yodh was a notorious snitch and couldn't be trusted. Death sighed. In the old days he would have rid himself of both of them.

Aleph was droning on. "Yeah. It's one of those high muckamucks. The Super doesn't trust one of us peons to do the job right." Death detected the underlying sneer. Aleph was getting altogether too big for his britches-so to speak.

Death shifted on his throne and waved a dismissive bony claw. Aleph shrugged and sauntered off into the mists. Death wasn't about to act on a rumor being spread by a minor minion. If the Superintendent wanted him to go out on a special, he'd damn well better use the regular voice mail. Death decided that even then he'd ask for hard copy confirmation. That was a satisfying thought. There was no reason why some of the new rules shouldn't be used to advantage.

There was also the excuse, a very legitimate one from Death's viewpoint, that the population explosion was pushing his crew to the limit. He'd have to order a whole new contingent of agents, and he'd get the usual stalling from above.

And then, of course, there were those interminable committee meetings. What was the agenda for the next one? Oh yes! The question of second trimester fetuses. It had become obvious the Superintendent wanted to add them to the workload. At the next meeting He would probably try to foist them off on Death's department, and the committee was already primed to go along. Now, if that happened, He'd not only need new agents, but the numbering system would have to be supplemented. What a pain in the coccyx!

While pondering the best approach to these burgeoning problems, the voice mail came through. The requested hard copy followed. Death consoled himself with the thought that it might be a pleasant interlude, after all-a break from the daily routine. And, to use an Aleph colloquialism, this one really was a "big shot."


Several robed individuals were gathered around the bed, some kneeling, some standing with heads bowed, one holding a lit candle. Death slipped into a chair, looked at his watch, then relaxed while observing the proceedings. There was still plenty of time. No need to rush. As he had so often before, he wondered why so much effort was wasted on rituals just to accompany a simple transfer.

The VIP opened his eyes; they fixed first on the large scythe that Death had had carefully honed and polished for the occasion. The stare drifted down to the hood that completely concealed the visitor's features. As usual, only the intended was aware of his presence.

"I didn't believe in you," the VIP said.

"Your privilege, of course. I never expected you to embrace some death-denying philosophy, though. Did you become a secret convert to a particular sect?"

"Hardly. I lost my faith long ago, but not my reason."

"So? Why did you stop believing in me? Most would consider me to be both real and inevitable-something like taxes, you know."

"I just got to believing we go out like candles."

"But you kept up the pretense. Why?"

The VIP looked thoughtful. "Maybe I had an attack of conscience."

"My, my! You believe in conscience and don't believe in Death. You are a special assignment."

"Well, I felt it was my duty to appear to believe."

"And you believed yourself all the way to the top. It's truly amazing what conscience can do for a person."

The VIP looked annoyed. "You needn't be so cynical. As I look back on it, it was all rather inevitable. I got this job over my protests in the first place."

"Now, don't give me that. You worked your way up through the ranks. You knew what you were doing."

"Death certainly simplifies things, but that's oversimplification. When you're young, you really can't be held responsible for your beliefs. Somewhere along the way-while I was "working my way up through the ranks" as you so crassly put it-I decided that all those people who believed in me shouldn't be disappointed."

Death grunted. Had there been eyes under the hood, they would have been rolling upwards. Here comes another tired tale of unselfishness.

The VIP was all too conscious of the skepticism. "It easy for you to dismiss that view, but yours is a pure and simple job. You don't have to do any questioning. Questioning leads to doubt, and doubt is something life can't tolerate. . . Oh! Sorry for that expression."

"That's all right. No offense intended, I'm sure. None taken."

"So I convinced myself I should play the game, so to speak, for the good of my flock. Maybe I overplayed it. Anyway, I became an example for all my confreres. Promotions came fast, so here I am-top of the heap."

"Let me get this straight. Somewhere in the midst of your career you stopped believing in a hereafter and all the other gimmicks that go with it, but you kept up the pretense-is that correct?

"Pretty much, though you're putting it rather crudely."

Death had to admit to himself that he had been succumbing lately to the jargon of some of his more modern subordinates but, however couched, the facts spoke for themselves. "Wouldn't even you call that hypocrisy?"

The VIP frowned. "Yours is a somewhat disconcerting bluntness."

"I'm noted for that quality. But you haven't answered my question."

"Believe me, I've never been comfortable with the decision to maintain a façade, but you have to admit there would have been nothing but chaos if I had suddenly stood up and said, 'This is all nonsense' . . . By the way, is it?"

"Sorry. I'm not running an information service. Transportation only." Checking his Rolex, Death got up and stretched. "Besides, you'll find out soon enough. It's time to go."

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