Notes: This is my new baby, and I'm having bucket-loads of fun writing it.
One- Car accidents, Cookies and Unexpected Meetings
Joane Torres was startled out of her sleep by the alarm clock precisely 07:00 AM, as always, that Monday morning. She left bed, scratched her tummy on her way to the bathroom and brushed her teeth in a half away, half asleep state. Thirty minutes passed, and in that span of time she had her breakfast (two slices of toasted bread with the cherry flavoured jam her mother sent her last week, followed by a cup of Earl Grey tea with two spoons of sugar- after all, she was English, a fact she took great pride in), skimmed through the newspaper with a notable lack of interest, put the clothes up for drying and got ready for work.
A quick peek out the window told her that she'd be needing those rubber boots today- the rain was pouring down worse than yesterday, which was saying quite a lot, and she doubted even the rain coat and the boots could keep her safe from getting soaked today. The drivers weren't exactly known for being courteous to the pedestrians.
She zipped up her yellow rain coat and took the umbrella from the rack. Her younger brother, Rick, had given it to her on her 21st birthday just a couple of weeks ago, and she didn't have the heart to tell him that it was the ugliest umbrella she'd ever laid eyes on. It was big, pink and childish. And it had ears. Naturally, she'd come to love it, in the same sort of way you can't help but adore a bulldog because it's so perfectly ugly.
Joane locked her door and stuck the key chain in her inner pocket. You couldn't be too careful with your personal belongings these days. Only Heavens knew how many corrupt and criminal people who were just waiting to pounce on you.
Okay, so she was a little paranoid. But with good reason, thank you. She had seen the way the post man was staring at her the other morning when she went to fetch her newspaper.
Joane made her way out into the chaotic morning traffic, her umbrella open and held high over her head while she hurried. Her rain coat was a splash of colour among the otherwise black and boring rain coats that passed her by, and she didn't see anyone else with an umbrella like hers either. Oh well. People were too busy to take much notice of her, of which she was quite glad.
She stopped by the traffic light and waited impatiently for the green man to give the go. Tired, worn faces surrounded her, and quite a couple seemed to be standing there half asleep still. Coffee could not always do the trick, no matter how many cups of coffee you poured down your throat (you'd be more likely to burn your throat than wake up if this was the case). Joane took too much pride in her English heritage to touch a cup of coffee without making a frown.
The traffic lights beeped as they switched to the green man with the hat and the walking stick, and Joanna pressed her way past shoulders much larger than her own, to get to the other side first. She paid no mind to looking both ways before crossing the road, as her mother had taught her to, but if she had she might have stopped and backed up.
The driver of one of the waiting cars, a green and seemingly very harmless Skoda, was talking to his wife on the phone when Joane ran out in front of him. As it was he was paying more attention to the shrill voice shouting in his ear than the pedestrians, and his feeble attempt to avoid hitting her was countered by the wheels slipping on the slick, rainy road. He hit her hard, slamming his foot down on the brake a fraction of a second (or two, but who was counting?) too late. Joane fell, one hip fractured from the collision, and landed with her nose first on the asphalt.
The sudden pain made her lightheaded, and if not for that she might have moved away from there and saved her own life. But she was too slow- the next car crashed into the green Skoda and pushed it forward with violent force and speed. The wheels crushed Joane without even giving her time to scream.
A six year old boy with freckles and a round button nose pointed his finger at Joane. He looked up at his mother, who was taking him to school, and smiled, like kids do when they get excited about something. "Look, mum- it's a dead person!"
Somehow, hearing that from the mouth of your six year old son makes you wonder if you've raised him wrongly.
Chaos commenced, the ambulance was called for even though the audience knew it was already too late. People rushed to and fro, and yet time seemed to stand still.
No one noticed the lone, tall figure standing on the side walk. Not that they were supposed to, anyway.
The figure stretched out his arm and raised it closer to his face in order to see his wrist watch better. For some reason the rain was avoiding him, and he was quite dry, but not so comfortable (thanks to these heavy, black robes, no doubt). A glance at the watch had him sighing, and he stared with a blank face at the corpse while the ambulance men lifted it into the car.
He had barely gotten there in time, and he didn't even want to imagine how the higher ups would have scolded him for missing a death. What could he say? He had a busy schedule, and the day was only beginning in this part of the world.
Frowning he pulled back from the road and slipped into the shadows of a nearby alley without a sound. To the humans surrounding the site of the accident he had never really been there in the first place.
Everyone knows who Death is. Or at least they think they do. When you mention the word 'death' people tend to conjure up the image of a skeleton wearing black robes and a scythe over his shoulder, or a large, silent man who had no eye balls, but could still see quite well- or something equally silly and offensive.
All of these images are wrong.
Death is not faceless, and he does not lack skin or eye balls. In fact, one might call him handsome (if tall, serious, and brooding men are your type), but this was not something he approved of. Neither does he keep a scythe with him at all times. They were extremely inconvenient to drag around when you were in a hurry, and Death was often in a hurry to get to the next location or to finish his paperwork. In fact, Death kept no weapons on him, not even a teensy weensy knife in a jacket pocket or a dagger in his boot. He had long since learnt that he could do his job much better without carrying weapons.
After all, he only had to snap his fingers to make something happen, so why bother? (Truthfully, it did take a little more than that, but everyone boasted from time to time).
Death also has a name. Or many names, depending on which religion you worship or which culture you belong to. One might call him Osiris, Grim Reaper or Kali, but these were all just titles. His Greek colleagues had a really annoying habit of calling him Hades, and that was by no means his name.
Death goes by the name of Maurice.
But this is something you wouldn't know unless you work in the Underworld.
Most people would picture the Underworld as a sad, torturous and horrific place where demons run around and bring back the souls they've stolen from the earth above. There would be large cauldrons to boil people in, chains hanging from the walls and large heaps of discarded skeletons. People also picture that the Underworld is ruled by the Devil, or something similar, and that he is half goat, half man and has little horns sticking out from his head.
These are all, like Death's looks, misconceptions.
There are no torture chambers in the Underworld, no cauldrons to boil people in and no stolen souls. However, there are demons, but most of them are harmless and more occupied with paperwork than stealing human souls.
Underworld resembles human offices more closely than it resembles Hell (which is a very different place all together. But that is a different story, and outside of our jurisdiction), and if you walk in there without knowing you might think you've come to an editor's building. Meeting that staff would be likely to correct that mistake though.
Underworld happens to be located in the human world too, but it's location is top secret to anyone but the staff.
Maurice walked in with long, slow steps. His hands were in his pockets, but the black robes covered most of him from view, so it was anyone's guess what he did or wore under them. The dark brown hair on his head was tousled from the wind outside, and the corners of his mouth and his eyebrows were tugged downwards in a thoughtful, brooding frown.
The walls in the lobby had been repainted a bright green recently, and the colour was not easy on his eyes. His own living quarters were decorated entirely in black, and he never quite seemed able to grow accustomed to everyone else's fondness for lively, cheerful colours. The higher ups were tired of receiving complaints about the dull interior, so they had handed over the authority to make the calls to Penny Plum, a short woman with a fiery temper and yellow, puffy hair. To humans she was more known as the Easter Bunny.
She had a lot of free time on her hands when she wasn't hiding eggs filled with sweets, and in her boredom she had taken courses to become an interior decorator.
Maurice had a hard time agreeing with her decisions most of the time, but the rest of the staff were pleased with her hard work, so he would be on the loosing end of the stick if he filed a complaint. He kept his head lowered not to be blinded, and was surprised when someone stopped him just short of exiting the lobby.
"Sir Maurice! Please wait, there is a message for you!"
He turned and mild surprised showed on his otherwise frowning face. The woman was three heads shorter than him, but that she had to tilt her head back to meet his eyes didn't appear to lessen her enthusiasm. She beamed at him in a way that made him want to cringe.
"This letter arrived earlier. It's from the higher ups," she chirped, and Maurice took the yellow envelope she held up for him. He noticed that she tilted her head and leaned forward as he stuck his hand out, probably to take a peek inside his robes.
"Thank you," he said quietly and nodded.
"You're welcome!" She hurried back to the desk she was stationed at, and Maurice stared dumbly after her for a couple of seconds before leaving. His large boots were wet, and slurping, soppy noises were created every time he put his foot down. He longed to return to his office so he could change into a new, dry pair of socks.
The corridor beyond the lobby was wide and tall enough for elephants to march through, and the walls had been painted in the same annoying green. Maurice frowned a little harder. He had never before received a yellow envelope, though he had filled the role as Death for a long time now (a couple of millenia, plus minus a century or two). It had been a long time since he read the thick and dreary book of rules that applied to his job, and he'd admit, albeit shamefully, that he no longer remembered what receiving a yellow envelope meant.
They weren't firing him, were they?
There was no way that they could fire the one and only person qualified for the job. Maurice had never taken an apprentice, and there hadn't been anyone else that anted to apply for this job when he delivered his application.
He weighed the envelope in his hand with a thoughtful look.
It was light- could hardly contain more than two sheets of paper. Oh well. He'd find out when he got back to his office.
Rush hour was approaching fast, and Maurice felt a tad suffocated as the corridor began to fill with people in a hurry. He slinked closer to the wall and tried to stay invisible (which is terribly hard when you are 6.2 feet tall and dressed clad in black), but most of the staff members were too busy to take much notice of him. Besides, Maurice was good at sneaking and passing people by unnoticed. After a millennia or two in this job you were bound to pick up a couple of useful tricks.
Underworld was a large 'building', and the current staff counted far past five hundred. Everyone belonged to respective departments within the 'building' itself, and Maurice's office was located in the innermost part of the north end.
Each door had a name tag on it, plates of metal with neat, black letters shaping the owner's name and title. Most of the staff both lived and worked here, and Maurice was no exception to that.
He breathed a sigh of relief when he reached the end of the corridor and found his own office door. He'd just put his hand down on the handle when someone called for him. That someone was very much female, and someone he'd rather not talk to at all.
"Hades! Wait, god damnit! Don't you dar-"
He slipped into the office and shut the door quicker than a fleeing cat, and the lock slid into place with a tiny 'click' and let him relax. The sound of a fist pounding on the wood sounded through the door, followed by an angry female voice.
"I'm sorry, Artemis. I'm terribly busy," he apologized.
Artemis, Goddess of the Hunt and the Moon, did not take no for an answer. Not even a no as polite as the one he had given her. As all of his Greek colleagues, she too called him by the name Hades. He'd tried to tell them, to no avail, that his name was Maurice, and just that. There was no last name.
"You big, fat liar!" she yelled and kicked the door.
"I'll talk to you tomorrow."
"That better be a promise, Hades!"
She gave the door another kick and walked off.
Maurice nearly sagged against the door then and there. Sometimes he wasn't sure whether it was work or dealing with his colleagues that left him more exhausted. He took off his robes and hung them on a knob on the wall.
Now that he was back in familiar surroundings he was no longer tense and uncomfortable. The black walls felt warm and inviting to him, and he stroked his fingers along the edge of his fine, old wooden desk with a hint of a smile and put down the envelope.
Maurice's office was neither large, nor small. The size of it was just right for his needs. Three wide bookshelves covered one wall, all filled to the brim with the books he loved, and there was a little coffee table and two chairs in one corner, both from the Victorian age. The office would have been dreadfully dark if not for the white candles that floated around in the room. There was also a little lamp sitting perched on his desk, and these together provided enough light for him to do his paperwork.
Speaking of paperwork- he had four reports to write regarding today's deaths.
Joane Torres' death had been the last one he needed to personally attend to for today. In most cases his presence was not needed for nature to run its course, but there were specific deaths that needed a little push in the right direction. It was easy work, mostly. Maurice hadn't suffered any difficulties for the past three decades.
He might be Death, but like everyone else he preferred his work to run smoothly and without interference. He untied his boots and pulled them off. Water splashed onto the floor when he turned them upside down, and he grumbled a bit at that. The socks were hung over the back of one Victorian chair to dry.
A pleasant smell drifted into the office from the kitchen next door. It had his mouth watering in seconds. He followed his nose, sniffing the air, and was by no means surprised to see the young man standing in his kitchen wearing thick, colourful gloves so not to have his hands burned by the cookie tray. The short, slightly chubby man hummed to himself as he slipped the fresh cookies into a little basket. His glasses had fogged up when he opened the oven, but it didn't appear to hinder him.
"Oh! You re back, sir!" Galen chirped cheerfully and turned to face him.
Maurice frowned disapprovingly at the pink apron he wore. It looked terrible in addition to his catty, yellow eyes.
"I finished and handed in yesterday's paperwork earlier. I suppose you have more to finish by midnight, sir?"
"Have a cookie and I'll go get my books, alright?" Galen slipped past him. "Oh, but do be careful- they are hot still."
Galen was Maurice's personal secretary, but the man also functioned as a chief, a butler and an excellent partner in chess. Death was a business that created a lot of paperwork since every little detail needed to be catalogued. It also had a very tight schedule, and for him to keep track of it all by himself was an impossibility.
The two of them had worked together for some time, and Maurice had no complaints.
He moved to the black kitchen counter and carefully stuck his hand into the basket of steaming hot cookies. He was no longer prone to feeling pain over something this little, but the heat made his fingertips tingle. With a content sigh he put the whole cookie in his mouth and chewed.
Chocolate chip cookies- his favourite.
The taste was heavenly, and the cookie melted on his tongue. He regretted that he had swallowed it down so fast when it was gone. His hand reached out for the basket again, but Galen's voice startled him enough that he missed.
"Sir! I said one, not half the basket!" the man scolded, clearly upset. Maurice withdrew his hand and took a step back, and had he been someone different one might have mistaken him for pouting. Galen raised one eyebrow as he put a lid on the basket and pushed it out of Maurice's reach. "I see that the higher ups sent you a yellow letter, hm? Do you want me to open it, sir?"
Galen produced a letter opener from out of nowhere (presumably the pocket on his waist coat, but the movement was much too quick for Maurice's eyes to catch it) and proceeded to slice the envelope open. He fished out the paper and elegantly unfolded it. His yellow eyes moved slowly, carefully absorbing each word. Once he reached the end of the letter he folded it again and pushed his glasses further up his nose and smiled.
"It seems we will be welcoming a new member to our office, sir."
"New…member?" The words had a hard time sinking in.
"Yes, sir. The higher ups have decided to appoint you a personal assistant, as they have noticed that you seem somewhat exasperated lately," Galen explained.
Maurice's face fell.
They were giving him an assistant?
Or, as one might view it; they were forcing him to take an apprentice. This must mean that they were planning to fire him sometime in the future, and he did not like the thought of that. Death was the only business he knew, and he was much too young to retire yet. Never mind that he had lived to see the Roman Empire fall back in the old days.
"Galen, does it say when and who?"
He was going to have a little chat with the higher ups about this matter.
There was no one that he could think of that had applied for his job in the past century. The role of Death was generally a very unattractive job, for various reasons. As Death you only had one day off every year, and that was on Halloween. It was not a job that paid well either, and the amount of reports to file and paperwork to do was ridiculous.
Who on earth could possibly want to become his apprentice?
"Yes it does, sir. Do you want a cup of tea? I'll make you one right away. Sit down, sit down," Galen insisted without drawing his breath once. He pushed Maurice down on a chair and moved about the kitchen with a sense of familiarity, taking out porcelain mugs for the two of them and pouring tea into them. Maurice had barely opened his mouth to protest when the mug of tea was put down on the table before him. He picked it up, knowing it was futile to make complaints.
Galen had no time to take a seat and relax, so he leaned back against the counter and sipped his tea.
"To answer your question, sir, your assistant is Gilligan 'D Bussy, the son of the Third Earl and head of the west section of Underworld."
The surprise was evident on Maurice's face.
"That Earl has a son? I thought he had no children."
There were four Earls in Underworld, one for each of the four sections. These Earls ranked among the higher ups in the 'building', though most of the time they had their noses stuck in their own business and cared little for the rest of the world. They were not known for being family men or considerate lovers, and Maurice had never before heard of an Earl becoming a father.
Galen made a thoughtful sound and rubbed his chin between two fingers. "Actually, I heard of it last week. You were away, so I suppose the news must have escaped you." He smiled. "The rumors say that the Earl's son has human blood in his veins. I have not been able to verify this, but I assume we will find out for ourselves when he comes, hm?"
Maurice frowned. "And when will that be?"
"Oh, let me see," here Galen checked his pocket watch, an antique thing that he always carried in his pocket," in approximately ten minutes. You really should make yourself presentable, sir."
"Ten minutes?!" Maurice blurted out, too shocked to remember being polite.
"Will that be an inconvenience, sir? I'm afraid I can't send him away," Galen said apologetically and tilted his head as he watched his superior fuss over the sudden news. Really, Maurice was such a fussy, awkward person. It was no wonder he needed a secretary to keep things in order.
"You should put on some socks, sir. It would be good to give the young man a strong first impression, don't you think?"
"Socks…" Maurice mumbled and got up. He felt momentarily lost, and he was grateful when Galen handed him a pair of fresh, black socks and put them on for him when he didn't move.
"There, there! Your hair is a lost cause, I'm afraid, but I doubt he will notice." The man patted his shoulder kindly. "Now, do you wish to wear your robes, or shall he see you without them?"
It was an important question, but Maurice's brain didn't register it properly.
"No robes," he replied with a blank face.
"Now, I will start working on your reports and give you some peace to get acquainted with the lad, yes?"
Galen scurried off, humming happily, and Maurice saw him take out a large book from a drawer in the office desk. The cheerful man took a seat in Maurice's black leather chair and jotted down notes with incredible speed.
There was a knock on the door.
Oh dear God.
Maurice rose, his limbs heavy and awkward, and he moved in the direction of the door with slow steps. The knock came again, harder this time, as if someone was rapping their knuckles against the wood with all their might. He swallowed as he reached for the handle and readied himself for just about anything.
Half human, half demon.
He hadn't seen one of those for a long time, and if this one was anything like the ones he remembered he was neck deep in trouble.
The door swung open.