A Fool's Errand
This story begins with me havin' a drink at smokey little dive bar called the Riverside. The place is somewhere between Houston and New Orleans, but I couldn't tell you exactly where. See, I ain't got any particular recollection of how I got there. All I can remember is that it was Huntin' Season, and every self-respecting traveler of time an' space knows what that means.
Usually, I try and avoid the excitement. Sometimes, I work my way about five items down the List if I ain't got nothin' better to do. Huntin' Season's for young bucks and wannabes. Like most old Brothers, I prefer to listen to my gut when I'm travelin', and do what feels natural. Come to think of it, that could explain why so many pages of my rather interestin' life are filled with disreputable women. About fifty percent of the time I get killed, there's a dame involved.
See, there are lots of ways to die in Multiverse, some bad, some a little worse. Good ways, I don't think there are any.
I speak as an authority on the subject, bein' Death.
That's right, I'm Death. But it ain't like ya think. I don't collect souls and I can't kill with a finger poke. I do have a scythe, but I ain't immortal. To be honest, I die with alarmin' regularity. Of course, no matter what happens to me… I always come back.
Mostly, I find myself hunched over a toilet for three or four hours tryin' to grow a new liver.
So, no shit, there I was, one day into Huntin' Season, sittin' at a bar on Earth Realm taking the edge off a long day with good Irish whiskey. I had my copy of the List in my pocket, and was considerin' if I wanted to go get the first item. The List is never more than ten items long, but item eight or nine is always a doozy which knocks about half the Brothers and Sisters out of the Hunt. Item one, however, is the bait on the hook.
"Would ya pour me another one, Peach?" I asked the bartender, jiggling my empty glass. Peach wasn't her name, but she didn't object to it. I'd been flashin' a lot of dough and tippin' well, a thing which sometimes gets a man certain liberties. I didn't expect much, though the smile Peach gave me sure was sweet.
"Anything you want, sugar," Peach replied, playin' the game right back. If I had to bet on where she was from, I'd say Georgia. Words didn't exactly jump off her tongue. They flowed real slow, like simple syrup. She'd also called me "Yankee" when I first came in, which was another hint.
Technically, I ain't a Yankee. That would imply that I hail from some northern part of the United States of America, which I don't. Course, I've run around there some, so Peach's mistake made sense to me. An Etone accent sounds a lot like Brooklyn to southern folks, but actual New Yorkers think you're makin' fun of them.
"So where are you from, Mr. Mysterious?" Peach asked, for the third time. She was real curious about me, and I wasn't answering any of her questions. Probably thinking she'd softened me up enough with whiskey, Peach leaned way over the bar, let her chin rest in her hands, and gave me a sly smile. I didn't look at her face, but it was obvious that she wasn't askin' for eye-contact. She was foxy, I'd give her that. But she was also a nada, which meant that getting to know her any better was seven different shades of illegal.
I sipped my whiskey. "No place you've ever been to," I replied. I couldn't tell her I was Etone. Strictly speakin', Etone never confess to bein' what they are, and even if we did, Peach wouldn't know what that word meant. Earth Realm don't know about dimension travel yet.
Peach looked put-off by my answer and flounced away. I sighed.
The man sitting two stools over had his eyes on me. He'd been watchin' me for a long while, long enough to get all the way through one of them stupid automated phone systems. I didn't like the look of that nada. He was too square-jawed with an ugly football-lookin' head. Man's eyes wouldn't tell me what he was thinkin'. It seemed possible that he was smarter than he looked, but not too likely. Overall, I figured him for a sucker, and thought about the first item on the List.
Then my mark spoke up. "You could've humored the lady," Football Head said, gesturing to Peach who was serving another customer. "Not too many people come into this bar wearing a tie."
I tugged on my skinny tie, loosening it a little. It ain't an especially fancy thing, but it has a certain shape to it which perfectly complements my suit. I've been dressin' this way for a couple of decades, since I noticed that in most action flicks, black suit-wearin' actors can be covered in blood and still look like card carryin' badasses.
Bein' Death, and havin' such a reputation as I do, means that gettin' shot five or six times is somethin' which happens to me more often than I'd like to admit. "Look, I don't want to talk about what I do for a livin'," I sighed. "I'm just here to drink."
"Yes," Football Head said, finally voicing what he'd really been ruminatin' on. "You've certainly been doing that. How many of those have you had?" He asked, gesturing to my whiskey.
"Don't see how that's any of your business," I replied, wonderin' if Football Head had ever heard of the Brother Code. That don't just apply to Etone. Most men avoid askin' other men certain questions. Truth be told, I had a mighty nice Stonehenge of bar glasses balanced in front of me, and a strong buzz goin'.
"I think you should call a cab," Football Head said. Tryin' to be helpful, I suspected, by keepin' a drunk off the road. Course, I wasn't planning on takin' the road, but I couldn't tell him that.
"Ain't necessary," I snorted. "I can walk." I got off my stool and walked along a crack on the floor. I wobbled a little, but I figured I'd proven that I wasn't a full three sheets to the wind.
"All right, you can walk," Football Head observed. "Where are you staying?"
Course, there was no hotel for miles. And I couldn't say I was local, cause he already knew I wasn't. The only alternative was to be an ass again. "Why do you care? I ain't invitin' you back to my room!" I replied.
"It was just a question," Football Head held up his hands in a gesture of surrender.
"Y'know, you are real nosy! You've been watchin' me for hours," I snapped. "You're askin' me all kinds of questions and you never even introduced yourself."
"Neither did you," he reminded me. Peach had asked me, point blank, what my name was, and I hadn't given her one. I could've made somethin' up, but I liked playin' mysterious. In a way, it was my version of "freakin' the mundanes".
"Whatever. I'm done here," I decided. I'd paid in cash for everything as I drank, so I didn't need to worry about my tab. I pushed my stool in and went out the door. To my surprise, Football Head actually followed me out. I saw a glint of something sparkly clipped to his belt, and realized belatedly that the thing was a badge.
A cop. I'd been mouthin' off to a fuckin' cop.
Now, like any Brother, I ain't too fond of jail. Getting arrested where the authorities know you're Etone is no picnic, but they understand they can't hold ya, so they don't try. Of course, if you got the misfortune of landin' in jail in a Realm where you are a unicorn, a thing which has no evidence of actually existin'… you ain't never getting out.
"Whoa, I'm sorry officer," I told the cop right away, backpedaling as fast as I could. "I didn't realize you was a cop. I've been havin' a real bad day, and the last thing I wanted to deal with was some nosy… you know, some nosy guy from the bar askin' me all kinds of personal questions."
The officer seemed surprised that I'd figured out he was a cop, and I suspected that was cause he thought I was drunker than I was. "Look, I'm going to let you off with a warning," he decided, pulling out a little pink pad of paper. "Give me your driver's license."
Of course, I don't got a driver's license. More importantly, somethin' of a golden opportunity occurred to me at that moment. I mentally checked both item number two, and item number three off the List.
"A warning? You ain't got nothin' to charge me with," I told the cop, like I was incapable of followin' his instructions and too drunk to bite my tongue. "Apart from bein' an asshole, and so far as I know, that ain't illegal!"
"This is a small town," the cop replied, cool and calm. "Honest, churchgoing folk. You can get arrested for being drunk on the street here."
He said that, and right away I saw red and blue lights coming around the corner. I spun around on one heel and tried to run, but slammed right into the tailgate of a double-parked truck. The sound that my knee made hitting the bumper wasn't good, and I would've fallen on my ass in the dirt if the cop hadn't slapped a cold pair of handcuffs on me.
As the cop shoved me in the back of his car, I kicked him in the shins just be a little more belligerent. It didn't matter if I played nice or not. Soon as they booked me, I'd go from bein' a minor menace to a high-priority case. I wondered how far back their fingerprint records went. I'd been arrested before in Texas, sometime around 1921. That was gonna raise a couple eyebrows for sure. I already suspected I was neck-deep in a good Huntin' Season story, which would probably end with me gettin' killed at least twice.
The cop took me back to the station, plopped me in a shitty plastic chair that only sat on the floor with three of its feet. He went through the pockets of my coat lookin' for identification, which was a real indignity cause like most Brothers, I'm sentimental about my coat. It doesn't look like much on the outside, but it's got pan-dimensional pockets so I can carry whatever I need to without it weighing more than a feather. This, of course, is limited to things that'll actually fit into a standard-sized pocket, but you'd be amazed at what I can shove in there.
The cop sure was. He stared at the pile of stuff on the table between us, which included a four-inch stack of identical twenty-dollar bills, eight packs of cigarettes, six lighters, eleven pens, three guns, my "wristwatch" which was a knock-off Rolex running backwards, nine packs of tissue, a bowie knife, breath mints, a bottle of asprin, and a nice silver flask with a skull on it.
I kept my eyes on an old package of Lucky Strikes amid all the other cigarettes. If I had to grab one item off that table and make a run for it, that'd be it. The pack of Lucky's was where I kept my Gatekeys. They're simple things, Gatekeys. They look like sticks of charcoal, but if you break one, the whole multiverse opens up before you, and you can go anywhere you've got the will to go. Of course, if you don't know what they do and you break one by accident, you'll find your ass tossed somewhere out in the Dark, a place you likely ain't comin' back from.
Last of all, the cop found and unfolded the List. He cleared his throat. "Number one. A Fool's Money. What the hell is this?"
"It's a Scavenger Hunt," I told him truthfully.
"Aren't you a little old for that?" He eyed me suspiciously, folding the paper up again without reading the rest.
"That's what I tell myself every year," I replied truthfully.
"Now, about these guns..." The cop began.
"That one's a water pistol," I pointed. "And that one's a lighter."
He tested em' both and found that what I said was true.
"Last one's a cap gun," I said.
The cop looked a bit more apprehensive, but opened the thing up, and a red ring of caps fell out. "You have three toy guns," he observed.
"I don't like killin' folk," I shrugged. That was the truth. Just cause I happen to know a lot about death don't mean I'm fond of the condition.
The cop jumped out of his seat, and I realized that was because my money had been out in the fluorescent light too long. Although it had appeared to be a stack of twenty-dollar bills a few minutes ago, it was now a bunch of blank paper. Every dimension-traveler carries copycash. It's great stuff. You stick a piece of real paper money on top of the copycash, press real hard, and the whole stack copies the pattern of the local currency. So it can't fall into the wrong hands, if it's left in full light for more than ten minutes, it becomes worthless.
"Wasn't that a stack of money?" He asked.
"Naw, it's just paper," I lied, except that was sorta the truth. Nothing more foolish, really, than leavin' a stack of copycash out on a table. A Fool's Money, bein' the first item on the List, was at that moment acquired. That meant that I was officially Huntin'.
The cop scooted his chair back. I got the impression that me smilin' made him awfully uncomfortable. "What are you smiling at?" He demanded.
"I'm smilin' cause I found half the things I need already. Take another look at that List," I said.
He eyed me skeptically but unfolded the paper again anyway. "Item number two. A Citation," he read.
I pointed to the pink piece of paper in front of me readin' "disorderly conduct", not much of a surprise there. "Keep goin'," I said.
"Item three. A Badge of Honor," The cop stared.
"I want your badge," I told him.
"I'm not going to give you my badge," he told me right back, not that I'd expected a different answer.
"I'll give it back," I said. "I just need it for a couple days."
"You're insane," the cop informed me, like that was somethin' I didn't know.
"Look, if you give me item number three, I'm gonna give you item number ten," I replied.
"Item ten," he read. "Everything."
"Eh? Whatcha think about that?" I asked, goadin' him a little more. "Look, just let me hold your badge for a bit and I'll explain. I ain't goin' anywhere," I rattled my handcuffs.
The cop sighed. He gave me his badge.
"Open the pack of Lucky Strikes," I told him.
The cop hesitated, and he looked a bit concerned when he saw what was in there. He very carefully pulled out a Gatekey and stared at it, settin' the rest of the pack down so he could turn it over in his hands and look at it more closely. Distant stars flickered across its smoky black surface.
"What is this?" He whispered, awestruck. Gatekeys have got that sort of affect on folk that've never seen one before.
"That, officer, is everything," I told him. "Well, more correctly, it's anything. Imagine yourself somewhere. Sittin' on a tropical island with a drink in your hand. On the moon. Bottom of the ocean. Get a real clear picture of where you want to be, and break that key. You might wanna scratch the moon or the ocean though," I added. "On account of needin' to breathe."
"Who are you?" He asked.
"I'm Death," I replied. "It's the only name I got, an' the only name I need. If you don't believe me, take that Bowie knife and try an' kill me with it. Uh, don't cut my throat though. Makes a lot of mess, and I always end up talkin' funny for a long while."
"It's not a fake knife is it?", he asked, considerin' my assortment of toy guns.
"What's the use of a fake knife?" I snorted. "You gonna kill me or not?"
He considered doin' exactly that. I could see it in his eyes, but he also seemed to know that stabbin' somebody who was handcuffed wouldn't make em' very popular in a court of law or in the newpapers. The cop drew his hand back from my Bowie knife like he could feel the cold of the grave, which maybe he could because I'd only been alive for the last eleven hours and in the morgue for a bit before that. "You don't look like Death," he told me.
"How do you know what Death looks like?" I snorted. "You ever been dead?"
"Well, you don't have a scythe in that coat of yours, do you?" he said.
"Always the scythe thing!" I rolled my eyes. "My scythe is in an evidence room in New Jersey. Pain in the ass carrying that thing around," I told him. "And anyway, I'm not Death as you understand it. I don't go collectin' souls or nothin' like that."
"Item number eight," the cop read aloud, lookin' over the List.
I craned my neck to see over his shoulder. Sure enough, number eight was "An Old Soul".
"Shit," I gave a low whistle. "They really outdone themselves this year."
There was a sound just outside, like a big ol' wind. My "watch" stopped spinning backwards and made a "ding" sound like a microwave. That meant a friend of mine was close by, and I had an idea who it might be.
"Oi, Death… you in there?" A familiar voice called out.
"Yeah!" I shouted back. "C'mon back!"
Two folks in long coats walked right into the police station, easily openin' doors that were probably supposed to be locked. The first was a dusty old woman who looked like a cowgirl, wearin' lots of silver jewelry and walkin' with a cane made of the same black cosmic stuff as my Gatekeys. With Calamity Jane was a skinny blonde kid with the look of a punk rocker. I also recognized him right away.
See, Mad Mack's got the reputation of bein' the most well-traveled Etone in the multiverse. Course, I ain't impressed. Mostly, he talks too much. He's reckless enough to be dangerous, smart enough to be irritatin', and always grinnin' like a fool. As per usual, Mad was wearin' stupid lookin' rose-colored sunglasses. These, I think, make him more obnoxious than he is already, which is really somethin'.
"Weren't we supposed to meet at a bar," Mad Mack said, casually ignoring the cop still sitting across from me. The cop gave him a long, suspicious look, and Jane's eye caught the List.
"Heh," she observed. "Well, now I ain't surprised. How many items you got?"
"First three, and the last one, which is too easy in my opinion. Now that you're here, I got number eight," I said. "What about you?"
"First two, and the last one. And if I'm going to be your number eight, you can be my number eight," Jane replied.
"I think I'm worth more points than you on account of bein' an older soul," I told her.
"If you're usin' me, I'm usin' you," she replied.
The cop had enough of bein' ignored. "That's enough!" He slammed his hand down on the table before I could warn him not to, and the Gatekey shattered.
A wave of darkness whipped out of that key and wrapped around us. I was knocked flat on my back, still cuffed and in my chair. The police station dissipated, and the four of us, along with some furniture, were instantly transported to someplace that wasn't anyplace. All around us was black, at least until Jane lit a torch. The ground beneath our feet was spongy and rippled blue like the ocean under the light of the moon. Wherever we were, it was real far out in the Dark.
"You shouldn't have broke that Gatekey," I sighed heavily and started shovin' all my stuff back in my pockets. Wasn't easy with handcuffs still on.
"Where are we?" The cop wondered.
"Dunno," I shrugged. "Somewhere on the edge of time an' space."
"Mm," Jane nodded. "We got our number seven though," she said.
"Number seven. A Fish out of Water," Mad Mack recited. He obviously had the List memorized, not that it surprised me.
I glanced at the cop. "Ain't there a rule against kidnappin' people? I seem to remember they made a rule about that after the Bitches stuffed some guy in a burlap sack and left em' in the Bronze Age."
"Technically, we didn't kidnap him. He broke the Gatekey," Jane pointed out. "Not in violation of the rules."
We all considered that.
"Will one of you please explain what's going on here?" The cop said, soundin' awfully scared.
"We're travelers of space an' time," I explained. "And, as you already know, we're on a Scavenger Hunt."
"You… you have the ability to instantly travel anywhere and you're doing a scavenger hunt?" He pressed. "What kind of fool's errand is that?"
"Number four!" Mad Mack exclaimed. "Damn, that's clever! We're gonna win this yet!"
Jane checked number four, "A Fool's Errand" off her copy of the List.
The cop looked ready to punch Mad Mack, not that I was surprised. Mad's got that effect on certain people, myself included.
"Take it easy, Seven," Jane slapped him on the back.
"Seven?" He echoed.
"Yeah, that's you. Item number seven," Jane replied.
"That's not my name," he argued. Then he looked up, and lost the ability to protest.
Stars and planets spun over our heads, constellations rolling over the horizon at a speed that was dizzying. Two bursts of smoky black flame, like a pair of dark comets, shot off towards a distant light. Demons, probably. Mad glanced at me warily, and I shook my head. Seven was already scared. No reason to make em' wet himself.
I tossed the cop back his badge, and he automatically stuck it back on his belt, though he seemed to know that it wouldn't do him much good where we were. Wherever that was.
"How do I get home?" He asked.
"Could try item number five," Jane suggested. "It's next on on the List."
"Ruby Slippers," Mad Mack supplied.
Seven didn't say anything. He just reached down to the table, picked up one of my packs of cigarettes and lit himself a smoke. Everybody else did the same thing, and we all stared up at the sky.
It was the beginning of what was going to be a very long night.