Estimated reading time — 8 minutes
Mr. Cadson had been sitting up at the bar for some time. The lights and the music were both very low, casting a sort of malaise over the entire half-empty room. A group of men in the corner were watching a baseball game on the television on the wall. A few small groups of people murmured among themselves at the tables. Cadson had been staring into several glasses of bourbon for the past two hours, the room around him slowly fading into a dull blur of colors and sounds. The girl tending bar just replaced his glass when it ran dry and the cycle continued. It was around midnight when the stranger approached him.
Cadson turned to see a middle aged man sitting in the stool to the left of him. The man seemed to be the only thing in the room not covered in the haze of inebriation. He didn’t wave to the bartender, nor did the bartender seem to see him. He merely turned and looked directly into Cadson’s eyes. The stranger was nondescript for the most part, except for the eyes. They were bright gold, shining in the dim light. Cadson had never seen anything quite like them. When the man talked, his voice was low and smooth, like a storm in the distance.
“Hello, Mr. Cadson,” said the man. “I’m Death.” Cadson believed him. No amount of liquor led him to that belief. It was more of an instinct, that a man should know Death when it stood before him.
“Pleasure to meet you,” said Cadson, deciding that being polite was the correct option. “Can I buy you a round?” Death laughed. It was a fake laugh, although a very good one. It sounded like someone that has already heard every joke in the world a thousand times, but is still trying to be polite.
“I don’t drink, I’m afraid,” said Death. “I’m just here to tell you that you’ll be throwing in the towel somewhat earlier that you would expect.”
“And why do I get the head’s up?” asked Cadson. He grabbed several nuts out of a bowl in front of him. They had been the only things he’d eaten in half a day. Death leaned up onto the bar, folding his hands under his chin. Death sighed deeply, as if he didn’t want to hear that question.
“Because, Mr. Cadson,” said Death. “I’ve begun doing contract work.”
“Successful guy like you?” asked Cadson. “Didn’t think you’d need the extra cash.” He looked over at Death, only to find the seat empty. He considered for the first time that he was merely hallucinating. Someone to his right coughed lightly. Cadson turned to find an old woman looking at him with the same pair of gold eyes.
“I merely take a small something from the people that require my services,” said the more elderly Death. “Although I can’t say it’s all for that. What do I need with a memory or a sliver of a man’s soul? After sticking to the script for millions of years, it’s mainly about the thrill. And I enjoy the conversation.” Death smiled, showing a mouthful of yellowed dentures.
“You still didn’t really answer the question,” said Cadson. Death stopped smiling quite so broadly.
“Very perceptive for someone on their sixth drink,” said Death. “Which makes this all the more fun.” Death disappeared from the seat. Cadson swung around to find an athletic looking young man to his left. The gold eyes seemed to pierce him even deeper. “A question is an amazing thing, Mr. Cadson. The first thing a mortal does upon being born is wonder. Upon waking up, entering a room, meeting someone, or even looking up into the sky, the first thing you do is wonder. Immortals don’t wonder. They know.” The longing in Death’s voice was half heartbreaking and half terrifying.
“If you’re going off the script, they don’t know, do they?” asked Cadson. His head was beginning to clear, as adrenaline and fear began to sweep away the haze. Death chuckled.
“No, they don’t,” said Death. “And that terrifies them.”
“That’s something I can’t answer,” said Death. “There are rules, you see. I can do this as long as everyone follows the rules. The rules you have to worry about say that dead men have certain rights. Most come by them naturally, but when I take a more active role, I’m required to tell you those rights. Hence, my presence here.” Death gestured back at the darkened, half-empty bar.
“What rights do I have?” Death vanished again and reappeared as a young boy on the other side of Cadson. The eon-old eyes were much more disturbing on a ten year old face.
“The first is the right of knowledge,” said Death in a high pitched voice. “All men are entitled to know the manner of their death prior to its occurrence.”
“You’re saying everyone knows how they’re going to die?”
“If anyone pays close enough attention to their life,” said Death. “They’ll know. Slow and painful or short and violent, they can all see it coming if they try. I’ve never seen anyone really try though. You though, Mr. Cadson, are going to die choking on one of those peanuts you’ve been eating.” Cadson stopped his hand as he was about to put another nut into his mouth. He placed it back into the bowl and pushed it away. “That won’t change anything, but if it makes you feel better, I suppose.”
“And why do you have to tell me?”
“Rules,” said Death. “If someone isn’t given full rights, shit happens.” Cadson almost laughed hearing the kid version of Death say that, but stifled it. “Which brings us to your second right. The right of choice. There are many, many things that can happen after you die. And people always choose for themselves what happens to them. They don’t even know they’re doing it, but they do it.”
“And I get to choose?” asked Cadson. “Do I get to know what the choices are?”
“Believe me, Mr. Cadson.” The child disappeared. Cadson turned to see a beautiful woman to his left. In fact, she was the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen. He hoped Death would stay that way for a while. “My job would be so much simpler if I could tell people the options. But don’t worry. You’ll choose before you die. Which brings me to your last right, and the main reason I’m here: the right of experience.”
“I’ve got plenty of experience,” said Cadson, taking another swig of bourbon. “Believe me.”
“But not enough,” said Death. The woman’s voice was light and sensual, with a hint of an unknown accent. Cadson tried to keep from looking at Death while it spoke. He worried that he might get distracted. “A mortal’s experiences are why it knows its death and why it makes its choices. Without those experiences, the system falls apart. So I’m here to impart knowledge to make up for what you’re going to lose.”
“We having a Q and A session now?” asked Cadson.
“More or less,” said Death. “Starting now, you will have four questions. I will have to tell you the complete truth about anything you ask, but there are certain things I can’t talk about. If you ask about those, you forfeit one question.”
“And what are those?” asked Cadson. It took him less than a second to realize what he had done. He looked up into Death’s eyes and saw a slight triumph there.
“One question down,” said Death. “Don’t feel bad. They all do that. I had one man that used all four in about ten seconds, so you’re still ahead of the game. In any case, you can’t ask about what happens after you die, anything that will happen in the future, or how to live forever. That’s it.” Cadson realized something that he hadn’t up until this point. This was a game to Death. A game that it very thoroughly enjoyed. That was its payout. “So I assume you’ll be thinking more carefully about the next three.” Death gave him a coy look that would have made any man fall in love. He realized exactly why it had waited until that point to take that form. But any alcohol in his system had been dissolved by pure fear at that point. These were perhaps his final chances to do anything with his pathetic life.
“Who sent you to kill me?” asked Cadson, slowly and deliberately. Death smiled.
“Mr. Holland, your business partner,” said Death. Cadson began to ask ‘why’, but slapped a hand over his mouth before the sound came out. Death laughed.
“You know what?” it asked. “You caught that so well, I’m going to tell you why just for the hell of it. He found those certain files you didn’t want him to. The ones about the offshore accounts and the shady practices. He was most interested in the files you were planning to frame and blackmail him with.” Cadson stared down into his glass, but said nothing. “People don’t actually hire me consciously. It’s more a matter of mindset. How much they want someone dead and how much they’re willing to sacrifice. Mr. Holland, for instance, can no longer remember 1991, the happiest year of his life. That’s the year he got his master’s degree, met his wife, and had the best steak he’d ever eaten. To you it may not seem like much, but trust me, if he knew, he would not have agreed. So what next?”
Several thoughts went through Cadson’s head at that moment. He wondered where his life went wrong. He wondered if there was any chance at all he was getting into any sort of heaven. He wondered if he really had known it was going to end this way.
“I know this is important, Mr. Cadson, but I have places to be.” There was a hint of impatience in Death’s voice that made a single thought arise in Cadson’s head. It was almost like Death was worried. Cadson thought about it a bit more, making sure his question was perfect, and praying that he was right. Death stared in rapt attention as he opened his lips.
“You have places to be. I have rights.”
“Is…that a question?” asked Death, a look of confusion appearing on its face. Hope surged into Cadson.
“Not at all,” he said. “If I don’t ask you the last question and my rights are not fulfilled, that means you can’t kill me early because shit happens. Right?”
Death cocked its head to the side, a calculating expression on its face. Its golden eyes stared right through Cadson as it sat there in thought. Finally, a wide grin spread over Death’s face. It let out the lightest, most wonderful laugh that Cadson had ever heard.
“That is correct, Mr. Cadson,” said Death, leaning in close. “But have you weighed the possibilities? You may be scheduled to die tomorrow. Isn’t there some answer you would be willing to give up one day for? Can you live knowing that you traded away the chance?” Death paused a moment. “And won’t Mr. Holland be very much trouble for you shortly?”
“I’ll deal with it,” said Cadson. He turned away from Death and went back to sipping his bourbon. “Good night, Miss.” Death sighed and got up from the bar stool. It laid one hand on Cadson’s shoulder and lowered its lips to his ear, despite Cadson’s suspicion that no one else could hear it.
“Not many have made it this far into the game, Mr. Cadson. Congratulations. But I want you to know that I always get my man. I’ve gotten every one of them in human history in fact. I’ll see you soon.”
Death smiled once more and walked towards the door. As Cadson watched from the corner of his eye, the figure disappeared halfway across the room. He made a silent toast and drained the remainder of his glass. As he slammed it back onto the bar top, the bartender walked over to him.
“Can I get another bourbon?” asked Cadson. The bartender looked at his watch.
“I think you’ve got time for one more,” said the bartender. While the bartender poured the drink, Cadson looked back at the room and wondered if the people knew what had just happened, if it had, in fact, happened. The bartender put the drink down in front of him.
“On the house, in fact,” he said with a smile before walking away.
“Thank you,” muttered Cadson, his mind elsewhere. As he took the first sip of his drink, he absentmindedly reached for the bowl of nuts.
Credit: Alex Taylor