Okay, so.

I meet Death sometimes to play games. Or maybe she’s the Devil, I dunno. She answers to both, I guess? Denny Feldman started calling her Devth because of that and I guess she likes it since he’s still alive.

Anyway, to get to her place we go into this ratty old trash can behind the Gas ‘n’ Gulp. If she wants to play games there’ll be…I dunno, a tube or something to slide down. If she doesn’t it’ll just be garbage. Someone threw out a bowling ball the other week and it’s still in there. I mean, who does that?

So, we usually play board games. Devth likes Monopoly because it lets her be evil, I guess that makes sense. But don’t cheat or act shifty.

Okay, so, if you cheat or act shifty, you’ll know Devth is mad cuz she’ll get goat eyes. If yoo’ve never seen goat eyes, look them up because they’re really weird and scary. Like octopus eyes. But in a goat. Anyway, they’re yellow too, and she’ll give you the evil eye with them. Literally, I guess.

Anyway, you have about 30 seconds to calm her down before things get bad and you get thrown into the eternal night forever. The last time it was me Devth thought I took money from the bank without it being my turn. I just forgot to get change when I bought Reading Railroad, and laughing about it was enough to calm her down.

Missy Antonucci wasn’t so lucky. When she got caught counting cards when we were playing poker, Devth revealed her true terrible form and cast her into the pit of 1000 years’ torment. Okay, so it’s bad but at least it’s not the eternal darkness, Missy will get out in 2116.

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Allison Kramer was a very unlucky person.

After a bruising day as the highest woman on the corporate ladder working at a world leading agribusiness company, she found out more than she bargained for. Which was saying something, considering she had bargained for a lot–stock options, a 402(L), a company car.

But, nevertheless, after cutting through a blind alley to get to the parking garage, Allison got herself super-duper murdered.

“I bet you don’t remember me,” said the disheveled figure who confronted her with a .32. “You fired me last month. to my face. Like it was nothing.”

“Carl Winterschmidt,” Allison said. “I didn’t fire you like it was nothing. You were embezzling, and not only did I not have youo arrested, I gave you a fruit bouquet from Edible Arrangements.”

“And it fed my family for two days!” Carl cried. “After the fruit ran out, so did my wife! You die now!”

Allison barely felt the .32 ACP bullets slice through her. There was a rushing sound at her ears, the world went black, and…

…he came to holding a smoking Walther PPK, looking down over a murdered corporate lady.

“Damn,” Allison said, throwing away his gun. Not again.”

For the 27th or 37th time since her first death in 2007, Allison had gotten transmigrated again. For some reason, maybe a gypsy curse that had been insufficiently advertised, every time she died she took over the body of whoever had killed her.

The problem was, her bad luck meant she keept dying.

There was the time she was walking down a corridor and the janitor forgot to leave out the wet floor sign after he’d mopped up and then she slipped, smashed her skull on the edge of a cabinet, and died. She’d been the janitor for a year until he died in a hit and run scooter accident.

Then there was the time she got stuck under the ice saving a child from a frozen lake and woke up as a Tammy Cubbins, age 5. Or the time she got her throat torn out by a puppy, followed by three months of being a puppy followed by a further eleven of working at a “no-kill” animal shelter.

Allison sighed, and walked into traffic. Maybe she could get run over by a cool rich socialite and wake up as a cool, rich socialite with a cool, rich socialite car.

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The hearse arrived at midnight, rolling quietly down the cul-de-sac. A thing of night even in daylight, it was like an oily distortion in the dark air, recognizable only in the dim lights reflected in its gloss and the pair of rheumy beams it cast forward.

It pulls up in the dark, further than can be seen. Up to the house where the police cruisers and an ambulance clustered, flashed, a few hours before? Not the way things were usually done, but perhaps. A false alarm might have turned into the real thing, with nothing left to do but summon the last limousine.

A lone relative, without a car, dropped off from a ceremony where they were the soule mourner? The kindness that one ought to be grateful for turned into icy unease by the thick empty weight of the compartment behind. They rode in the same car just last week, only not like this. Not like this.

Suppose that the late hour and the light are just right that it’s the great Hearse itself, the one driven by the Man in Black who awaits at each crossroad. Come to collect, trading scythe for side panels and robes for road but still inky, still inscrutable, still inevitable. Cut him off in late-night traffic if you dare.

Sleep comes on heavy wings; the hearse does not reappear. A metaphor, if nothing else, of the uncertainty at the end of our own rides therein, no matter how certain we be of our destinations.

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They found him leering through the bullet hole his latest kill had torn in the windshield of a dereclict car. A lit cherry was clenched between skeletal teeth hidden only half-heartedly beneath a hood; with no nose and no lungs, there was no way he could have enjoyed it.

Unless, that is, he just enjoyed watching things burn.

“Well, we had quite a time finding you,” said Alicia, boldly opening the passenger side door. She cleared a pair of still-smoking brass shells off the seat and took a seat next to the Hecate anti-material sniper rifle that had fired them. “And I won’t waste your time: we have a job for you.”

“Job for me? You don’t even know me.” The voice was sepulcher and stone, issued from no voice box but just precipitating from an empty rub cage like vile precipitation.

“Nobody does, but you’ve done jobs all over regardless. Unless you’re going to tell me someone else has been precision reaping around here lately, which I doubt.” Alicia withdrew a short stack of photos from her messenger bag and laid them on the Hecate. Each was a simple, brilliant, and bloody reaping of a mortal soul, usually with a single bullet.

“Fair enough. What do you want, and what can you pay?”

Alicia had that ready in her messenger bag, too. A full dossier, with wherebouts, movement patterns, and of course a name. “Juan Ramirez, ex-military, now working as a mercenary on the East Side.”

“Surely you have your own people for such a thing. Why a reaping where a simple murder would do?”

“Because it’s not Juan Ramirez we want,” said Alicia, her foundation and mascara cracking a bit as she grinned. “That’s what our firm specializes in, you see. Since there aren’t natural deaths anymore, it becomes a numbers game: who can we remove to make all the great chains move, for people to slither into new positions?”

“It’s that same lack of natural death that has me out on the street accepting table scraps.” The reaper’s stub flickered orange in the car. “I’ll do it, and I’ll do it clean, but it won’t be cheap.”

“Name your price,” said Alicia. “His soul? It’s yours.”

“Don’t want his soul,” the reaper said. “Not interested.”

“Well, then, tell me what would interest you.”

The reaper, long out of work with bones worn in pursuit of a hard career, cast back his hood. “Your soul,” he said, the shadows falling in such a way as to suggest a smile. “I’ll do it for your soul.”

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Charon, the skeletal boatman of the River Styx, will often meet with friends for cards, drinks, and chess at his modest boathouse with a lovely view of Hades and the confluence of the Lethe and the Styx.

The Reaper, the even more skeletal figure who brought Charon his souls to ferry, was a usual guest. Hades himself would show up from time to time, usually when he was on the outs with his wife. More typical guests included Malak al-Maut, the Angel of Death; Yanluo, the ruler of Diyu; Chitragupta, the Tallyer of Deeds; and Morena, the Winter Nightmare.

As one might expect from the guest list, these gatherings were restrained affairs. Reaping souls and the like was dour, tiring work, and low-key games of chance and skill helped diffuse some of the innate tension. Charon always paid for everything, as he was the only one to command a fee for his services; this also meant that his boathouse was the only domicile with full high-speed internet.

People have long-suspected that wireless signals are in fact living beings in their own right, imbued with malicious and mischievous souls. Charon knew this to be true, and he would haul in powerful signal-spirits by the boatload for his gatherings, plying them with promises of an escape from Limbo, where they resided after power outages or upgrades. Alternately he’d threaten them with a descent to Wireless Gehenna, a land of constant zero bars, sunspots, and Saudi Arabian signal jammers.

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Our neighborhood was in the oldest part of our town, with houses nearing or over the century mark. We’d been the first new family to move in for years, and once we kids arrived, we found a willing audience in the many elderly widows next door. They tended to enjoy our antics, and kept large dishes bright with gumdrops on their tables for when we visited.

One by one, as the years went by, they all passed away. New families moved in and the old houses were painted and refinished. The house on one corner had its beautiful stand of pine trees cut down while a bevy of modern garages went up in backyards previously left fallow.

In the end, there was only one home left with its original coat of paint and owner, on the far corner of the block.

The end came suddenly, without the lengthy buildup of an illness. While my mother was out of town, the old lady died peacefully, napping in the chair in her living room. The housekeeper found her the next day.

There was no way for my mother to make it home in time to see her friend off, so it fell to our family to go in her stead. It was the first funeral we had attended in years, perhaps the first since I’d gained a more mature understanding of death. The waxy figure barely resembled the woman I’d known.

We met—for the first time, at least that I could remember—her son and daughter, and their children. The son is an overweight man with a tussled comb-over who mumbles a few words before taking a seat. The daughter was much more vibrant, dark-haired and slim.

“We’re really sorry our mother couldn’t come,” I said. “They’d been spending a lot of time together.”

“Oh really?” the daughter said. “What did they do?”

“Just talked, mostly,” I said. “They visited a lot, sometimes did a little cooking together. I think she saw your mother as sort a maternal figure.” I see that as the greatest compliment someone can give; surrogate or not, those relationships are worth a lot.

It makes the daughter uncomfortable. “No, I just think they were friends. Very good friends,” she said, shortly before excusing herself. It’s clear she was uncomfortable with the idea of her mother seeing anyone but her as a daughter figure.

Maybe it was telling that the first time they’d visited in years was to attend the funeral.