“Congratulations, boys and ghouls,” Lady Nocturna said, crossing her legs in a whisper of fishnets. “You’ve lived through another night of fright. Tune in next week for a double-trouble Wilfred Ghostman creature feature Friday. Immacula the Vampire Nun followed by Wasp People, both starring yours truly. Right here on Channel 12, Trinity Bay’s one and only. Join me for the fun … if you dare!”
A male voice-over thundered, “Mon-sto-RAMA …” followed by a witch-trio screech of, “Theeeee-ater!“
“And, cut, we’re done.” Joseph signaled Chas in the control booth. “Run the commercials.”
“Good,” Lady Nocturna said, pulling off her wig and fluffing her cap of dark curls. “I don’t know how much longer this cardboard crypt of yours is going to hold up.”
“At least the corset’s holding up, Birdie darling,” Joseph said. He ogled her chest with what she knew to be bogus lust.
“Well, they are what you hired me for,” she said, inhaling deeply. The corset whittled her waist down to a size 12, but it did that by shoving her ample bust most of the way to her chin.
“Not only,” he said, sounding aggrieved. “You are a movie star, remember?”
“Ten years ago.”
In the women’s dressing room, which was a closet with delusions of grandeur, Birdie Yale found Lisa Neary, who did the local news, hunched over a cup of coffee that smelled like battery acid.
“Morning,” Lisa said, as if she took it personally. “Some guy’s out front for you. Probably wants Lady Nocturna to whip-weal her autograph into his bare butt.”
“It wasn’t Diablo, was it?” Birdie asked.
“El Scuzzbucket with the spiky red hair and the ring through his lip?” Lisa made a face.
“Hey, I lived with that scuzzbucket for two years. Before he got too creepy even for me. All that stuff about angels and demons. Once, he brought home a big white feather. Swore he’d plucked it from an angel’s wing.”
Free of the Lady Nocturna get-up, Birdie wiggled into jeans and a leopard-print tank top. She washed her face in the tiny sink, make-up swirling away. Farewell, Lady Nocturna’s chalky pallor, carmine lips, jet-black eyeliner.
Channel 12, Trinity Bay’s one and only, was based out of a fish cannery that had gone fins-up twenty years ago; the phantom odor of fish still lingered in the dimly-lit warren of studios, offices, and dressing rooms.
Birdie pushed open the outer door and stepped onto the loading dock, into a night that was wet and heavy with the scent of the sea.
The voice was soft-spoken, but carrying.
She turned, one hand on the door handle and the other curled around the can of pepper spray that hung from her keychain.
The man in the mist was dressed all in black. Not the typical uniform of a Goth – silver jewelry, leather and angst – but a somber suit, a topcoat, and a film noir fedora.
The fact that he’d called her by her real name rather than her screen alias sent a sliding chill down her spine.
“Who wants to know and why?” she asked.
His eyes fixed on her. They were of a dark blue that somehow burned, like twin candles behind panes of indigo glass. His pale face was gaunt but handsome in a way that made her think of intense 18th-century poets, consumed from within by opium, syphilis, and unrequited love.
“I require your help,” he said. “I am Death.”
The canister of pepper spray felt ridiculously small in her hand. He sounded serious. Utterly psycho-killer serious.
“Death,” he said. “Sometimes called the Grim Reaper.”
“Right.” She glanced toward the building, wondering if anybody would hear her if she screamed.
Then again, Wilfred Ghostman had offered her starring roles in his low-budget horror movies solely on the glass-shattering power of her scream.
The man tilted his head, and a faint smile curved his mouth. Birdie half-expected to see fangs revealed in the parting of his lips.
“I’m not afraid of Death, honey,” he said. “He’s just a guy doing his job. It’s
His voice, but the words weren’t his. Birdie went colder than the damp night air could warrant.
“I was on time. She was ready. But they won’t let her go, will they? She’s been lingering in such pain.”
Freaked to the bone, Birdie bolted for her car. Which probably wouldn’t start; that was the way things like this worked –
The engine roared on the first try. Birdie sped through the parking lot and took the turn onto the street far too fast.
How he could have known … it was some sort of trick. Not a very funny one, either.
The town was beginning to wake, though the sky remained lost and dark. As she approached the intersection, a premonition prickled the nape of her neck.
The minivan, approaching. The pickup, not slowing.
Birdie saw it in her mind’s eye a moment before the actual event, and stood on her brakes. She winced at the screech and clangor of collision, the brittle tinkle of broken glass.
The two other vehicles took out a mailbox and a stop sign as they skidded to the curb. The minivan rolled, and rocked on its back with its wheels in the air. The last of the pickup’s momentum plowed it into a low brick wall.
Someone screamed in the pickup, conscious but trapped in the crumpled wreck.
A man crawled out through the minivan’s driver side window. He got up and dashed around to the passenger side.
“Carla!” He yanked at the door. It popped open, and he shrieked. He lifted out a woman and stretched her on her back, then stood over her with his arms flapping helplessly. All at once, he whirled and spewed vomit into the gutter.
Birdie got a good look at the woman and felt like doing the same.
Carla evidently hadn’t heeded the warning about how kids and small women should avoid seats with airbags. Slightly-built, petite, and the violent burst of the airbag’s inflation had nearly torn her head from her shoulders.
Horror crawled over Birdie like swarming spiders. The woman should have been dead, should have died instantly from an injury like that. The blood … there was so much of it …
Lights came on in nearby houses. The first wails of sirens could be heard. People in bathrobes and pajamas came out on their porches to see what had happened.
Birdie waited for poor Carla’s struggles to cease, for the last breath to bubble out of her torn windpipe, the eyes to glaze over. So much blood … she should have been dead.
“Do something, somebody, help her!” Carla’s husband was tottering from shock, clawing at Birdie.
Others came closer, saw the gruesome spectacle, and retreated with their hands over their mouths. Birdie stared at the dying woman. Do something? Do what?
Revolving red and blue lights hove into view. Birdie stumbled back to give the
professionals some room. She continued backing up until she was near the pickup.
The person inside had stopped crying out. She could see a slumped body impaled on the steering column, and smell the mingled stink of gas, oil, antifreeze and beer.
“I think he’s dead,” Birdie said to no one in particular.
The driver’s head came up. Scruffy, unshaven face and bloodshot brown eyes. “Help me,” he croaked.
Birdie recoiled. Her squeamishness surprised and embarrassed her. After all, she had been in a dozen Wilfred Ghostman movies. She’d been doused with gallons of fake blood, pitched into a vat of entrails, shared a coffin with fifty skittering rats, and been manhandled by more decaying corpses, slavering werewolves, and tentacled aliens than anyone else she knew.
This, though … this was reality.
Unreal reality. Carla should have been dead. So should the guy in the pickup, whose ribcage was caved in. But they were still alive. Still conscious.
The crowd was growing, despite the efforts of the police to hold them back. The ambulance crew moved Carla onto a backboard. The paramedics worked on the pickup’s door with the Jaws of Life.
And the man in the black hat and coat stood at the edge of the chaos, calmly observing. No one else seemed aware of his presence.
Against her better judgment, Birdie went to him.
“Now you see why I need your help,” he said.
She gestured at Carla, at the pickup. “These people are supposed to be dead, aren’t they?”
“I cannot take them without my scythe.”
“Look, pardon me, but this is crazy –”
He threw back his coat. As it slid from his shoulders, it expanded-rustled-shifted into a spreading pair of ebony-feathered wings. His lean, pale face was replaced by a skeletal visage with glowing gasflame eyes beneath a black cowl that had masqueraded as a fedora.
Birdie stood open-mouthed but speechless as the draft from his great wings fanned her hair back from her forehead.
Death said nothing either, letting a long moment draw out between them like a blade.
“Ohh-kay,” she breathed. “Color me convinced.”
“My scythe has been stolen from me, and the world suffers as a result. Until it is in my hands again, no one dies.”
“And that’s a bad thing?” Birdie asked. “No more dying, that’s good, right?”
“Look on that woman, that man. Think of it.”
No more death in the world, no more dying. Immortality for everyone.
That would be pretty cool … except what would happen to Carla and the pickup driver?
She thought of Grandma Bobbi. Trapped in her hospital bed with half her body
withered, one arm a useless claw, one side of her face a twisted mask. She’d been the one to say those words that Death had quoted to Birdie earlier.
“I see your point,” she said. “Some people want to go. They’re ready. Like my grandma. Dad and Aunt Sue couldn’t accept that. They had her put on those machines, had her body kept alive even though she, the part that made her Grandma Bobbi, was already gone.”
“But there’s plenty others who don’t want to die, and do anyway,” Birdie said. “If I help you get your scythe back – I’m assuming that’s what you want – I’d be partly responsible for killing them.”
“You mistake my purpose. I do not kill. Diseases, injuries, accidents, these things end lives. I am only the doorman between this world and the next. Yet without my scythe, I cannot perform this function. People have been hurt to the point that they should be dead. They linger, in agony and misery.”
She shuddered, her mind spinning. It was like this all over town. All over the state, the country, the world. Everywhere, people who should be dying were clinging to life despite hideous injuries.
Somewhere, right this minute, some condemned criminal might be strapped into the electric chair, the deadly charge burning through his body, searing, and not finishing the job. Somewhere, right this minute, a victim might be being stabbed again and again by a desperate murderer, enduring hideous but inescapable pain.
“Now you understand,” Death said. “A human hand must return it to me.”
“Why me, though? Out of everyone else in the world? I’m … I’m an actress, a B-movie actress, for crying out loud.”
“Because you, Roberta Yale, know where it is.”
She looked over her shoulder, mostly to avoid his indigo gaze.
The crowd watched the paramedics move the pickup driver. He was howling, beating at the hands that tried to help him. In the harsh glare of the emergency lights, his ruined chest was gruesomely exposed.
“I guess I do know,” Birdie said. “Okay.”
Death took her by the elbow. His raven’s wings beat at the air and pulled them aloft. Birdie flinched as her feet left the sidewalk.
They climbed higher, unnoticed by the people below. The streets of Trinity Bay spread out beneath them in a patchwork of shadow sewn by stitches of light.
The moisture in the air collected on Birdie’s skin and pasted her clothes to her body. She could see the lanes of Highway 101, and the parking lot around the shopping center.
“There,” she said, and pointed down.
Within seconds, he was gliding lower, those wide wings open, cowl rippling around the bony crown of his skull.
They skimmed a wrought-iron gate and touched down in the overgrown garden of an old house. The windows were boarded over, the paint peeling in long cancerous strips.
The rusted-out hulk of a car rested hip-deep in tall grass. The motorcycle in the
weedy driveway was in better repair. It was a sleek machine with flames roaring along its black paintjob, and red rubber devil’s heads dangling from the handlebar grips.
“And I used to live here,” Birdie muttered. “Was I dumb, or what?”
To her surprise, her key still worked in the lock. He hadn’t changed them.
The front door opened and the sick-spicy smell of clove cigarette smoke wafted out. It coated, but could not mask, the even less pleasant odors of dust, mold, stale pizza and dirty socks.
The only sounds were snoring from somewhere on the first floor, and a wavering meow from the top of the stairs. Birdie looked up. A single baleful yellow eye looked back. Moments later, a thickset black tomcat with a stub of a tail and one shredded ear came oiling down the staircase to twine around her legs.
“Hey, Baal,” she said, scratching it under the chin.
The cat tensed, the fur along its spine rising into a bristle. It bared its fangs and hissed at Death.
He had resumed his human form, and regarded the cat with cool blue impassivity. Baal hissed again, then ambled away with its short tail switching. Not fleeing, no, a cat would never do that. Baal had better things to do, that was all.
Birdie led the way. A sullen flicker of light came from deeper in the house. From the parlor, where the walls were hung with black velvet and the light came from the dancing glow of votive candles in glass jars.
“He’s really let the place go,” Birdie whispered.
The snoring had stopped. She caught her breath.
He rose from the long horsehair sofa, the red-tipped spikes of his hair coming into view first. He’d added some tattoos and piercings since she’d last seen him. His tattered black t-shirt billowed on his thin frame like a sail.
“Who’s your friend?”
“I think you know,” Birdie said. “You have something that belongs to him.”
Diablo laughed. He pointed to a corner, where a cedar chest had been draped with a black cloth and made to serve as a sort of combined altar and display shelf. On the cloth, carefully arranged, were several long white feathers, a gnarled claw or horn, a silver goblet shaped like a skull, and a pentagram of ivory.
Behind these, leaning against the wall, was a scythe. It had an ebonwood handle and a tarnished-looking crescent of blade like the moon seen through a pall of smoke.
“You mean, that?” Diablo asked.
“Yes. We’ve come to get it back.”
Death said nothing. He simply stood there, wrapped in his dark aura, and let Birdie do all the talking.
“You never believed me,” Diablo said. “I tried to tell you. But all you did was laugh at me.”
“I was wrong.”
“She was wrong! She admits it, a first, a historic event, and ladies and gentlemen, you are there!”
Birdie stepped further into the room. Death remained at the threshold, and she somehow understood that he could go no further. Some other power, maybe not greater but certainly strong, was at work here.
“Diablo, give it back. You don’t know what you’ve done.”
“Don’t I? They told me that if I wanted to live forever, all I had to do was steal it. Know how, Birdie? I had to be there when someone died. He would come –” Diablo jerked his chin in the direction of the silent Death, “—and then I could take it. Well, I couldn’t just walk into the hospital and wait for someone to kick off, could I? So, you remember Eddie? That fat little nobody, that Goth wanna-be?”
“You killed him?” Birdie asked, feeling a hollow place open up inside of her.
“He wanted to die. So it worked out for everybody! I drowned Eddie in Agate River. Then he came, and after he waved his scythe over Eddie, I grabbed it. I told you I could see them. Angels, demons, they’re all really the same. What’s your friend there but an angel anyway? The Angel of Death.”
“You have to give it back, Diablo. You can’t leave things like this. People are suffering.”
“But I can never die,” he said, grinning. It made him handsome again, the rakish bad-boy look that had attracted her in the first place. “I’ll live forever.”
“I’m taking the scythe,” she said. “It isn’t yours, and you can’t keep it.”
“Don’t, Birdie.” He raised his hand.
She didn’t know what kind of gun it was. She knew the important detail, though. It was pointed right at her.
“It isn’t yours,” she said, and took another step despite the fact that her legs were weak as water.
The bullet slammed into Birdie and pitched her backward into the wall. She felt like she’d been kicked by a horse, hit with a sledgehammer. The right side of her chest was a pounding furnace.
“I warned you.”
Slowly, every movement a trial and an agony, Birdie pushed herself upright. A puzzled expression crossed Diablo’s face. He fired again. Birdie’s body jerked. A cry tore from her throat.
“Die, you stupid cow,” he said, moving to stand over her.
Through the blinding waves of pain, Birdie managed a laugh. “I can’t, you idiot. You can’t kill me, because I can’t die Nobody can die. Thanks to you.”
As comprehension dawned on him, she lashed out with both feet. Her heels struck his knees and knocked him down. The gun went flying, smashing glass and spilling candles.
Laboriously, panting for breath – one of her lungs felt like it was filling with sludge – Birdie got up.
She mistook the growing light for a hallucination until she smelled fresh smoke, and saw the flames licking at the velvet draperies. She staggered to the makeshift altar and bumped into it. Things rolled and fell and spilled.
The scythe started to slide. Its blade made an eerie whispering sound as it fell.
Birdie seized it. The wood of the handle was icy, and a jolt like electricity went through her.
“No!” Diablo tackled her.
They fell onto the altar. White angel-feathers took to the air, eddied on the rising heat of the fire. Some whirled into the flames and ignited in brilliant firebursts.
Birdie fought free of Diablo. She cracked him across the face with the haft of the scythe and he staggered back. Without a moment’s consideration of fair play, she jabbed the end of the handle hard into his crotch. Diablo squealed and curled up like a brine shrimp.
The room was alive with scurrying, climbing flames. Birdie coughed on smoke. She made her way to the door where Death waited and thrust the scythe at him.
He raised his hands and would not take it. Instead, he led her out of the blazing room, down the hall, out into the yard. The dawn air was cool, wonderful. She gasped it deep into one working lung.
“Here. Here it is. Take it,” she croaked.
“If I take it, you will die.”
She looked at him in sudden dumbstruck understanding. The bullet holes throbbed with greater intensity. “Oh. That … that sucks.”
“I can spare you, and will since you have done this service for me. But if I do, the death energy that surrounds you must be transferred to another.”
“You mean that if I want to live, someone else has to die.”
Almost against her will, she looked at the house. Fire was racing through the old
wood. She saw a burning form lunge through a window and onto the lawn, thrashing in the long, damp grass.
Diablo. And for a moment, she was tempted, very tempted.
The decision came to her on an impulse that she knew, like a clear column of light, to be right.
She held out the scythe again and told him the name.
Death’s pale hands closed around the handle. He nodded.
Birdie shut her eyes. She felt him move closer, felt his cool lips on her brow.
The pain drew suddenly out of her, the wounds closing as if they’d never been. The darkness that had been encroaching on her retreated, and when she opened her eyes, she felt better and more alive than she ever had before.
He was gone. Or still there, and she could no longer see him.
“Thank you,” Birdie said.
A gust of wind blew her hair back. Wind … or the downdraft from powerful wings.
The sun was well up in the sky by the time she got home. She let herself in, and saw that the message light on the answering machine was blinking.
She knew, even before she heard her father’s tear-choked voice, what the message would be.