This is a bit of a preview for another novella I’m working doggedly on. TLDR: A cold-case detective teams up with Death to catch a serial killer. Death is pretty cute, but that doesn’t mean the detective wants to meet her sooner than he’s supposed to.
“I was down to St. James’ infirmary…”
Jazz lilts through the old pub trying to seduce another lonely soul. Cigarette smoke hangs in the low light like broken spider webs. I aimlessly ponder the chipped Non-smoking sign at my seat.
“Saw my baby lyin’ there.”
I grimace. The pub is somber enough without a beat like this. It’s known only to the few locals who are old enough to be the owner’s friends. She sends a sly wink my way and smiles through tobacco-blackened teeth. At least she mixes a stiff whiskey sour. Its tang and sugar tingle in the back of my throat. There’s real citrus in this shot, none of the mix nonsense that so many bartenders compromise with.
“She was stretched out on a long white table,” the singer croons. It was probably new in her day. Like everything else here, she’s a warzone of age versus class. Her slinky black dress is too short for someone with arthritic knees and she boasts a bold, silvered pompadour. Between the dress and her lack of makeup aside from some wine-red lipstick, it’s hard to tell if she fears age or lavishes in it.
“So cold so sweet, so cool so fair.”
I drain the sour and let the large ice cube burn my lip. The bartender frowns when I put my empty glass in front of her.
“Bit early for the third one, honey.”
“I’ve got no plans,” I mutter.
Her sympathetic glance at my coat, spread expectantly across the next chair, says everything I didn’t want to hear. As she pulls another glass from beneath the bar, I turn back to my back on the empty seat. Two drinks in and it’s a little harder not to feel sorry for myself.
“Let her go, let her go God bless her.” The singer’s voice cracks a bit, but the pianist covers with a brilliant break. Thinking wistfully about loyalty, I check my phone.
No new messages.
Onstage, the singer recovers. “Wherever she may be.”
Well, it was a blind date anyway.
“She may search this whole wide, wide world over.” Another audible break. The lady probably needs a drink that isn’t alcoholic. Instead, she takes a cigarette the bassist was smoking. I don’t need that third sour after all. Grimacing, I slide the full tab and tip over the bar.
“Oh honey,” the bartender said, her voice a hoarse but earnest croak, “there’re other fish in the sea.”
“But she’ll never find a man like me.” A cough, more rolling chords to cover. That pianist is an unsung hero.
I smile affably and shrug. “Whoever sits here next can have my drink,” I say. “Or you could treat yourself.”
As the bartender blows me a kiss, there’s a crash and the music stutters to a halt.
“Oh my god!” someone whispers. When I turn, the singer is crumpled on the stage. People are already crowding around her, shouting or gasping worries, questions, orders. The bartender is on her phone, babbling to emergency services. “—Made in Maven, 2nd floor of the green building at Second Street—Jack, is she breathing?”
I hover uselessly between the bar and the stage. There’s not much I can do without getting in the way. On the stage, one of the younger gray-headed men is giving chest compressions as another man counts aloud. “—thirty, thirty-one, thirty-two, thirty-three…”
Leaving right now feels indecent, but I don’t want to rubberneck. I throw back the third lemon sour. It goes down wrong. Hacking as citrus and whiskey scald my throat, I almost miss the music beside me.
“When I die, bury me in straight-laced shoes,
A box-backed suit and a Stetson hat.
Put a 20-dollar gold piece on my watch chain;
So the boys’ll know I died standin’ pat.”
The voice is much younger than before, mellower but still rich. It hangs in the air like honey, an agile, amber tone.
It’s coming from the empty seat.
“Sorry to keep you waiting.” She takes my whiskey sour and lifts it to her lips. I can’t stop staring at her fingers, pale and thin against the old, clouded glass. Her nails are pearl-white and studded with rhinestones. They glimmer in the lowlight like ghostly chandeliers.
I cough, eyes still stinging. “You’re—”
“Late, I know,” she interrupts. “And I’m so sorry, Milo. But you’ll have to wait just a minute longer.” I’m frozen by her familiarity, by those glittering fingers on my arm. “I’ll be right back,” she says firmly, and gets up. I turn to watch, realizing she’s approaching the stage only after everyone else has cleared it. There are tears, muffled swearing, and the dumbstruck silence of disbelief hanging over the previously panicked group of attendees. Red lights begin to dance through the windows, but I suspect help is too late.
The bartender is sitting on the step leading to the dingey stage, her wrinkled hand gripped tightly around the singer’s limp one. Her head is bent. She doesn’t look up when the chandelier-fingered woman approaches. In fact, no one else seems to be bothered by the fact that a young stranger is approaching their dead friend.
With fingers that suddenly seem quite predatory but a smile that is pure and sweet, the woman reaches into the singer’s chest and pulls her soul from her body.
It turns out I had a date with Death—but only because somebody else was about to die.
“Oh my god oh my god oh my god oh my god…”
I’m pacing around so quickly my head is starting to spin. My apartment is small; the full perimeter isn’t enough space to catch my bearings before I’m around it again. Three drinks on an empty stomach aren’t helping. I should stop before I’m violently sick, but to be still would be to confront how small the space is between myself and the thing sitting on my couch.
My work brings me pretty close to the homicide department sometimes. I’ve seen shit. I’ve seen death. They usually go together, because the human body is disgusting. But during my twenty-one years spent in the force, I’ve never seen anything like what my would-be date is cupping between her hands. In a moment of panicked instinct, I know—I can feel—how utterly wrong it is. I shouldn’t be seeing this. No one should see another person like this, so utterly reduced to humanity at its basest and most vulnerable, to a form even the most celebrated scientists can’t begin to measure: a disembodied human soul.
“Oh my god…”
A dramatic sigh distracts me from the faintly glowing blob in the woman’s hands. “Could you mutter something else, please?” she requests. “That’s my boss, you know. I was trying to get away from work.”
“Aren’t we all?” The sarcasm is habit. I need the humor in my own job to keep the morbidity of it all from eating my heart out. The next joke, permission to swear by the devil, falls short when her words hit me. “So you’re telling me there is a god?”
A thin smile tugs at the corner of her lips. They’re glossed, a tone that reminds me of cherry blossoms or the palest pink rose.
“Sorry, trade secrets.” A delicate shrug. “Just humor me.”
“Come on, give me something. Is God male? Female? Neither? All of the above?”
“God is.” She leans forward. The light slips down her v-line top to the soft shadowed valley below her collar bone. “And so am I.”
I forget my curiosity about higher powers. “And you are…?”
Her laughter is music. “People call me so many things. But let’s see—you can call me Persephone.”
“Bringer of death,” I recall, swallowing against the tightness in my chest.
“It’s also the name of a flower.” She pouts, falling back in the love seat. Lifting her hands filled with that strange condensed light that was once a woman named Annette, she whispers something I can’t quite hear. The light vanishes with a sigh. My apartment feels emptier.
Persephone looks up. Her lashes are wet and impossibly long, the same misty blond as her hair. Suddenly, she kicks off her white heels and pulls her knees up to her chin. The movement is paralyzing, both in its vulnerability and in the flash of lace it sneaks from beneath her skirt. It’s almost enough to distract me from the fact that she’s freaking Death.
“She was lonely,” she murmurs. “So many of them are lonely. I wish I could come earlier, keep them company a bit longer. But I don’t have a choice. I must always be punctual.”
Every question I was wanting to ask feels either useless or callous now. I slip quietly into the seat beside her. She leans into me immediately, her head on my shoulder more familiar than suggestive. This close, I can smell strawberry and vanilla in her hair.
“Why me?” I finally find the question that fits.
Persephone shifts to the other side of the loveseat. “I’d heard good things about your work.” Her legs pale and unnervingly weightless beneath her billowy sundress. They rest on top of my thighs. “Two of my recent—hm, clients, owe their next lives to you.”
“Next lives,” I echo. It’s a struggle to stay composed as I reach down to touch her bare shin. I half expect my fingers to slip through thin air, but Persephone’s skin is warm and soft. “I work on old, cold cases. I’ve never saved anyone’s life; they’ve all been dead for so long.” So long. The people who stole their lives too, long since gone. At that point, it’s more like scratching an itch than solving a crime: we do it to satisfy the gnawing in our minds.
“There is something after this,” Persephone insists gently. “You saw Annette’s moment. Do you really think the empty bodies and bones you pore over are the extent of the victims’ lives?”
Her moment. Persephone doesn’t seem to like calling death what it is. But what I saw happen at the pub had indeed been different from the many crime scenes and hospice halls I’ve walked through in my life. I remember the singer, lying crumpled on the floor. Persephone had reached in, her ornate fingers slipping Annette’s body like it was nothing. She’d whispered something, given a soft tug, and…pulled a woman out by the hand. Annette, but younger, rounder, and still wearing that slinky black dress.
Pale and vaguely transparent, she had laughed in voiceless wonder. Not a sound came from her as she stepped around the huddled circle of her shocked and grieving friends. A hug here, a ghostly kiss there. None seemed to see her, but the mood shifted notably. Heads raised, a few teary smiles made their way through as they toasted to Annette’s life.
“There’s more,” I guess.
“There’s more.” Persephone smiles, teeth even whiter than her skin. “Sending them on their way is more or less what my job entails. But fixing them up, mending the damage done by this life…that’s where your talent becomes life-saving work, Mile: among the dead.”
“My name is Milo,” I correct her for the third time. I want to add that it’s too early for a nickname, but Persephone doesn’t feel like a new acquaintance at all.
“Feels like you’ve known me your whole life, doesn’t it?” She sits up, pulling her feet away. “Technically, you’ve known me since your death. I get to know everyone backwards, you know. This was my first time meeting Annette, but I daresay that I shall see her again, depending on where and when my work takes me.” She pauses graciously, allowing my mind to melt at the new quantum factors in my life.
“When I first met you,” she continues fondly, “you asked me to call you Miles. But I like Mile better because your last name is Walker. Mile Walker. You were such an explorer when we first met!”
“Okay,” I cut her off. “Getting a bit personal here, in a morbid way.”
“You are such shy creatures.” She giggles. “The moment isn’t at all what you fear it will be. In fact, building up a lifetime’s worth of mental dread is the only thing that makes it unpleasant.”
I stand. “Death doesn’t bother me. I’ve seen my fair share of it in all sorts of ways. I just…I want to get to know you on my own time. No more spoilers, okay?”
Eying me slyly, she nods.
“Right.” Things are at a point where I’ve just settled into a mindset of blithe acceptance. “So, you have a case for me?”
Her expression becomes solemn. “Someone is killing a lot of people just to watch me work. You could say I have a stalker.”
A familiar shadow of ennui creeps into my heart. “In layman’s terms,” I said quietly, “we call that a serial killer.”