Death’s Apprentice – Part 51

‘I have the Book of the Dead to help me,’ said Joe.

‘That’s not going to help you, Joe, that’s written for dead people.

‘Well, it’s got me this far.’

‘Except, that’s not very far at all,’ said Hel.

Silence fell upon the room. He didn’t know why but suddenly Joe was feeling really grumpy. He grabbed at the Book of the Dead from where he’d dropped it on the floor. He opened the front cover and looked down the contents page. He found the section he was looking for, called The Valley of the Dead. ‘Page two-hundred and eleven,’ he said to himself as he flicked to the section.

The Valley of the Dead

 The Valley of the Dead is full of dead people. Listen to the fucking witch or you’ll be joining them.

Helpful, though Joe, very fucking helpful. Why had Mrs Crow given him the sodding thing if it was this bloody useless? It even fucking sounded like her, for Christ sakes!

He slammed the book shut.

Hel spoke first. ‘What did it say?’

Joe noticed his legs were bouncing up and down and his left hand was balled into a tight little fist.

‘Nothing.’

‘It’s got to have -‘

‘It said nothing,’ he said through clenched teeth.

‘Never mind,’ said the witch, ‘I can help you if you want?’

Joe looked up at her. Agnes was looking all sweetness and light but he knew, yes he damn well knew she’d want something in return. Probably my balls on a golden platter, he thought to himself.

‘And why would you do that?’

‘Because I know I can get you through the Valley of the Dead. I travel through the valley all the time to pick up supplies -‘

‘And what would you require in return?’

Agnes smiled a wide smile that showed all of her pearly white teeth in a perfect line. It was a smile that could probably move mountains or thaw glaciers, and, maybe, just maybe, the grumpiness in Joe’s heart.

‘I have a small problem,’ said Agnes with a flutter of eyelashes.

‘What?’ Joe really doubted it would be a small problem. They never usually were. He’d learnt that off his Shitdad.

‘Son,’ his Shitdad would say, ‘I have a little problem, but don’t tell ya Ma.’ As soon as his Shitdad called him “son” he knew it was all over. He was only ever his son when he was in trouble and he needed help to get out of whatever it was, or to cover up whatever it was. Like the time his Shitdad had lost all of his mom’s bingo winnings at the bookies.

‘I have lost my heart.’

‘Lost your heart? Like, it’s been broken or something? You want me to beat someone up? Because if you do,’ said Joe putting his palms up in the air, ‘I’m not your man. I’m no good in fights, never have been.’

‘No, I’ve lost my heart,’ she said, pulling down her top ever so slightly to reveal the top of a very nasty red scar that had been crudely sewn together with thick black thread.

Joe recoiled in horror. ‘What the…? How are you…?’ Joe stood up quickly. ‘How did….?’ But he couldn’t finish his sentence because blackness took hold of his vision and he crashed to the floor.

Death’s Apprentice – Part 49

Joe looked into Agnes’ deep green eyes. They reminded him of the colour of the wildfire on the Game of Thrones TV series. Her red hair was like fire and as wild as the night. She looked like a witch, except, she was covered in tattoos like one of his mom’s mates who worked at the local tattoo parlour.

Her name was Shandi, ‘with an “I” not a “y”‘ and she was a self-confessed strident feminist. She was always telling his mom to leave his shitdad. That was the only thing that Joe like about her, because, in that she was right; his mom would be better off without his shitdad.

Joe prayed for the day that his mom left him, except, unlike Shandi, he knew deep down that his mom wouldn’t change and that she’d still be a useless mother with or without his shitdad. He loved his mom, but she really wasn’t cut-out to be a mother.

Besides, he’d seen Shandi and his shitdad snogging, and that had made Joe realise that Shandi wasn’t really looking out for his mother. Her concern was more like self-interest. Whilst he hated his shitdad, he didn’t want his mom to be hurt, not like that. His shitdad on the other hand…

‘I’m Joe,’ he said. He grabbed her hand and shook it. Her hand was warm, her hold firm. He didn’t know why but he knew he already liked her.

‘I know,’ she said, ‘I saw you coming, Joe.’

‘Oh.’

‘In my crystal ball. It said a handsome stranger would come.’

Joe’s face glowed red.

‘So, I prepared you some stew.’

His face turned a deeper shade of crimson. ‘Thanks.’

‘That’s okay,’ she said, punching him playfully on the arm. ‘Want some tea?’

‘Yes, yes please.’

She bounced off the bed. ‘Come on then!’ She gestured for him to follow.

He sat up. There were now three chairs arranged around Hades who was still curled up in front of the fire. Hel sat down on one of the chairs and Agnes sat next to her. Joe yawned as he climbed off the bed and went over to the third chair.

‘So, Joe, what brings you to my neck of the woods?’ she asked as he sat down. ‘Hel tells me you’ve got yourself into a spot of bother?’

A spot of bother? Well, that was one way of putting it.

‘You could say that,’ he said, taking the chipped mug of tea that appeared out of thin air in front of him. ‘Thanks for the tea.’

‘You’re welcome.’

‘And thanks for the stew,’ he added quickly.

‘You’re welcome. So, why are you here?’

Death’s Apprentice – Part Thirty-Five

Cerberus cowered, his hackles raised on his thick neck, his snake-tail tucked firmly in between his muscular back legs.

‘What’s a matter, boy?’ asked Joe, taking in the dog’s troubled appearance.

Joe reached out and ran his hand through Cerberus’ warm rough fur. The dog was shaking.

‘Cerberus? There you are, you naughty boy. Where have you been?’ It was a girl’s voice which made the dog shake uncontrollably.

Joe turned his head to where the sweet, little voice had come from. A small girl, probably no more than ten-years-old, stood before him dressed in a white shift dress. Her hair was the colour of the darkest night, her skin as pale as the moon. She took a tiny step forward. It was then Joe noticed the pack of hounds sitting behind her, dogs of varying shapes and sizes.

‘Who are you?’ he asked. Things were going from strange to stranger. Joe had already questioned his sanity many times since he’d entered Crow’s Funeral Home and now he was doing it again. What was a ten-year-old girl doing down here with a pack of dogs? And why was a three-headed dog so scared of her?

He gave himself a pinch. He knew, deep down, it wouldn’t work but he tried it anyway in the vain hope that he was just dreaming. Maybe his shitdad has drugged him? He certainly wouldn’t put it past him.

‘Ow!’ he screeched pinching himself again. No, he wasn’t dreaming it. This was actually happening.

The girl’s eyes narrowed and she shook her head in disbelief.

‘Why are you hurting yourself?’ asked the girl.

‘Because…’ he looked at the girl and then his arm, ‘oh, it doesn’t matter.’ He certainly wasn’t going to explain himself to a little girl.

 

 

Death’s Apprentice – Part Thirty-Four

From where Joe was lying, he could see Cerberus’ snake tail wagging wildly.

Suddenly, all fear dissolved in Joe. All that time he’d been worried about Cerberus, and after what Charon had said about him ripping him apart. He looked at Cerberus’ three heads; the lopsided mouths,the long, smelly tongues, the way he was wagging his tail. He very much doubted this dog had it in him to rip anything apart. You only had to see the look on its cute, daft face.

Cerberus was a dog like Lola, just a very big version of a dog, well, a very big version of a dog that had three heads. But what did two extra heads matter? Dogs were dogs, no matter how many heads they had. And, even with three heads, Joe knew he preferred Cerberus to almost all humans.

As Joe was the local dog whisper, he knew he’d got this covered.

‘There’s a good…’ He had a sneaky look under the dog, ‘there’s a good boy!’ Joe ran his hand under the jaw of the middle head. It was soft and wet under his fingers.

The dog began to purr, almost like a cat. ‘Oh, good boy! Do you want to play?’ He stretched his arm out and grabbed a stick. He threw it for the dog.

Cerberus bounded after it.

The stick hadn’t gone far, so Joe quickly stood up and waited for the dog to come back. Which it did a second later, holding the stick in its huge, drooling, middle mouth. The first and last head also had a small bite on the stick.

‘Drop,’ said Joe.

Cerberus’ heads loosed the stick and it landed on the floor in front of him.

‘Oh, you’re such a good boy,’ said Joe, stroking the side of Cerberus’ middle head. ‘Do you want me to throw it again?’

Joe bent down to pick it back up. He was still bent over, hand clamped on the stick when the dog yelped.

Death’s Apprentice – Part Thirty-Three

Joe could hear the sound of heavy breathing in the dark. He opened his hand and felt grass beneath him like a thick carpet. For a second he felt disorientated and confused. Where was he? Because he certainly wasn’t lying in his bed, all warm and snuggly.

He heard a soft snort.

‘Lola,’ he called, slowly opening his eyes. He took a sharp intake of breath as he caught sight of the biggest dog he had ever seen. It had three heads and one of its noses was now sniffing at his crotch.

A short cry escaped from Joe’s lips.

Everything came flooding back to him; the new job, Death, Charon and…

And Cerberus…

Cerberus, the Guardian of the Underworld.

‘Nice doggy,’ said Joe, ‘there’s a good boy.’ He carefully lifted himself up on his elbows. The dog continued to sniff his groin.

How had he ended up here, lying on the floor?

Shit. No. No, he hadn’t…had he?

Yep. He’d only gone and fainted!

Fainted?!!!

Red hot shame swept over his face. If his shitdad had been here, he’d have never lived it down.

He hadn’t wet himself, had he? His crotch felt warm and wet and…

Joe looked down. Thank God for that, he hadn’t wet himself but…eugh…a great big glob of dog drool landed on his trousers.

He fell back onto the grass.

Today was not a good day.

He was going to be eaten by a three-headed dog. No one would know he’d died, here, alone.

Alone.

He really was feeling sorry for himself. He suddenly had a craving for pizza. A huge pepperoni pizza with tons of barbeque sauce. And a large bottle of sprite. That would probably be his last meal if he ever got put on Death Row.

He looked at Cerberus. What did he mean, if; he was already on Death Row wasn’t he? And no one knew.

Not that his mother or shitdad would care.

Joe lay rigid as Cerberus began to walk forward so that Joe’s whole body was covered by dog.

Please don’t sit down! Please don’t sit down.

Cerberus lifted its three heads and opened his middle mouth wide. Its teeth were huge, almost the size of a man’s hand. It’s breath smelled like putrid meat and ammonia. Another big glob of dog drool landed on Joe’s face.

He retched as it splatted on to the side of his face. Pepperoni pizza no longer appealed to him.

The dog’s heads swooped down.

Please don’t eat me! Please don’t eat me!

Cerberus’ tongue flopped out and he gave Joe a big fat lick on his face.

Eugh. Where had his tongue been? It felt rough on his skin, like sandpaper and it was sanding the skin off his face.

Death’s Apprentice – Part Twenty-Five

‘You’ll be fine,’ said Mrs Crow.

‘Fine? Fine? I haven’t even been out of Bloxwich,’ said Joe. His heart was beating hard in his chest. Sweat was pooling in the small of his back. Please, please, he thought, let me wake up. Let me wake up!

‘Are you sure about this?’ asked Morana. ‘He doesn’t look too well -‘

‘He’s all we’ve got,’ said Mr Crow, with a shrug. Mrs Crow gave her husband a sharp kick under the table.

‘I’ll go with him,’ said Lucifer.

‘And me,’ said Marcus, ‘I am the War Horseman. And I do know my way around the Under-‘

Mrs Crwo shot out of her seat waving her arms around maniacally. ‘No, no, no!’

‘But -‘

‘DON’T. BE. STUPID! She knows who you are you moron.’

‘Well,’ said Marcus, his face like thunder, ‘I’ve never -‘

‘Okay, okay,’ said Morana, her hands spread in supplication, ‘let’s all take it down a notch. Let’s all calm down -‘

‘When, in the whole history of calming down, has anyone ever calmed down by being told to calm down?’ asked Mrs Crow. At that moment, Joe couldn’t decide if he hated her or admired her because she did have a point.

Morana sighed heavily. She closed her eyes and rubbed the bridge of her nose.

‘She has a point you know,’ said Febris, moving her mask aside to speak.

‘Okayyy. Who’s in favour of sending Joe down into the underworld?’

‘Just fucking do it and let let me get on with getting my scythe back,’ snapped Mrs Crow.

Everyone except Joe raised their hands.

‘That’s eleven for. Okay, motion -‘

‘Do I not get a say?’ Joe could feel his insides shaking. This was so typical of any adult that he’d ever met. They never fucking asked. Always telling. Always moaning at him. Always yelling.

‘What?’ asked Mrs Crow. ‘You want to go back to your miserable existence? Go on then, Joe.’ She pointed at the door. ‘There’s the door. Use it.’

‘Corvina!’ Morana slapped her hands on the desk. ‘Stop!’

‘Go on Joe, run back to the stepdad that hates your guts. And your mother who wishes you’d never been born.’

‘CORVINA!’ Morana jumped up. Her chair fell backwards and hit the floor with a thud.

‘So? What are you waiting for Joe? Go on. Leave. Leave like you always do.’

The anger was boiling inside him. He could feel it burning in his chest.

‘I’ll do it,’ he said.

Death’s Apprentice – Part Eleven

‘Do you always ask this many questions?’

Joe shrugged. ‘Do you always ask people to dig up graves?’

Azrail blew through his yellowing teeth in a show of exasperation. ‘I don’t want you to dig up the coffin if that’s what you’re worried about.’

Joe threw back his shoulders and puffed out his chest. ‘I’m not worried,’ he said, although the pounding of his heart told him the exact opposite was true.

The old man smiled but it wasn’t a happy smile. ‘Good. Get on with it.’

Joe sighed. ‘Ok, but can I have the light?’

‘The light?’

‘Yes. How else am I going to find it?’

Azrail took a deep breath and passed Joe the light.

‘Thank you,’ said Joe, ‘and what will you be doing whilst I’m the one working?’

‘Working myself,’ replied the old man. He spun on his heels. ‘Now get on with it,’ he hissed as he disappeared into the gaping doorway of the tomb.

Joe was left alone, with only the silence and his own heart pounding against his ribcage for company. The wind began to blow and a crisp packet was tossed into the air.

He took a deep breath and held up the candle lamp and moved it from side to side to locate the grave of Sissy Simmons. A thin slither of sickly yellow light ran across the ground before him, picking out the raised mounds of the freshly dug graves. Inside, Joe’s stomach was doing cartwheels but he stepped onto the wet grass anyway, well aware of his need for this job.

He kept sweeping the light across the grass and the graves trying to locate the one he needed. There was Edmund Simmons, Joe Simmons and Barty Simmons but no Sissy. Onward he plunged into the cemetery, the legs of his jeans becoming wet as the tall grass brushed aganst him. The water was beginning to soak through the hole in his left trainer and now his sock was becoming like a sponge. The next row belonged to Christina Simmons, Jesse and then in the middle was an unmarked grave, except for a small, crudely nailed together cross measuring no taller than the length of his foot. He held the lamp higher to highlight the grave behind it, and there it was; Sissy Simmons.

Joe couldn’t tell if he felt relief or sick at the thought at finding the right grave. In for a penny, in for a pound, he thought, remembering one of his nanna’s old sayings.

He dropped the lamp on the ground beside the anonymous grave, quickly double-checking that this grave was the one in front of Sissy Simmons. Satisfied he was in the right place, he took the long spade firmly in his hand and thrust it into the wet earth.

It cut through the soil easily. Pictures of decaying bodies and opened-mouthed skeletons played in his mind. What if he, you know, actually saw a dead body?

He’d seen his nanna, of course, but that was different. She was of his own flesh and blood. He didn’t like it, it’d had made him really…well,…sad. He loved her. In fact, if he was really honest about it (and if he was honest, he didn’t really like to think about it), she was probably the only person he could say that he’d ever loved. But, he couldn’t deny, there was something comforting about seeing her one last time to say goodbye. But someone else’s dead body, under there, under the damp earth, with worms and things burrowing into their flesh? Eugh, how on earth would he get over that?

The spade went thump, thump, thump as it cut through the earth. He tossed it into a loose pile on the side of the grave.