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.

 

 

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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.

Death’s Apprentice – Part Four

Crow’s Funeral Home sat at the end of high street, sandwiched in between Everheart Florists and the King’s Head pub which has been derelict for over twenty years. Crow’s (established 1854, or so the peeling gold lettering over the door told me) was a shabby red-bricked, double-fronted Victorian building.

I pushed open the black door and entered but Lola wouldn’t cross over the threshold. She began to grumble.

I closed my eyes and sighed.

‘Come on girl, don’t do this now.’

I turned to face her. Her teeth were bared and her hackles were raised.

‘What’s up, Lola? Come on now,’ I said, pulling her by the lead, ‘don’t be stupid!’ But the stupid dog wouldn’t listen and dug her white claws into the pavement.

‘Lola, come!’

The dog sat down in silent protest.

‘Can I help you?’

‘It’s this stupid dog,’ I said, ‘she won’t…‘ But I lost my train of thought as I looked up and into the eyes of the most beautiful woman I’d ever met. Her eyes were emerald green, and her hair was the colour of wild red roses. My heart began to skip a beat.

‘We’re closing in a minute but if you need some help?’ she asked, slipping on a pair of black shades.

Lola growled.

‘Be quiet!’ I snapped as I tried to regain my train of thought. Why was I here? Oh yes. ‘I’ve come about the job in the window.’

‘Oh right, come in, come in,’ she said, standing to one side of the doorway, so that I could enter.

‘Come on Lola,’ I said, pulling on the dogs lead. She would not budge.

‘Let me,’ said the receptionist. She took the lead from my hand, gave it a sharp tug and then let out a hiss that sounded a bit like that of an angry swan. The dog stood up and lowered her head in submission and the receptionist pulled her inside. I followed, impressed by how easy she’d tamed my unruly dog.

The Funeral home wasn’t what I expected. The right-hand side was taken up with a selection of headstones of various shapes and sizes and stone, and a small variety of coffins of different styles and materials including oak, wicker and (for the more environmentally minded) cardboard. Beside the coffins, there was a black covered sample book containing fabrics from silk to velvet and linen for the lining of your choice. The receptionist’s oak desk sat to the left of the room, covered in papers, an old fashioned rotary-dial phone and a large porcelain vase of Stargazer lilies which filled the air with their pungent aroma. There was also another smell in the air, something disguised by the lilies but equally as pungent but I couldn’t quite place what it was.

‘Please sit down,’ said the receptionist pointing to a set of four oak tables arranged around a small table, and I’ll tell Mr Crow you’re here. What’s your name, please?’

‘Joe Bones and thank you.’

The receptionist disappeared through a door at the back and returned a few minutes later.

‘Mr Crow will see you in a minute,’ she said, as she took her seat behind the desk.

Lola was quiet now. She curled up by my feet on the deep red carpet.

The clock on the wall read 5.00pm. I looked at the magazines on the coffee table; The Funeral Times, and Funeral’s Today. I didn’t pick them up; they looked like they’d been there since the place has opened.