Death’s Apprentice – Part Twenty-Six

Like everything else that had happened in the last twenty-four hours or so, Joe wasn’t quite sure if what was happening at that moment was real or not. He considered all the things he’d been through; meeting Mr and Mrs Crow, the trial for the job which included burying a dead body at midnight with a man, called Azrail, who looked like a skeleton, finding out Mrs Crow was Death (well for England anyway) and that her sister had stolen her scythe so she couldn’t collect the souls of the dead anymore. Oh, and he’d met a man called Lucifer.

No. At some point, hopefully not too far in the future, the prank would stop, the prankster would be revealed and everything could go back to normal.

Whatever normal was.

Because, right at this second, he was feeling like it all needed to stop. It wasn’t funny. It wasn’t funny in the beginning and now, now it was even less funny.

His heart was pounding against his ribcage. His legs were jelly and he was sweating. Yep, this was as far from funny as you could get.

Joe was scared. Really scared. More than he’d ever been scared in his life. Even when he’d taken a beating from his stepdad.

What could be even scarier than taking a beating from your stepdad?

Standing at the door to the underworld knowing you’re about to go through it.

‘Are you sure this is the only way?’ asked Joe, turning to face Mrs Crow.

‘Yes. You’ll be fine. Just remember not to upset Cerberus because you don’t want your face ripped off do you?’

‘No. But -‘

‘Don’t worry about it Joe,’ said Mrs Crow, with a patronising pat to his shoulder, ‘you’re good with dogs. It will be fine. Cerberus will be fine -‘

‘And if he isn’t?’

‘Well, you’ll have your face ripped off then, won’t you? Take this,’ she said, holding out an A5 book to Joe.

‘What’s that?’

‘It’s the Book of the Dead. Hopefully, it will help you to navigate the underworld -‘

‘Hopefully?’

‘Well, no one’s ever used it so I don’t know how useful it will be. But at least it’s a start, isn’t it? It’s something.’

‘Yeah great.’

‘So you know what you’ve got to do?’

Joe nodded. ‘Yep. Find your sister and get the scythe back.’

‘There’s a good boy. Go on then, off you go. Any last words? Anything you want me to tell your mother if the worst happens?’

Joe sighed. ‘No.’

‘Go on then, no time like the present.’

Joe grasped the cold brass knob on the door. The door to the underworld. The cheap pine door that stood between him and the underworld. The unremarkable door that hung in the funeral home of Mr and Mrs Crow, Hight Street, Bloxwich.

He turned the knob and began to push the door open.

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Death’s Apprentice – Part Twenty-Three

Joe took his seat in between Mr and Mrs Crow.

‘I will explain when -‘

‘Sorry I’m late everyone!’ Joe turned to see a tall blonde woman enter the room wearing a long black cloak, followed closely behind by a rather small man with a long crooked nose that was too big for his body.

Bitch,’ said Mrs Crow, under her breath. Joe could see Mrs Crow’s hand tightening on the arms of her chair, so much that her knuckles were turning white.

‘What was that?’ asked the blonde woman.

‘Sorry Morana, I was just coughing. It’s one of the pitfalls of being so old. My throat gets very dry.’

‘That’s okay, Corvina. I can’t stay long. Meetings all day. What’s the latest on your problem?’

Morana took her seat at the head of the table. The small man sat at her right. He took out a notepad, ink pot and quill from his tatty leather satchel and placed them on the table.

‘It’s not just Corvina’s problem,’ said the man who had been introduced as Marcus.

‘I agree,’ said Febris. She stuck her finger in the air as if she was going to say something else but then began a coughing fit. Everyone ignored her.

‘There have been no death’s in England for sixty-seven -‘

‘Nearly sixty-eight,’ interrupted the blonde woman, looking at the giant watch on her wrist. It looked to Joe like it belonged in a museum.

‘Nearly sixty-eight days,’ finished Mrs Crow.

Joe noticed the small man to the right of the blonde woman was scribbling notes furiously on his pad as everyone spoke.

‘And what do you intend to do about it?’

‘Well, I asked my sister to attend this meeting but, as you can see,’ said Mrs Crow, pointing to the only vacant seat around the table, ‘she hasn’t taken me up on the offer.’

Morana placed her pale hand up to her face and gave a short, fake cough. ‘Forgive me, Corvina, I don’t seem to quite understand. You asked the woman, your sister, the person who has stolen your scythe to come to this meeting, in the hopes of achieving what exactly?’

‘Well,’ said Mrs Crow, leaning forward in her chair, her hands still tightly clenched around the arms of her chair, ‘it wasn’t to offer her tea and biscuits. I was going to fucking stab the bitch.’

Everything went quiet.  The little man beside Morana dropped his quill on the table, sending ink splattering across the table. Mr Crow coughed to break the uncomfortable silence.

‘I hope you’re going to clean that up!’ said Mrs Crow.

‘Let me get this right. You were going to stab your sister?’

‘Yes. Well, not me, Marcus was going to do it for me.’ Everyone in the room turned to look at Marcus who nodded and moved his jacket to the side to reveal a dagger attached by a belt to his waist.

‘Okayyy. But how would that get the scythe back?’

‘I was going to send Joe,’ she said, flicking her head in Joe’s direction, ‘once the bitch was dead.’

Suddenly everyone looked at Joe. Joe turned red.

Death’s Apprentice – Part Twenty-One

The home was full activity. Mr Crow was standing next to the tallest man Joe had ever seen. He was even taller than The Mountain in Games of Thrones, but, just like Azrail and Mr Crow, he was spindly, with long thin legs. He held a large leather briefcase in his right hand and a dark brown trilby in the other.

‘But Josiah,’ he said, ‘things can’t go on like this. Something has to be done. The law states -‘

‘I’ve sorted it,’ said Mrs Crow, sweeping through the room.

Mr Crow and the tall man turned as she spoke. Mr Crow looked rather relieved. The other man looked rather irked as if he didn’t really want whatever it was sorted.

‘Ah, Corvina,’ said the tall man, doffing his cap, ‘how good it is to see you.’

‘Oh, do get out of my way,’ snapped Mrs Crow, pushing past the man, ‘we’ve got a meeting to get started. Joe, come on.’

Joe was still stood in the doorway unsure whether he actually wanted to enter into the funeral home. It wasn’t like he was scared, or anything like that, but he felt that as soon as he crossed into the home his life would be changed for good. For better or worse. And he just wasn’t sure.

And then he heard Lola snarl. He was pushed out of the doorway as someone forced entry. He went flying, face first, on to the carpet.

‘Please, Corvina, tell me, he’s not…?’

Mrs Crow turned and yelled at Joe, ‘Get up then. We’ve got things to do.’

Joe scrambled to his feet, his face felt hot and anger was beginning to simmer in the pit of his stomach. He turned to see who’d knocked him over. In front of him stood the widest (and shortest) man he’d ever seen.

‘I’m not late, am I?’

‘Oh no, Mr Smith,’ said Mrs Crow, ‘it’s nice that you could join us. Now, if you’d let my assistant through.’

‘Oh, sorry,’ he said, looking at Joe. But Joe could tell he wasn’t sorry at all.

‘Shall we go through?’ asked Mrs Crow.

‘I’ve set up the conference room. Febris, Limos, and Marcus are already in there -‘

‘I bet that’s a great atmosphere. Lucifer here?’

Lucifer? Did he hear that right? Nah, thought Joe, it’s got to be some sort of joke.

‘Yes, and his secretary. We’re just waiting on the Boss.’

‘Okay. Let’s get this over with. Joe,’ said, Mrs Crow, ‘this way.’

Death’s Apprentice – Part Twelve

He thrust his spade in again and again ripping up more of the grave. And then…

Then he hit something hard. Rock solid. Like a coffin hard.

Eugh. His skin prickled, his stomach rolled. He picked up the candle lamp and held it over the grave with a shaky hand. He wanted to know what it was but by the same token, he didn’t. He swallowed the lump at the back of his throat and forced himself to take another look.

Yes. Yes. It was a coffin. He turned away disgusted with himself. Joe Bones was now the desecrator of graves as well as belonging to the most reviled family in Bloxwich.

‘Get out then,’ said Azrail, making Joe jump.

‘Do you think,’ he said, feeling the pounding of his heart inside his ribcage, ‘you could not sneak up on me?’

‘I didn’t,’ replied the old man, ‘what’s a matter? You not got the stomach for this line of work?’

It was only then that Joe noticed the long black package resting at Azrail’s feet. It was very long, probably as tall as the old man himself, and it was wrapped in what looked like black bags that had been stuck together with grey duck tape. It had a small part on top of it that looked like a…no, it couldn’t be a head? Could it?

It looked to Joe suspiciously like a dead body. And he’d seen lots of dead bodies. Not real bodies of course, but in the movies. He’d seen loads in the movies and they all looked like that; long and body shaped covered in bin liners and duck tape or brown tape, depending on what was available.

‘Is that…?’ Joe said pointing his shaky hand at the package. He noticed that his hand shaking. That was not a good look, so he quickly lowered it hoping that Azrail hadn’t seen his nerves.

‘What? A dead body?’ asked Azrail, with a smirk that made him look quite evil in the sickly orange glow of the candlelight.

Joe waited patiently for him to answer but it didn’t look like he wasn’t going to get one so he said, ‘So, is it?’

‘What do you think?’

Joe didn’t know what to think anymore so he said nothing and instead placed the lamp at the side of the grave, slung the spade beside it and began to pull himself out of the quite substantial hole. He dug his fingers into the side of the opening. The earth was wet and claggy beneath his fingers. He held on and pulled himself up whilst jabbing his knee into the side of the grave. He finally emerged covered from head to toe in black, sticky mud. His mother was going to kill him.

‘Grab that end then,’ said Azrail, bending down and grabbing the feet end of the body.

Joe bent down and…could he feel ears beneath the layers of black plastic and tape? The head felt squishy and…no he couldn’t think about it anymore else he was going to be sick.

On the count of three they hoisted the body into the air and with a fluid movement, they threw the body into the gaping hole.

It landed with a thump.

‘Off you go then,’ said Azrail, pointing at the hole.

‘What?’ asked Joe, worried that Azrail wanted him to get back in the hole. With the dead body. ‘You want me to get in?’

The old man hissed through his yellow jagged teeth. ‘No you moron, I want you to fill it back up.’

Wow,thought Joe, he leaves me to do all the work then calls me a moron. It’s a good job I need this work or I’d show him who’s the moron.

Joe swallowed his anger and grabbed the spade. The handle was sticky and black and caked in mud. He looked up at Azrail and said, ‘You gonna stand there and watch or…?’

‘No, I’ve got other matters to attend to,’ he replied. He spun on his heels, the tails of his coat swishing through the air and then he was gone into the black.

Joe looked at the pile of dirt and the spade in his hand. Great, he thought, just what he needed. And to think he could be lying in bed at home listening to his music or playing on his Xbox.

He dug his spade into the earth and began to shovel it back over the body.

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 Eight

It had finally stopped raining when Joe got back to Crow’s Funeral Home. He was cold, wet and in a particularly bad mood as he was susceptible to when he was tired, and/or hungry and had had a run on with his shit head stepdad. Not only that, his “stepdad” shithead had eaten his tea for him too. His mother almost never cooked but every third week, on a Thursday night, she’d cook stew. It wasn’t the best stew; his mom was a pretty shit cook to be far, but it was a home cooked meal and better than a sandwich or cold pizza. One night, every three weeks, and he had to go and eat it before he got home. Joe pumped his fists at his side. God, he hated that bloke.

And now he was here. At midnight. It was a good job he loved his dog. To be honest, reallly honest, she was the only thing he’d ever loved. Before Lola, he didn’t know what love was. He couldn’t really say that he loved his mother. She was, in all honesty, a shit mother, and he knew it, but she was the only constant in the shit storm that was his life but that didn’t mean he loved her. He knew he didn’t, not once Lola had entered his life.

The clouds were scooting across the sky, covering and uncovering the moon. It reminded Joe of one of those old zoetropes that flicked as they spun around showing photographs and giving the illusion the images were moving. Joe pulled his hoodie in around him. What on earth could they want with him at midnight? If he really thought about it, and he really didn’t want to think about it, he had a bad feeling about this. But, if it paid Lola’s vet bills and got him out of the shithole that was home, then, what choice did he have? Although, all that talk about chosen ones and burying the chosen one had been a bit strange. He hadn’t got a clue what all that was about but still, that seemed to be the story of his life. Joe never knew what was going on.

Suddenly the clouds totally relinquished their grip on the moon and bright silver moonlight illuminated the ground in front of him. He hadn’t noticed, until now, the fog that was beginning to roll in across the road. His legs felt like jelly. Actually, no, it wasn’t his legs, it seemed as if the ground itself was shaking. There was the sound of thunder in the distance and…

No. It wasn’t thunder. It was the sound of hooves. Lots of hooves. And they were moving at an incredible speed.

Seven pure black horses with bulging red eyes and black feathery plumes adorning their heads, emerged out of the moonlight. They were pulling a large black Victorian Mourners Coach. At the front of the coach sat a man, dressed in black, and wearing a top hat.

 

Death’s Apprentice – Part Seven

‘Too skinny,’ she said, holding my arm in the air.

‘We can’t be too choosy,’ said Mr Crow, ‘he’s the only applicant we’ve had.’

‘He’s too skinny. He won’t be able to do the lifting,’ she replied.

‘I’m strong,’ I said.

‘You’ll be carrying dead weights, you need upper body strength for that.’

‘Corvina…’ said Mr Crow, with a slightly desperate edge to his voice.

‘What!?’ Snapped Mrs Crow.

‘We are a little short on time, and you’re not yourself at the moment, what with…you know,’ he said, with a flick of his head.

Mrs Crow snorted.

‘Although, having said that, he’s not, you know…,’ said Mr Crow, with another flick of his head. Joe was beginning to think he was having a fit.

‘He’s not what?’

‘You know…’

‘No. I don’t or I wouldn’t be asking, would I?’ She placed her bony hands on her hips. ‘Well? Out with it!’

‘The Chosen One -‘

‘Of course, he’s not the Chosen One. How can he be when we buried the Chosen One two weeks ago?’

‘Corvina, darling, we’re out of options. We’re never going to find the perfect candidate, not when the Chosen One is indisposed of, are we? Beggars can’t be choosers, isn’t that the way the saying goes?’

‘Thanks,’ said Joe, unsure whether he should be offended or not.

‘And he’s the only applicant we’ve had…’

‘Doesn’t mean we have to accept any riff-raff off the street, does it?’

‘Wow,’ said Joe.

‘We’re running out of time. We’ve only got 33 days left and…’

‘No.’

‘But Corvina…’

Joe turned to leave. He’d had enough of this shit. He needed the money, yes, but not enough to deal with this crap. He heard Lola whining for him from outside. And yet, he needed to look out for her. He needed to leave the shithole that was home. He spun on his heels.

‘Give me a trial.’

‘What?’

‘A trial. One week, for free,’ said Joe, unsure of why he was saying he’d work for free, ‘and then, if you like what you see and you want to hire me, you can add the week’s wage onto my pay after -‘

‘But that’s not working for free then, is it?’

‘It is if I don’t get the job.’

Mrs Crow swept over to him, faster than a lady of her age should be able to. She pushed her rimmed glasses up to the top of her nose and stared at him for a few moments before spitting on her palm and holding her hand out for Joe to shake. ‘Deal,’ she said.

Joe cringed inside. There was no way he was going to spit on his hand too, that was just too disgusting. ‘Okay,’ he said, taking her hand. Her grip was unusually strong for such an old woman. ‘Deal.’

She let his hand fall.

‘Good. Although, I think we’ll start the trial tonight. Be back here at midnight -‘

‘Midnight?’