“How long has he been dead?” I asked.
“About an hour,” replied his wife. “Is that too long?”
I glanced at Lorenzo’s wife, his kids, his elderly mother.
“It’s not good, but I think I can still help.”
I’d done some research into Lorenzo’s life. He’d been a good man. Not the kind of man to change the world, but he had friends, family. He wasn’t perfect, but he hadn’t made this world a worse place. If he had, I would’ve found out, and I wouldn’t have been here.
Saving good people was my calling. Not my job, though I did get paid for it. Not my hobby, though I did enjoy it. It was what I was made to do. For generations my family had been thwarting death. Grandpa used a flute that caused the Reaper to dance until he agreed to restore the recent dead to life. Mom baked cakes so delicious that death would gladly release a soul in its grasp for a taste.
They were always with risk. Death had finally claimed Grandpa when he’d sneezed during a tune. Mom had put a pinch too much lemon in a cupcake. The penalty for playing against the Reaper was always the same.
I set up my folding card table at the foot of Frank’s bed. The Reaper appeared. No one else saw him. Death appeared differently to different people. For Grandpa, he’d been a horned man in a white suit. For Mom, a matronly housewife with pale skin and empty eyes. For me, the Reaper was nothing but a crimson skeleton with a scythe. I’d tried making Red Skelton jokes to the Reaper, but they seemed to go over his head.
“Hiya, Red,” I said.
The Reaper grinned his horrible grin. “Again we play this game, Cassandra. Aren’t you tired of it yet?”
The Reaper’s jaws parted as if he might be laughing, but no sound came out. Just as well. I didn’t want to hear Death laugh.
“We are both at the mercy of our natures,” he said, “and forces beyond our ken.”
That there were forces beyond the Reaper’s ken filled me with equal parts hope and dread.
“I’d love to chat, but I have a date in about an hour and I’m running a little late.”
Death gestured toward the table. “Proceed.”
I dropped three cards on the table. “Find the lady, win a soul. Find the lady, anybody can do it. A child could do it. Heck, I’m practically giving souls away.” I shuffled the cards in rapid succession. The banter was part of the ritual. “If you don’t find the lady, you only have yourself to blame. She wants you to find her. I want you to find her. The question is, do you want to find her?”
I stopped shuffling, and waited for the Reaper to make his choice. He tapped a boney finger against his teeth, then pointed to the card in the center. I flipped it over to reveal the ace of spades. Death snapped his fingers. Don’t ask me how.
The color returned to Lorenzo’s cheeks as he sprang back to life. He gasped for breath and struggled with rigor mortis in his limbs. He’d get better. Coming back to life was always a little unpleasant at first.
“Better luck next time,” I said to the Reaper.
“One of these days, Cassandra . . . ” Death faded away. There was no need to finish the sentence.
Grandpa played the flute. Mom baked cakes. I played three card monte. The difference between their games and mine?
I tucked the queen of hearts I’d palmed into my pocket with a smile. One day, Death would catch on. But not today.
I folded up my table, wished Lorenzo and his family a long and happy life.