PROLOGUE

I tapped my pen against the bone of my cheek and stared across my office to the clock hanging above the door. It was 4:24 CHT(Central Heaven Time) on Saturday afternoon and I had reached a point of such anticipatory boredom, that I simply could not work a minute more. Sunday was my day off and the weekend was approaching one abysmally long second at a time. Of course, I was never not working (after all, the two constants in this existence are taxes and me) but the idea of stepping away from the endless paperwork before me for even an iota of time filled me with such a Heavenly power. I checked the clock again. 4:25. I was almost there.

The truth was, I was burnt out. No one had told me at the beginning of Creation that there would be so much admin involved. Who would have thought that I’d look back fondly on the old days? My bones used to ache from heaving that scythe around. My job had been on site instead of in a stuffy office and I’d be sent to all manner of detestable locale to pick off some plague victim or starving child. Still, there was always that certain nostalgia for the things I used to have.

That was the time before the Psychopomps, before my duties became managerial and administrative. Before Heaven went corporate to keep up with the new laws of man. The management up top had always admired humanity’s imaginative ways to self-govern. Now they worshiped efficiency, bureaucracy, and the almightiest of almighties: the Dollar.

Forgive me; I blaspheme.

I moved the pen from my cheek to the nameplate at the front of my desk. The tapping produced a far more satisfying sound on solid gold than it did on bare bone. I hoped to drown out the baseless sentiment, at least until the clock struck 5. My gaze wandered to my stacks of workflow. Two ivory boxes lay at the desk’s edge: one labeled with a gold-speckled “IN” and the other with an ink-black “OUT.” The stacks of paper piled in each were nearly equal in height, though the stack for “OUT” was a slight bit taller.

This was acceptable. Soon Cassiel would stop by and remove the contents of the “OUT” box before filing the work away in the corner of some room where it would never be referenced again. When Monday rolled around, the “IN” stack was higher but would shrink throughout the following week. No one questioned my progress as my work was constant.

“Monday,” I thought to myself and the anxiety of a fleeting weekend that hadn’t even begun wriggled its way into my head. The tapping grew harsher and more frequent and my nameplate tumbled backwards onto the desk with a thud, startling me.

Peering, I read the words scrawled in Angelic font:

Chief Angel of Death

AZRAEL

The name sounded almost foreign in my mind. It was rare for anyone to call me by my given name during business hours; most referred to me by my title and my purpose.

My phone rang, startling me for a second time. I peered at the clock again. It read 4:36 and I sighed in relief, knowing that the monotony would soon come to its temporary close. I straightened my back into my chair and, in an attempt to rediscover my composure, adjusted my summer sky-blue tie and smoothed the lapel of my void-black suit coat. My mind wandered back into sentiment for just a moment as I considered its dark sheen. Once upon a time, it wasn’t a coat but a cloak. Before that, it had been something else.

The phone continued to ring with a drawl I had come to loathe. I hoped one day to bring an end to that infernal device . Instead, I put an end to its ring. I grabbed the receiver and placed it to the side of my skull.

“This is Death,” I spoke wryly into the mouthpiece. At first, there was no response. Then, I sensed a coldness down my spine that invoked a fear I had not felt in millennia.

“Hello?” I repeated, “Hello, this is Death!”

“It sure is,” a voice as harsh and frightful as a forest fire hissed through the earpiece.

“I’m sorry?” I said , my voice cracking, despite the lack of a throat.

“I said, ‘it sure is’, Azzy boy,” the voice was quick to respond.

“May I ask who’s speaking?”

“You may,” it said with equal quickness, “but I think you know exactly who this is.”

“I do,” I admitted. My bones began to rattle against my desk. A call like this was highly irregular. “I’m not sure you’re supposed to be using this line.”

“I just wanted to catch up, old friend. How have you been? I’ve heard some great things about you! Hear you get busier and busier every day!”

That was the truth. Work had steadily increased in the convening years. The assurance from the voice on the other line brought me no comfort.

“I’m afraid,” I interjected, “that I can’t tie up this line with casual conversation. This number is for official death and dying inquiries only. I am available for appointment if—”

“None of that matters much anymore, old friend,” the hiss interrupted with a tone that was anything but friendly, “I wanted to call and let you know that we’re deciding to move forward with the acquisition and your services are going to be highly sought after in the near future.”

“I’m sorry?” I said again. “I’m not sure I—”

“The big one! I hope you’re polished up on your horse riding!” I heard a hoarse, muffled laughter in the background.

There was a knock at my door and Cassiel stepped into the office. She regarded me with indifference as she approached the stack of “IN” papers, lifted them with two hands, and made back towards the door. She eyed the tall stack in the “OUT” box momentarily and met my gaze with a look that said ‘You’re really going to leave all of that unfinished?’.

Fortunately, I do not have a face, otherwise my returned look might have said something like, ‘I do not presently care about my current workload because I am stricken with existential horror!Instead, I pointed to my phone to signal that I was too busy for such chiding. Cassiel rolled her eyes and left with a smile.

“Are you still there?” the hiss returned.

“Surely, this is some sort of prank,” I said when I was sure Cassiel was out of earshot. “The Plan is working so well! Without a hitch, I’d say!”

“Without a hitch?” it replied. “Always the naive one, little Cassiel. Always so dutiful too. People are dying so things are going without a hitch, huh?”

“Of course!” I answered, after managing to muster an ounce of confidence. “Acquisitions are up on both sides! I figured you would be happy with the numbers! Things are…”

I hesitated.

“Things are equitable!”

“We don’t really care much about any of that now.”

“But, a takeover?” I spluttered, “Really?”

“Oh, why do you care, Azrael?”

The hiss became a shout so fierce that I pulled the phone receiver away from my head.

“Do you think I can’t feel the yearning in your bones, little Angel? What if I were to tell you that this takeover is part of The Plan and always has been? Then how would you respond? Would you remain the little office drone you are, hoping to buzz in Father’s ear? Or would you embrace the old ways?”

“The old ways?” I absentmindedly regarded the clock again. Even as I stared, my mind refused to make note of the time.

“One way or another, you have a lot of work ahead of you. Lots of names to write down!”

The hiss at the end of the phone gave a final, coarse laugh before I heard a click and the endless tone of a disconnected call. I held the receiver upright for an uncomfortable time before returning it to its cradle. My sight focused on the clock face.

5 o’clock: the day’s end. Finally.

“The old times,” I said to myself.

NEXT: CHAPTER 1 – RESEARCH AND DEVELOPMENT