I was busy filling in the holes in the walls when Death showed up.
“I heard shots,” he said.
“He missed me. Not by much, but he had an unfair advantage. My assistant gave him an atomic blaster to play with.” I finished adding the jagged surface to match the rest of the wall and wiped my trowel clean.
“Atomic blaster?” Death’s skull tilted. “Assistant?”
“It’s a long story.” I led the way into the kitchen and put the kettle on. “I found a new assistant in the swamp. Well, really, the Ferals found him and chased him here. He’s clever, but not too communicative and has no understanding of infant-rearing. Caligula is only just over a year old. Far too young to be playing with advanced weaponry. He should be practicing his crossbow and working his way up gradually.”
“Quite so.” Death leaned his scythe against the wall and settled into a chair. “Where did you get hold of an atomic blaster?”
“Click made it. He’s good with his hands. I have confiscated it and given Click a sound beating.”
Death took a small computer from his robes and tapped the screen.
“You use computers?” I put a jar of kitten blood on the table. It’s good to have something cute to brighten the place up, and I find a dash in my tea staves off the cold weather.
“I didn’t like it at first, but it beats carrying around those books. Six billion names occupies an awful lot of paper. This thing is so light I hardly know it’s there.” He shook his head. “That’s odd.”
“What?” I filled the teapot and brought it to the table.
“He’s not in here. No record of anyone called Click and no record of anyone else living here. Just you, your wife, your son and your father.”
“I don’t think my father counts as ‘living’ here.”
Death clacked his teeth. “Until he’s collected, he’s registered as living here. I know it makes no sense but I don’t make the rules. Any sign of your father lately, I wonder?” He might have smiled. It’s hard to tell.
“He hasn’t manifested for some time.” I poured tea. Milk, sugar, rat poison, kitten blood and stirring fingers were all present and correct. “You can’t just write him off, then?”
“No. There’s only one way to get your name out of this–this–” he waved the little computer “–this thing here, and that’s by scythe. The odd thing is, your new assistant isn’t in here at all. I think I’d better take a look at him, if that’s all right with you.”
“No problem.” I went to the door of the kitchen and made a series of clicking noises.
“What have you employed, Dume? Some kind of dolphin?”
“No. Well, he’s the right colour, but he doesn’t have any fins. All he can do is click, and it’s all he responds to. I have no idea what I’m saying to him but I generally click and point and he gets the idea.” I returned to the table and poured another cup of tea for Click. “I had wondered if he might be one of those illegal immigrants I keep hearing about. Perhaps that’s why he’s not on your list?”
“Makes no difference where anyone moves to. My list updates itself. There’s no escape. No, if he’s not in there, he never was and that could have all sorts of awkward consequences. If there’s one who hasn’t been registered, then how many more might there be? I have to get him on the list before anyone in the office finds out or I’ll be in trouble with the boss.” He shook the computer. “This would never have happened with my old books.”
“What does that thing run on? Solar power?” I sipped at my tea and wondered if I could persuade him to let me look at that little machine. An accidental delete could work wonders.
“Solar? Hardly. I don’t go out in the sun, Dume. I don’t tan, you know, and it makes me brittle. No, this runs on soul power. It’s very economical and environmentally friendly and it finds a use for some of the more, ah, useless souls. The lawyers and the politically correct did get all vocal about it, so I told them the louder the spirit, the more juice for the computer. They haven’t said a word since.”
Click appeared in the doorway and did his inquisitive click sound. I waved him in and pointed to the empty chair with the cup of tea in front of it. He skirted the table, watching Death all the way, took a seat and extended his proboscis from his tiny mouth into the tea.
Death faced me. “I think I know why he’s not in my list, Dume. What you have here is an alien.”
“Legal or illegal?”
“Well… ” Death sat back and regarded Click. “Neither, really. I don’t mean ‘alien’ as in ‘foreign’, although I suppose he’s as foreign as it’s possible to get. No, this thing is from another planet. Not human. Out of my jurisdiction. Not my responsibility.” He sighed and reached for his tea. “That’s a relief. I thought my records were messed up. Have you any idea how long it would take to audit them all?”
“Quite some time, I’d say. What do I do with him now? I can’t have officials appearing at my door every five minutes. My freezer space is limited and I really don’t need any more black suits or sunglasses.”
Death added a splash of kitten blood to his cup. “I’m glad I’m not Cat Death. He has to pick up every one of his souls nine times. Dog Death’s job is much easier. All he has to do is whistle and shout ‘Here boy’ and they come running. Then again, his rubber bone doesn’t look as good as my scythe. There’s also his nasty habit of drooling whenever he sees me, which is disquieting. Sorry, what were you saying?”
“What do I do with Click? Can he be taught to communicate or should I let the Ferals have him?”
“Best not let the Ferals have him. If he dies here, his people’s Death will muscle in on my territory again. It’s happened before and every time, I have to argue territorial matters with him. Damn, that Death is tedious and pompous. No, better you keep him until his people come for him. He won’t be noticed here. The village has odder looking characters and much more repellent ones too.”
“Yes, but he can’t speak Village. They can be a bit wary of strangers. Truth be told, they’re a bit wary even of me.”
Death sipped at his tea and shuddered at the kitten blood hit. “I can fix that.” He put down his cup and stood. Click’s eyes widened, no mean feat with eyes like his, and he clung to his chair as Death approached. Death placed one bony hand on Click’s head, there was a blue flash and Click slumped onto the table. Death resumed his seat.
“I’m not surprised the villagers are wary of you, Dume,” he said. “You do experiment on them and eat a few, after all.”
“Only once in a while.” I tried to assume the Professor’s haughty look and failed. “Usually there are enough visitors to keep the freezers filled and they are healthier than the villagers anyway.”
Death raised his hands. “I’m not judging you. I appreciate the business.”
Click groaned. This took me by surprise because normally even his expressions of pain come out as clicks. He sat up, blinked, moved his mouth and looked confused.
“He can’t click any more.” Death leaned on the table and faced Click. “It’s one or the other, I’m afraid.”
“Click…hear…you.” Click jumped at the sound of his voice. So did I. It sounded like a rusty flute. “Click speak Earth.”
Death turned to me. “It’s a bit pidgin now but he’ll improve with practice. You know the best part?”
I shook my head.
“When he dies, his people’s Death won’t be able to communicate with him.” Death took out his computer again and checked it, then roared with laughter. “He’s on my list. He’s mine now.” Death ran one phalange over his teeth and stroked it in the air. “Yes! One up on Grey Death! The miserable git.” He stood, picked up his scythe and pointed the tip at Click. “You are a honorary human, Click. When the time comes I have a place for you. You won’t ever be used as soul power because while you’re around, that snooty swine will have to concede that I win. I have one of his and with the human half-assed attempts at space travel, it’ll be a long time before he gets a chance at one of mine.”
Click and I looked at each other and simultaneously said “Um…”
Death coughed and shook his robes into place. “Sorry. Got a bit overexcited there. Anyway, best dash. Souls to collect, you know.” He strode to the wall and vanished through it.
There followed a long silence, eventually broken by Click.
“What just happen?”
“I’m not entirely sure. Now that you can understand me though, understand this. Caligula is dangerous. He can’t help it, it’s genetic. Never give him weapons. Okay?”
“Caligula your child. He not hurt you.”
I produced the deepest sigh of my sighing career to date. “You have much to learn about Dume life, my friend.”
At least now, thanks to the rivalry between our respective Deaths, he is capable of learning.