Hep and Scroat were playing gin. So far, they’d been playing for about six hours, and there wasn’t an end in sight. Picking up cards, laying down cards. It was a good way to pass the time. Both of them were supremely bored, but neither had an idea for anything to do, besides going for a long ride, so they continued dealing new hands.
Death appeared just after Hep had won a hand. Her arrival was warmly received.
“Didn’t we fucking ask you to call before you show up? What if I hadn’t had any pants on?” Scroat said.
“Then you probably would have been embarrassed when I started pointing and giggling. Good thing you had your pants on,” Death said.
“So did you want to play cards with us, or have you got a reason for this visit?” Hep said.
“Well, as much fun as it looks like you’re having, I’m going to have to pass on the card game. However, if you’re interested, I may have some stuff for you to take care of.”
“Really? What have you got?” Hep asked. He kicked a chair away from the table for Death to sit and join them.
“I’ve discovered this Thomas guy has been trying to interfere with upcoming deaths. I’ve fed him a bit of information about a few deaths that are going to happen in your neck of the woods over the next few days. If you guys are willing, you could stake them out and maybe grab Thomas when he’s not expecting it.”
“I don’t know,” Scroat said, “our last stake out didn’t work out too well.”
Hep coughed, then said, “Yeah, but now we know where we went wrong. This time, we can just grab him instead of freaking out his mom. And it’s got to be more fun than sitting here playing gin for hours on end. I think I’m getting new callouses from shuffling the cards.”
“You’ve got me there,” Scroat said.
“Cool,” Death said. She laid a folder with her notes on the table. “All the details you need should be in here. Names, addresses, times of death, and so on. I figure Thomas is probably going to try and warn them in order of death.”
“And you don’t think he’s just going to call them to warn them?” Scroat said.
“Well, would you take someone seriously if they called you on the phone and tried to warn you about their upcoming death? I expect most of the people he warns in person don’t take him seriously. If he were to call, I expect most of them would have forgotten about the conversation by the time they’d hung up the phone.”
“OK, good point.”
“I’m sure you guys will manage to grab him at the first person’s home,” Death said. Her phone beeped at her. “Time to go again. Good luck!”
Hep got up from the table. “Well, this should be straight forward enough. Hang out, keep watch, grab guy. Piece of cake. I’m going to go get myself presentable, and then we should roll on over to the first place on the list.”
He had just made it into the hallway that led to his bedroom when someone knocked on the front door of the trailer.
“Were you expecting anyone?” Hep asked Scroat.
Hep went to the front door and opened it. He was rather surprised to see Ares standing outside.
“Ares! I wasn’t expecting to see you. What’s going on?”
“I’m just trying to avoid Eris. I can’t seem to get away from her lately. I figured this would be about the last place she’d even think to look for me.”
Hep felt his stomach lurch. “Man, don’t you bring Eris around here. I don’t need to deal with that kind of trouble.”
“I told you, I came here because she wouldn’t think to look for me here. Besides, I’m just here to visit, not to stay.”
“So what did you do to piss her off?” Scroat said.
“Nothing. I think she’s got a crush on me,” Ares said. “Too bad she’s not really my type.”
He walked over to the kitchen table where Scroat was still sitting and sat down.
“So what are you guys up to?”
“Well, to be honest, we were just on our way out,” Hep said.
“Where are you going?”
“To stake out some person’s house and try to grab a troublemaker that might drop by.”
“Some person? Why are you interested in ‘some person’?”
“We’re doing a favor for Death” Hep said.
Ares perked up immediately. Here was a chance to score some brownie points with Death.
“Oh yeah? Do you need a hand?”
Hep was a little distrustful of Ares’ enthusiasm. “We’re not going to kill anyone. We’re just going to try and catch a guy who’s been giving Death a bit of trouble. She can deal with him however she sees fit, but we’re going to deliver him unharmed.”
“OK, taking him alive, I can handle that,” Ares said.
“Since when?” Scroat said.
“Shut the hell up, Scroat,” Ares said.
“As long as you are sure you can manage this without killing anyone, even someone who really deserves it, I guess you can help out,” Hep said. “Then we can be in two places at once. It’ll give us an even better chance of catching him.”
“Sounds good. Where are we going, and who is this guy I’m looking for?”
Hep handed Ares one of the sheets with Death’s notes about an upcoming death.
“The guy we’re looking for is named Thomas Swinton. He’s pretty unremarkable. A khakis and polo shirt type. He’s figured out a way to evade Death. We were able to see him, though, no problem, so he might only be hidden from Death.”
“How did he figure that out? Unremarkable people aren’t usually the ones who uncover that kind of knowledge,” Ares said. “Usually, it’s someone who really knows what he’s doing.”
“Yeah, it’s a little weird. Maybe he just looks normal,” Hep said.
“Or maybe someone is helping him out for some reason,” Scroat said. “There might be someone out there with ulterior motives.”
“Such as?” Hep said.
“Maybe someone wants to keep Death distracted, so they’ve got Thomas out causing a ruckus, while they do whatever the fuck it is they want.”
“Sneaky,” Ares said. “I’ve never thought of not killing someone as a method of distraction.”
“It would explain how some random asshole came by the knowledge he needed to keep dodging Death, too,” Hep said. “It might pay to be alert to any strangeness while we’re staking these places out. Maybe we’ll be able to figure out who was behind this mess as well.”
“I don’t know,” Scroat said. “If I had some guy causing a diversion, I’d probably want him causing a diversion pretty far away from me.”
“OK, we’ll keep our eyes open, and not expect too much,” Hep said. “Ares, you’ve got the address and other info you need there. Let’s get out there and catch us a Thomas.”
Hep and Scroat parked a half-block down the street from Maurice Clementhall’s house. Scroat’s bike, as far as anyone needed to know, was having an electrical problem again.
Maurice, 42, was apparently going to drown tomorrow, according to the notes Death provided. That meant Thomas was going to have to warn Maurice soon, because it would be too late before long.
The neighborhood Maurice lived in seemed pretty nice. Maurice lived in an older neighborhood in Phoenix. The houses looked like they’d been built back in the 1940’s, maybe earlier, and there were large trees growing in everyone’s yard. Large trees are a rarity in most. They provided a good amount of shade, so it was actually a fairly cozy neighborhood to stake out.
No one seemed to notice the two bikers working on the side of the road in their neighborhood all afternoon. Well, almost no one.
Eris watched Hep and Scroat through binoculars from a parked car further down the street. She expected Thomas to show up any minute, and when he did, she planned to make things a little interesting to keep Hep and Scroat occupied until Thomas was done visiting with Maurice.
Later in the afternoon, a nondescript white Japanese sedan pulled in to Maurice’s driveway. Hep and Scroat watched as discretely as they could manage. A young man in khaki pants and a polo shirt got out of the car. It was Thomas.
Hep and Scroat set down their tools immediately, and started walking toward Maurice’s house, and Thomas.
Nearby, there was a series of loud cracking noises. Hep turned to see what was causing the racket, just in time to see one of the old trees starting to fall towards them.
“Look out!” he shouted. Just in time, too. He and Scroat jumped back out of the way of the falling tree.
Remarkably, Thomas did not turn to see what the matter was. He rang Maurice’s doorbell, and took a step back from the door.
The tree crashed to the ground just a few feet in front of Hep and Scroat. A nearby car broke it’s fall. Seconds later, the car’s alarm started to go off.
Thomas did notice that racket. He turned and saw two bikers brushing themselves off on the far side of the fallen tree. They looked like what his mom had told him the guys in his apartment had looked like. One big guy with bad legs, one smaller guy that looked irritating.
Maurice opened his front door. “Yes?” he said.
“Uh,” Thomas’s mind was too occupied with the potentially dangerous bikers for him to recall why he was there. “Um. Hang on.”
He took a deep breath, and got a brief mental glimpse of what he was doing there. Maurice was going to die tomorrow.
“Uh, You’re going to die soon. Be careful. Sorry, gotta run,” Thomas said. He bolted for his car.
Maurice watched, mildly irritated, as Thomas scrabbled his way into his own car, started it, and tore out of his driveway.
“Darn missionaries keep getting more aggressive, and more annoying,” he said as he turned and went back in to his house.
Hep and Scroat had just made their way around the tree in time to see Thomas’s car spinning it’s front wheels as he sped around a corner and drove out of sight.
“Well, fuck.” Scroat said.
To be honest, Ares has always had more of a siege personality than a stakeout personality. As such, he had parked his highly customized 1965 Ford Falcon station wagon, custom plate BTTLWGN, at the end of Anthony White’s driveway, and stood leaning against the front fender, waiting for Thomas to show up. He’d glanced at Death’s notes, and learned that Anthony was going to die from a freak accident at a car wash in roughly 36 hours.
He figured this should all be simple enough. Just wait for Thomas to show up, grab him, call Death, and every one gets a beer. It was a shame he wasn’t going to get to kill anyone, but then, there was always the possibility that Death would let him do the honors if he did a really good job catching Thomas. The guy was going to have to end up dead somehow.
And now that he thought about it, the guy had to end up dead somehow. Why the hell not kill him? Taking prisoners is a lot of work. Usually they struggle and try to escape and generally make the rest of your day a total pain in the ass. They complain about the conditions you keep them in. He’d never had a dead guy try to run away before.
Well, there was one time, but Ares was fairly sure that the cause of that little mess was just a last hurrah by the recently-deceased nervous system. Anyway, he didn’t get far.
So it was decided. Thomas would arrive, Thomas would be assisted off this mortal coil by Ares, and then everyone would get beers for a job well done. It was a perfect plan. This was all, of course, assuming Hep and Scroat didn’t catch Thomas, which would be kind of a drag.
Since Ares was not one for stealth, he was unlikely to notice it if someone else was being sneaky. After all, eventually the sneaky one would have to do something overt, and then it was a simple matter of taking them apart and putting them back together wrong.
As such, he didn’t realize he was being watched. That is to say, he didn’t realize he was being watched by anyone who wasn’t openly watching him. Anthony, for example, had been checking on Ares from various windows of his house at five minute intervals. The other neighbors had also been checking on him.
A ways down the road, however, Eris was hidden, and watching his every move. She was deeply hurt that Ares would be there, helping Death out instead of spending his time with her. And just because she was crazy about him didn’t mean she was about to let him ruin her fun. She was fully prepared to launch chaos at him from several directions if necessary.
Around six o’clock in the evening, a nondescript white Japanese sedan turned on to Anthony’s street. Ares failed to notice this development, because Hep and Scroat had come racing up on their motorcycles at that moment as well.
“Hey guys, what’s up?” Ares said, as Hep and Scroat parked and hurried over to him. Before they were able to say anything, there were police sirens blaring from down the street. Several patrol cars came charging towards them, and screeched to a halt. Ares, Hep and Scroat stared at the police cars, dumbfounded, for several seconds. Which is when twenty Naughty Gnostics in their war colors came roaring in to the neighborhood on their motorcycles.
Thomas saw the chaos brewing ahead, and made the first right turn he could. Anthony was just going to be on his own, this time.
“Damn, guys,” Ares said to Hep and Scroat, “What did you bring all these assholes for?”
“We didn’t. We came to tell you someone had tried to drop a tree on us when we were trying to catch Thomas,” Hep said.
The Naughty Gnostics had dismounted, and were stomping their way towards Hep, Ares and Scroat. The police were shouting, without effect, at the Gnostics to stop where they were.
“So this is probably my tree, is what you’re saying?” Ares said.
“Yeah, probably,” Hep said.
Ares smiled in his special, unhinged way. “And here I thought it was going to be a boring day. This is perfect.”
The Naughty Gnostics had lined up across from Ares, Hep and Scroat, and were doing their best to look intimidating. The effect would have been quite powerful on most people.
“Aw, look at you guys,” Ares said. “Trying to look all scary, just like real warriors. You’re so cute! Here, let me give you a lesson in looking scary.”
Since he was standing slightly in front of Hep and Scroat, they were unable to appreciate Ares’ war face. However, the cops all drew their weapons, and the Gnostics looked like they would break break rank and run if their pants weren’t suddenly full of something.
Ares strode towards the Gnostics, arms out, with his hands balled in to fists.
“So which of you pretty boys wants to go first?” Ares said. A few of the Gnostics ran at him, while most of the others backed away. Ares caught the first of the Gnostics by the hair, and lifted him clean off the ground. The others who had charged at him came up short and stared.
“Check this out,” he said, and punched clean through the guy’s chest.
At this point, the cops were yelling into their radios about bringing in the National Guard.
Ares pulled his hand back out, dropped the corpse of the Gnostic, and said, “Who’s next? Don’t be shy! There’s plenty to go around! Hey, it just occurred to me that I could work you guys like a puppet if I didn’t punch all the way through. Any volunteers? Don’t make me ask twice.”
By this point, even the meanest of the Naughty Gnostics had decided the better part of valor was knowing when to run screaming like a little girl, and that the time to run was right now.
Death appeared then, obviously annoyed. She saw the ghost of the newly-dead Gnostic, and seized him by the collar. “I’m not letting another one of you guys get away.”
Then she stared at Ares, Hep and Scroat. “What. The. Fuck? All you had to do was be here and grab the guy. How hard is that?”
Hep and Scroat looked at each other. Hep said, “I think someone set us up. We were just sitting here waiting, then all these people showed up.”
The police at this point were yelling commands and advancing with their guns.
“You know, I hate to kill cops that haven’t done anything to deserve it,” Ares said. “I’m going to split before I get tempted.”
He vanished, leaving Hep, Scroat and Death (who was still unseen by the police) behind.
Death rolled her eyes, and said, “This is going to get way too complicated if I leave you guys here.”
She held out her free hand to Hep and Scroat and said, “Take it already.”
Hep and Scroat shrugged, and did. The four of them vanished.
The cops, who had seen just about enough crazy shit in the last three minutes, took several minutes to evaluate the situation, before deciding they could lower their weapons and return to their cars. The paperwork for this was going to be completely impossible.
Death kept a firm grip on the Naughty Gnostic until the gateway had arrived. She looked at him and said, “You guys have been way too much of a pain in my ass lately,” then shoved him through the gateway, leaving her in the darkness with Hep and Scroat.
“I think we’re going back to your place to have a little chat,” Death said.
In the blink of an eye, they were in Hep and Scroat’s trailer.
“So, can you explain to me how Ares got involved in all of this?” Death said.
“Well, he showed up because he said Eris was bugging him, and then he offered to help out. I figured we could be in two places as the same time that way, so I gave him the notes for that guy whose house we were at,” Hep said.
Death turned to look at Scroat. He spoke before she did.
“What? That’s exactly what happened. The fucker showed up, offered to help, cocked things up, and bailed.”
“So why were you there?” Death asked.
“Someone tried to drop a fucking tree on us,” Scroat said. “In the commotion, Thomas got away. We went to give Ares some back up.”
“Who tried to drop a tree on you?”
“Damn it,” Death said. “What do you think the chances are that Thomas is going to keep trying to warn people?”
“Well, I’d guess they’re pretty slim,” Hep said. “On the other hand, he did run away before witnessing Ares. So if he’s dumb and persistent, he might keep trying. Should we stake out the next place on the list?”
Death thought for a minute, and said, “No. If someone managed to sabotage you at both places, I suspect they’ll find a way to sabotage you at the next place. And a gang of bikers with a side order of police intervention is a pretty big step up from knocking over a tree. I’d guess something really ugly would happen at the next place.”
“OK, so what do we do next?” Hep asked.
“I don’t know,” Death said.
She knew Thomas wanted to warn people. She knew he could see her, though she couldn’t see him unless he wanted to be seen. Then she smiled a little bit.
Sometimes he wanted to be seen. He was following her around and popping up at deaths in order to watch, or whatever it was he got out of it. Maybe she just needed some reinforcements when she was tending to deaths. If they were careful, he might even get cocky enough to let himself get caught.