It's been one of those nights. Full moon, Ferals howling at it, the Slimy Swamp Thing slithering about the place, Little Caligula on the hunt for hidden birthday presents, rats and pretty much anything edible, Senga moaning about her household budget, the swamp plants muttering dark things in the night, and Death waiting for me in the kitchen. Some nights you just can't get a moment's peace.
"Hello Dume." Death brandished his scythe. "Look. I have the proper one back."
"So I see." I stayed out of range. He's not known for being too careful with that thing. "What happened to your iScythe?"
"Scrapped." Death ran a phalange over his blade. "That Steve Jobs chap died and the first thing he said when I went to collect him was that the iScythe was a breach of copyright. So it had to go. The Boss wasn't happy, but I was."
"No, I suppose breaking the law wouldn't be a good thing for your boss."
"Aha, even better. It was one of his own laws. The one about coveting thy neighbour's whassnames. Apparently it extends to copyright. Oh, the Boss is in a foul mood, believe me." Death leaned his scythe against the wall and patted it. "Now, how about some tea?"
I filled the kettle and set it on the cooker.
Death grunted. "What happened to that assistant of yours? He hasn't turned up in my list yet so he can't be dead."
"No, not dead. He's in the laboratory, sweeping up. Again. He's costing me a fortune in glassware." I had considered transferring Click to toy supervision duties but he'd probably end up letting them all loose and then we'd have to barricade the doors to get any sleep at all.
"Can't get the staff, eh?" He settled into a chair and made himself comfortable. "A common problem these days. Even the red guy is complaining about the quality of recruits lately. Some of them want to make Hell smoke-free, can you imagine? They just don't seem to grasp the essence of the business at all."
While the kettle boiled I placed the sugar, milk, stirring fingers and kitten blood on the table. "No fairy cakes this time, I'm afraid. The fairies have been elusive this year. I have some elfin savouries though." I shook the tin to quiet them before opening it.
"Elfin savouries. Haven't had those for years." Death picked one up and bit into it. "Their screams are much more musical than the fairies, aren't they?"
"Yes, but the fairies taste better." The kettle howled. I took it from the stove and filled the teapot. "So, quiet lately? Not much reaping going on?"
"Huh." Death clattered his fingers on the table. "Look at this." He threw a newspaper onto the table, folded open to a particular page. "I'm going to relish collecting this one. He's causing nothing but trouble."
"Another apocalypse? So soon?"
"Everything has to gear up again. The sulphurous lake has to be refilled and lit and that takes days. The beasts have to be prodded into fury again. All the horses are being groomed, the trumpeters are practicing day and night, the whole place is in chaos up there. It'll probably be yet another false alarm but with the Boss still smarting over breaking Rule Ten I think he's using this as a distraction. Good day to bury bad news, sort of thing."
I filled two cups and passed one to Death. "So you're hiding out here for a few hours?"
"Too right." Death added a liberal splash of kitten blood to his tea. "Try having a fleshless skull when seven trumpeters, with trumpets that can be heard all over the world, are practicing. I think my sutures have come loose." He sucked tea into his mouth, where it vapourised at once. "So, what are you doing these days?"
"Well, I've just made another story available for free."
"Free?" Death set his cup down. "That doesn't sound like you. Are you ill? Is it serious?" He glanced at his scythe.
"I'm fine. You won't need the scythe for a while yet." I shifted in my seat in case he became overzealous and I'd need to run. "The free ones advertise the main ones. Short stories don't make any money anyway so I thought the best use I could make of them was to give them away with adverts in the back."
"Oh." Death's shoulders slumped. "Oh well, never mind. So how's it working out?"
A scream ripped through the kitchen, loud enough to make me jump. For a moment, I thought Beryl the banshee was back and my mind was already gearing up to give Father a sound telling-off for inviting her. It wasn't Beryl. Death took a small black coffin-shaped box from his robes and pushed a button. The screaming stopped.
"My pager," he said. "I have to report for rehearsals. Damn. I hoped they wouldn't notice I was missing."
"Aren't you somewhat central to the whole thing?"
Death finished his tea and stood. "Yes, I suppose I am." He picked up his scythe. "Almost the star of the show, you might say. Almost." He swirled his cape in a theatrical bow and backed into the wall. "See you another time, assuming this is just another false alarm."
I sipped at my own tea while listening to the Ferals howling outside. If it wasn't a false alarm I'd see Death in his official capacity sooner than I'd like to. That would be a nuisance.
I have more books to finish.