Martin Cahill was ordinary. One might go so far as to say unremarkable, bordering on bland. Brown hair, brown eyes, pale skin and glasses that gave him the air of an accountant who’d become bored with his own profession. Of middling height, and fond of sweater vests and khakis, the only thing Martin might stand out in was a field of snow.
And yet, Death was convinced the man must be a diabolical genius. Why else had he chosen the only line at the supermarket that had Zagnuts? Why else had he proceeded to buy the last Zagnut, the only pure thing humanity had ever produced? He’d then left Death to stare forlornly after Martin’s retreating form as a teen cashier rang up the Payday he’d snagged in a moment of desperation. A Payday! As if.
“Two-fifty,” the kid said, voice cracking.
“I ONLY HAVE A HUNDRED.”
The kid rolled his eyes, leaned into the microphone beside his register. “Manager on four. Manager on four.”
The cashier stared at him, desultory. He popped the gum he’d been chewing, the only action that indicated the young man possessed a heartbeat. “You’re pretty old, huh?” The kid asked.
“I AM… LOOK, CAN WE JUST FORGET THE CANDY BAR?”
“You want me to cancel the transaction?”
“YES, I WOULD LIKE TO—”
The manager appeared at the cashier’s elbow at that moment. He looked harried, his combover wafting in the air from the vent above the aisle.
“What’s up, Koda?”
“This dude wanted to break a hundred with a candy bar, but now he wants to cancel it.”
The manager—Robert, from his name tag—looked death up and down coolly, as though the Angel of Sorrow was little more than a nuisance, or one of those coupon ladies.
“I see,” he said. “Do you have any smaller denominations, sir?”
“I DO NOT. DEATH ONLY CARRIES HUNDREDS.”
“Okay, how do you do that with your voice?” The cashier interrupted.
“He’s right,” the manager chipped in. “It’s weird.”
“I CANNOT CONTROL THE INFLECTION OF MY VOICE. CAN WE MOVE ON AND NEGATE THE TRANSACTION?”
Death was growing impatient, a feeling that made him deeply uncomfortable. Death was always patient. He could outwait the death of civilizations, the collapse of stars, the grinding of the last molecule of the last grain of sand to entropy. But his goddamn Zagnut was escaping.
He wondered briefly why the Zagnut was so important to him. Maybe it was the ingredients: chocolate and coconut in a symphony that teased the senses. Death had never been in love. Maybe this was what it felt like. The human experience was a baffling thing. They had only a brief flicker in the long scheme of things, and then poof, gone. And instead of laying down and waiting for it to end, as he might expect something with the lifespan of a housefly to do, they went about their lives with the industry of ants. Or particularly intelligent spaniels. They were capable of great and terrible things. Cities the size of some countries. Wars that wiped great swathes of their species out more effectively than any disease. Bothering the moon.
A Payday, on the other hand, was just a collection of nuts stuck together. More accurate for describing any number of subsets of humans, but not the whole.
“Sir?” Robert interrupted his thoughts. “You’ve been staring into space for a while.”
“THE ZAGNUT IS A METAPHOR.”
“THE ZAGNUT REPRESENTS THE WHOLE OF HUMAN EXPERIENCE, AND IF I AM TO KNOW WHAT IT IS TO BE HUMAN, I MUST TASTE OF IT.”
A chatter of several children echoed against the tile floors of the store. Someone behind him sighed in exasperation. The cashier stared, open-mouthed. The manager cleared his throat.
“Ah, sure, fine. But we’re out of Zagnuts.”
“I AM AWARE.”
“So, do you want the Payday, or…?”
“NO. I DO NOT THINK I WILL PURCHASE THIS SUB-PAR CONFECTIONERY.”
“Hey, Paydays are good, man,” the cashier said.
“THEN YOU MAY EAT THE POOR METAPHOR.”
With that, he strode from the aisle, leaving a stunned cashier, a baffled manager, and a mildly peeved mother of four at the register. The door chimes tinkled at his exit. The mother, harried, plonked down a gallon of milk and a pint of vodka. The cashier looked at it. She sneered.
“Open yer gob, and I’ll fill it with my fist,” she said.
Death stood outside Martin Cahill’s home. He could sense the Zagnut, even from beneath the streetlamp. The post he stood beside was plastered with pictures of missing cats, which he took down one by one and tucked into his robes, and flyers for the neighborhood watch. He stood, shifting from foot to foot. Technically, Mr. Cahill wasn’t due a visit for another three years, when he would fall from a ladder while changing a bulb in his pantry and impale himself on a carrot.
Indecision was also not Death’s forte. When he came, it was on wings of finality. When the knock sounded on your door, it was with the sound of a tolling bell. And yet—
“Oi. You. What’re you doing, lurking?”
He swiveled his cowl to see a small woman standing nearby. She was withered, white hair plied into a bun, sweatsuit a purple that only occurred in cartoons and children’s cereal. She wore a headband and had her feet planted, fists on hips.
Death checked the universal records. Edna Howl. Not due for another twenty years. Humans may have had short lifespans, but he’d found the especially grumpy ones seemed to go on long past their time.
“I asked you a question,” she said. Her glower could have melted a glacier.
“I AM ON A STAKEOUT,” he replied. It was the best answer he could concoct on short notice.
She eyed him suspiciously. “Oh, you are? What precinct? What’s your badge number?”
Death searched his memory for these terms, came up with an old television show.
“THE 99TH PRECINCT. BADGE 42. NAME’S FRIDAY MA’AM.” And then he added, “I AM UNDERCOVER.”
“Friday, eh?” She relaxed a little. “What’re you looking for?”
“JUST THE FACTS.”
“Aren’t we all?” She came to stand beside him, peering at the house as well. “What’ve we got here? Pederast? Serial Killer? Tag-ripper?”
“You know, one of those fellas that tears the tags off mattresses. Diabolical.”
The human justice system would never cease to baffle Death. “ERM, NO.”
“Then what?” She asked. “Worse? Should I call Muriel and the girls?”
“NO NEED. I WISH TO REMAIN INCONSPICUOUS.”
“C’mon. You can tell me what it is.”
Death thought it over. Perhaps he could send this woman on her way. “I SUSPECT FOUL PLAY.”
“Oh, a good old murder, eh? Like those Miss Marple stories?”
“HE HAS STOLEN THE DREAM OF ANOTHER. A BEAUTIFUL DREAM. THE DREAM OF ALL MEN.”
“The bastard!” She said. “Tell me what to do.”
“GO TO YOUR HOME. WAIT. I WILL BE IN CONTACT.”
“Ooh, cloak and dagger. Right, then. We’ll need a codeword.”
“Yeah, so we know it’s us.”
“I HAVE NEVER BEEN CONFUSED AS TO WHO I AM.”
“No, silly. It’s so we can identify each other. So we don’t accidentally give someone information.”
Again, Death was confused. But maybe that was the problem. People who were adverse to information tended to make poor choices. Particularly in elections, he’d noticed. He imagined the sound of a wrapper crinkling, and decided to play along so as not to waste more time.
“YES, A CODEWORD.” He thought for a moment. “THE CODEWORD IS RUTABEGA.”
“Oh, good one. No one ever uses rutabaga in a sentence. Never once have I heard someone say ‘I’d like a nice plate of rutabegas’, or ‘This rutabaga juice sure is refreshing’. Clever, that.”
“THANK YOU. NOW RUN ALONG, MRS. HOWL.”
She was halfway across the street before she stopped and turned back briefly. “You knew my name.”
“OF COURSE. I AM A CONSTABLE. WE KNOW ALL SORTS OF THINGS.”
She gave him a grin and a thumbs-up, then disappeared into her home.
Finally. Death walked across the street and through Martin Cahill’s front door.
“Did you just zap through my door?” Martin asked.
Death was nonplussed. He’d expected the man to be shocked. Maybe in fear. Instead, he’d used the word zapped to describe translocation.
“LIKE PEW PEW?” Death asked. He was proud of that one. He’d seen Star Wars.
“IT IS NOT IMPORTANT. LEAD ME TO THE ZAGNUT.”
Martin’s jaw dropped. “You… you want my candy bar?”
“YES, I WOULD LIKE TO PARTAKE OF THE METAPHOR, AND YOU HAVE THE LAST.”
“The last? Metaphor?”
“YES. THE METAPHYSICAL REPRESENTATION OF THE WHOLE OF THE HUMAN EXPERIENCE. LOVE, HATE, SEX, WORK. YOU BOUGHT THE LAST ON THE SHELF.”
“Work? No, never mind. Did you even check another store?”
“I HAVE ALWAYS BOUGHT THE ZAGNUT FROM ASPRIN’S GROCERS.”
“And nowhere else?”
“Did you know you could?”
Death did not answer for a moment. Like the hundred dollar bills in his robe, he wasn’t aware there was another option. He had stalked this man, lied to a local, and likely ruined his standing at the local grocer for nothing.
“I… I HAVE REGRETS.”
Martin gave him a pitying look, and dug into the pocket of his sweater vest. He produced the Zagnut and held it out with a kind smile. Death took it with reverent hands. He thought that perhaps if he’d had tear ducts, he might have cried. Instead, he nodded, and pocketed the candy.
“I MAY BE LATE.”
He turned, leaving another baffled human in his wake, and stepped through Cahill’s door once again. Six years, maybe seven instead. Sometimes paperwork got lost. The universe was a big place, and there were a lot of people in it. He strolled down the street, whistling. There was a park a couple of streets up. He would find a bench, and in the moonlight, experience humanity for a brief time.