*Ha! I saw your spoiler post in the week, Clicky… /lights up and smokes… You are really enjoying this US election, aren’t you…*
*Eww, that’s what that smell is… /wrinkles nose… Go and have a bath. I’ll take it from here…*
Happy Halloween, Dear Reader 😀 Today we are delighted to present for you my short story from Underdog Anthology XII: Mask-Querade…
… called ‘What Time Do You Finish?’. Now, if you like it, Dear Reader, you might want to invest in a copy of the anthology, as it is chocked full with stories far creepier than mine. Enjoy! 😉
What Time Do You Finish?
By Roo B. Doo
It is said that Halloween is the time of year when the veil between dimensions is worn at its thinnest. In the year 2020, when a global viral pandemic, violent rioting and supermarket socially distanced queues dominated everyday life, that boundary thickness could be considered as flimsy as paper medical face mask. Why, an errant finger could easily pierce it.
God adjusted the mask across her visage, hoping no one would notice the ragged hole, and also that nothing too nasty had fallen through the breach on her sweet breath.
“How the hell am I supposed to know when we are?” Death snapped and glared up from inside the impenetrable blackness of his cowl at the three ominous figures surrounding him. They stood huddled at the junction of Great Russell and Bloomsbury Streets in London’s bustling West End. It was night, it was cold and, save for the motley quartet, the streets were completely deserted.
“Becoz yur Death,” the first figure hissed and bared vampiric fangs. Famine appeared tall and angular, dressed in a tuxedo, silk lined cape, and with a countenance so pale, it could only have been achieved by avoiding sunlight at any and all costs.
“Because you have the contraption,” the second figure added angrily. War appeared to be a smart businesswoman, confident and aggressive, in horn-rimmed glasses, sharp suit and infinitely sharper stiletto heels.
“AAAAAAAGH!” the third figure groaned as a fat, black housefly zig-zagged across a sunken cheek, before disappearing into a filth-caked nostril. Pestilence appeared to be a zombie; slack mouthed, grey decaying flesh and milk white, opaque eyes.
“No, Pesto, I don’t know what happened to the horses,” Death answered his rotting companion. He pulled himself up to his full height of three feet and three inches, retrieved a battered Psion organiser from beneath the folds of his robe, and unsheathed it with a satisfying pop. “I don’t understand it,” he cried, “transport’s always been laid on before.”
War, Famine and Pestilence stood in silence, watching over the diminutive but perfectly formed grim reaper, as he punched the keys of the electronic organiser with a gleaming phalange, and waited.
Click. Click. Click, click, click… click.
“Well?” War said impatiently. “We’re in London, that much is for sure. The British Museum is over there.”
Pestilence’s body did not move a single rotting muscle, but his head turned an unearthly 180° to follow the direction that War’s crimson painted talon was pointing in. “UGH WAAAGH AAAAAAAGH!”
“Ve don’t know if ve are zupposed to go zere.” Famine reached out and clasped either side of Pestilence’s head, twisting it back into a front facing position. “Ve don’t know vy ve are even here. Death, vot iz taking you zo long to find out?”
“Wait…” Death did not look up.
Click. Click, click. Click.
Death peered hard at the tiny screen on the Psion, before shaking it hard. “I dunno. It’s not working. Maybe the Cosmic Consciousness Neural Net is down again,” he said with a shrug.
“Argh!” War howled. She reached down and grabbed Death by the front of his robe and lifted him up to face height. Behind her glasses, War’s eyes blazed with fire. “That’s just brilliant! Ace! Fun-fucking-tastic, Death! What are we meant to do now?”
The dead weight of Pestilence’s arm slapped War on the shoulder. “WAAAGH UGH!”
“Yez, yez, yez, ve should all calm down,” Famine said smoothly, pulling Death from War’s tight grasp and setting him back on the pavement. He plucked Pestilence’s arm from War’s shoulder before she could rip it from its socket. “It does no good for uz to get agitated. Ve need to zink vot haz happened.”
“Exactly right, Famine,” Death injected in agreement. “Let’s look at what we do know.” He pushed himself free of the huddle and turned to face his companions. “We’ve got War, Famine, Pestilence and yours truly.” He began to glide, circling the trio. “The ultimate harbingers of doom and bringers of great tribulation. The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse-”
“Sans horses, indeed. Most irregular. Literally dropped, without warning, in the middle of London-”
“Clos to ze British Muzeum,” Famine interrupted.
“Correct. So we know where we are but we don’t know when we are-”
“Late twentieth, early twenty first century, I’d say, from the smell of the air,” War joined in. “Plus it’s night time and it’s bloody freezing.”
“A winter’s night, yes. Probably accounts for the lack of any activity about-”
Death glided to a stop. “Your right, Pesto; there should be people about, even in winter. A big city like this produces lots of traffic-”
“Yez,” Famine mused, loudly tapping on his fangs in contemplation. “No motor vehicles hav passed by since ve arrived.”
Death nodded slowly, then looked up at the sky. One by one, War, Famine and Pestilence followed Death’s gaze.
“Nope, too much cloud cover and light pollution. I can’t see any stars to work out when we are.”
“I have a very bad feeling about this,” War whispered hoarsely.
“WAAAGH AAAAAAAGH!” Pestilence groaned.
“I agree, Pestilence, my dear friend. It haz to be a mistake,” Famine said solemnly. “An accident.”
“Possibly. We’d better start walking,” Death said and glided away down Bloomsbury Street, in the direction of Covent Garden.
War, Famine and Pestilence looked at each other and muttered darkly.
“Hold it, short-arse,” War barked. “Where exactly are we walking to? I can’t go far in these heels. They’re fucking murder.”
Pestilence dropped a shoulder and lurched awkwardly after Death. “AAAAAAAGH WAAAGH AAAAAAAGH!”
“Seriously? You’re going to follow him?” War shouted after the hunched and shambling figure of Pestilence. “You’ll disintegrate before you reach the end of this street, you noxious pile of pus! ”
Famine took War’s hands between his own, bowed deeply and lightly kissed her clenched fists until they opened. “Don’t vorry, my dear lady. I vill speak to Death.” Gently, he tugged on War so that she tottered forward with unsteady steps. “Please, come. Valk slowly. I vill talk to him.” With that, Famine turned into a giant bat and flew off in the direction of Death.
War roared with frustration but continued to follow the others. “I have Birkenstocks, you know. Why couldn’t I have manifested in my fucking Birkenstocks…”
Death heard wop-wopping wing beats approach from behind, and felt the change in air pressure as Famine flew over his head. He glided slowly until he reached his suave compadre, who stood in the middle of the pavement, arms wide, cape billowing and fangs bared.
“Death, stop please,” Famine pleaded. “Vor and Pestilence are in no fit state to valk far. Look.” He gestured back to the way they’d come. Pestilence jerked along slowly in the middle distance, with War following on behind, daintily sidestepping the trail of fleshy ooze left in Pestilence’s wake.
“Death, Death,” Famine cooed, “You know ve vould valk to the ends of ze vorld vid you, but you must tell us, vere are you taking us?”
Death paused and looked up, appraising his companion – Famine: always hungry, never sated, forever empty; his vampire appearance was more than apt. Pestilence, too, in zombie form was unrelenting, poisoning everything, even the very air. War, however, was a puzzler unless she represented a battle of the sexes. Should War shatter the fabled glass ceiling, Death was certain she would then set about slitting every available throat with the deadly shards.
What about me, though? I’m exactly the same, I haven’t changed, Death wondered. The inside of his skull began to itch. He sighed and shook his head. This whole situation was wrong and he couldn’t shake the feeling that he was missing something. Something big. Something important.
“Death?” Famine snapped his fingers rapidly. “Vere are ve going?” he demanded.
“To the Embankment, Famine. To Cleopatra’s Needle.”
“Ov course!” Famine slapped the palm of his hand against his widow’s peaked forehead. “Ze ancient Egyptian Obelisks of Time! Ve can return to ze hintervorld by way ov Cleopatra’s Needle! Zat iz super fine zinking, Death. No vonder yur the leader.”
“I-” Death suddenly cocked his head to one side. “Can you hear that?”
There was a low rumble in the distance but it was gradually getting louder, moving nearer. Death and Famine watched as at first, War turned her head to look behind, following the direction of the sound, then Pestilence slowly shuffled round to see what was making the noise. Further back in the distance, Death could just make out a dim rectangle of orange light, floating closer through the darkness, getting brighter. War began to wave her arms and shout.
“AAAAAAAGH!” Pestilence bellowed.
Death and Famine glanced at each other before racing back towards Pestilence and War. “Taxi!” they shouted in unison, tinged of relief.
War, Famine and Pestilence sat in abject silence in the back of the taxi; the three separated from Death and the taxi driver in the front by a transparent sheet of plexiglass, with only a narrow slot cut into it for the exchange of money.
Excuse me while I light my spliff…
“Spliff,” the taxi driver sang along to the bassy sound of Bob Marley and the Wailers coming through the speakers.
Oh God I gotta take a lift…
“Lift.” The taxi driver turned toward Death and gave him a beaming smile.
From reality I just can’t drift…
That’s why I am staying with this riff…
“Riff.” The taxi driver chuckled and tapped his hands on the top of the steering wheel, in time with the music. “Easy Skanking. Hell, I love this song.”
Death looked out of his side window. The feeling that something was wrong had only intensified as the empty London streets rushed by. He cursed the broken Psion organiser tucked inside his robes. Bloody useless technology. Give me an hourglass any day, he thought sourly.
“Good party, was it?” the taxi driver asked.
“Huh?” Death replied, perplexed by the driver’s question.
The taxi driver laughed. “The fancy dress party. Your costumes are sweet. I thought the government had cancelled Halloween because of the Rona.”
Death stiffened and the itching inside his skull increased. “Halloween’s been cancelled?”
“Yeah man, Christmas too if we’re not lucky,” the taxi driver replied.
“What year is… it?” Death asked slowly.
The taxi driver sucked his teeth contemptuously. “What you mean what year is it? It’s 2020, child. Where have you been?”
A burst of realisation exploded through Death’s train of consciousness: It’s 2020: the year anything happened! The year when pandemic waves of Coronavirus and Karenitus swept the globe, resulting in lockdowns, economic disaster and civil unrest. Things are starting to make sense now! Even so, the itch continued to irritate the inside of Death’s skull.
Cigar smoke suddenly filled the front of the taxi. Death coughed and tapped on the sign affixed to the console. “That says ‘No Smoking’.”
The taxi driver grinned at Death, a smoking cigar butt jauntily perched from the corner of his mouth. “2020, child. Donch ya know the saying? ‘A smoke a day keeps the Rona at bay’.” He laughed heartily and bounced up and down in his seat with mirth. “Besides, who’s gonna stop me? Look about you, my small friend. There’s no one around to say shit about it.”
If Death still had eyes, they would have been rolling round his ocular cavities. “Hey guys.” He shouted to the others through the slot in the plexiglass. “Problem solved: it’s 2020.”
“Tventy Tventy! Hellz Bellz!” Famine exclaimed.
Pestilence gave a guttural groan. “WAAAGH UGH AAAAAAAGH!”
“Yes, but what’s the date?” War demanded nervously.
“It’s the 31st October, sugar,” the taxi driver called back. “Happy Halloween.”
The taxi stopped at the end of Temple Place. In front lay the deserted Embankment. Along side it, the river Thames flowed swiftly past, glittering lights shimmered on its rippled surface, as above the clouds began to separate, clear, and finally reveal the celestial occupants of the night sky. The taxi driver nonchalantly flicked a switch on his dashboard, locking all the vehicle doors with a loud clunk.
“Oh no,” War murmured gravely and pressed her hands hard against her stomach. “No, no, no!”
“Vot iz it, Vor?” Famine asked with rising alarm.
A shaft of moonlight hit the taxi as it slowly pulled right out of the junction and onto the empty Embankment, illuminating its interior. The Moon was bright, it was clear and it was very full.
“It’s my monthlies,” War whined, sliding off her seat and onto all fours. Her jaw elongated and wiry tufts of fur sprang from her gnarly brow, knocking War’s horn-rimmed glasses from her face. “I don’t fucking believe this. Why nowOOOO!”
“Now this is a great song. One of the Skipper’s best,” the taxi driver exclaimed, ignoring the howling and growling, and blood-curdling shrieks of panic coming from the back of the cab, as the previously smart and professional War transformed into a ferocious and carnal beast. He turned up the volume on his stereo and began to croon along,
Until the philosophy, which hold one race superior and another. Inferior. Is finally. And permanently. Discredited. And abandoned. Everywhere is war. Me say war.
“Vot? NOOOO! Get avay! Get avay!” Famine screamed and impotently fumbled with the taxi’s doors handles. They were securely locked, however; there would be no escape.
Death sat stock still, strapped in tight and listened in horror to the sound of Famine and Pestilence being ripped apart by the slavering jaws and slashing claws of a werewolf that appeared to be War.
“How’s you seat, child?” the taxi driver asked slyly.
“I’m not a child,” Death tersely replied.
“UGH!” Pestilence’s bloody fingers abruptly thrust through the slot in the plexiglass, twitched once, then lay limp.
“I know, I know, little man. No offence intended.” The taxi driver continued. “That space you’re occupying used to be for luggage, but times are hard and last year it was converted into a child seat,” he explained. “Good thing for you, eh?”
The heavy silence that fell between the driver and his passenger was punctured by the sound of wet chomps and crunching bone emanating from the back of the cab.
The itch in Death skull stopped, but the very fabric of reality now took up its cause.
“Scratch?” Death asked tentatively.
“Who else you expecting?” the Devil, who appeared to be a smirking, smoking taxi driver, replied. The vehicle slowed to a stop next to Cleopatra’s Needle. “Now hurry up and spit it out. It’s time for you to leave.”
Death paused; it felt like eternity. Finally he asked, “Why?”
“Why?” Old Scratch puffed on his cigar, the shit-eating grin never leaving his face. “Why, Armageddon, little man. What did you think this is?”
Death was flummoxed. In his long existence, he had never been flummoxed before. It was a new sensation, but not one he’d ever longed for.
Old Scratch patted him on the head, then reached up to retrieve a folded piece of paper from behind the sun visor. “I got a letter last year, see,” he explained. He unfolded the page and glanced down at the childish writing on it. “From a sweet, innocent child. A touch dyslexic, but with the purest soul ever to inhabit a human body. What could I do?” He offered the letter to Death. “My heart just melted.”
Death took the letter from Old Scratch and began to read aloud: “’Dear Satan. My name is Molly and I have everything I will ever need. Can you please help everybody else in the world by ending hunger, pollution and war. This is my Christmas wish. Thank you. Molly Darling, age 6. P.S. I hope you are well.’”
“So considerate and polite,” Old Scratch sighed, taking the letter back.
All the stars in the heavens swirled furiously inside Death’s skull. He mentally grappled with the raging storm, searching for a handhold on his sanity. “War ended Pestilence and Famine, but War isn’t dead.”
“You sure? Can’t hear no breathing back there.”
Death swiftly unlocked his seatbelt and stood up on his seat. The plexiglass was no longer transparent, but smeared red with blood and gore. He pushed the dead fingers of Pestilence back through the slot and heard a splash as the severed hand they were attached to thudded to the floor of the taxi. Death peered through the gap and saw War lying naked and smoothly pale in the bloodbath. A chunk of half chewed greenish meat fell free from her lifeless lips.
“WooEE! That Pesto sure was ripe!” Old Scratch said, opening his window and flicking out ash from his cigar. “Bad meat. Never eat it. Always, always, insist on fresh.”
Death pulled away from the sight of the abomination in the back of the taxi and sat back down in his seat. “But how can it be Armageddon if War, Famine and Pestilence are gone?”
Old Scratch punched the numbers on the keyboard of the dashboard fare display. “With no hunger, there will be obesity, so humanity will become slovenly and fat, lazy and satisfied. No war means no competition, no goals to achieve, so mankind will lose its desire to better itself. And the elimination of pollution is a sure fire way of killing any human creativity. I give the species ten years, tops.”
“But there will be death,” Death whispered softly.
“Oh indeed, you’re still needed. You have a busy time ahead of you, little man. That’ll be six six six.”
Death snapped his head back to face the Devil in the driver’s seat. “What?”
Old Scratch laughed and pointed to the fare metre. “Six pounds, sixty six.” He gave a phlegmy cough and waved Death away. “Just kidding. For you, child, no charge,” he said gleefully.
*Ah, that’s much better, Clicky… /stubs butt… Do try to keep clean…*
We hope you enjoyed the story, Dear Reader, and that you will consider purchasing a copy of the latest Underdog Anthology…
*”By the book”… /thinks… Who was the 37th President of America, Clicky?*
*/rolls eyes… Elementary, dear Clicky…*