My thanks to my sister Sharon for the idea that set this story in motion.
Hannah Ramsey made her way gingerly forward in the semi-darkness of the cave, reaching out a hand against the wet walls to steady herself. Cold water dripped from the stalactites to the floor, making it slippery underfoot and uneven with the corresponding stalagmites, rising to meet their brothers in the middle, having formed over millennia. Little drips over time, great edifices had created. The yellow beam from her torch illuminated these crystalline structures in this ethereal world, usually hidden from human eyes. She paused and listened, allowing her ears to adapt to the near silence apart from the almost inaudible dripping of those mineral laden drops, straining to hear any sign of life.
Then she caught it. Echoing softly through the darkness, bouncing on the walls and structures of the caliginous crystalline cathedral, the distant sound of voices: whispers moving through the cave system like ethereal spirits in the night. Children’s voices. Lost and afraid.
Hannah reached for her radio. “I can hear something. I’m going further in.”
She pocketed the radio and moved on, the torch her only guide, in search of the voices’ owners.
Then everything stopped. The drips from the stalactites suspended in the air caught in the beam of her torch as she stood completely still like a statue. Frozen as if time itself had no idea what to do next in the claustrophobic silence.
Twenty years earlier, somewhere in the North Sea.
Jack “Hawkeye” Travis looked down at the grey sea below as he piloted the Sikorsky S-92 helicopter in search of survivors from a capsized yacht. The choppy waves gave way to the down-thrust of the helicopter’s rotors that created a shallow circular crater on the water’s surface. The wind was brisk, gusting at about thirty knots and he continually massaged the controls to keep the craft steady in the air.
As he scanned the sea he could see the keel of the upturned yacht bobbing among the waves—a bright red ellipse contrasting against the stormy grey sea.
“I make it six in the water,” he said over the radio.
“Same here. Should be another somewhere,” Frank Landers replied from the back of the craft as he peered out of the open hatch at the same patch of grey sea.
Jack tilted the helicopter and turned to get a better view and scanned the waves for a sign of the missing child that he knew was there somewhere. Jack had earned the moniker Hawkeye for good reason, he was able to spot the tiny speck long before anyone else and in that grey, featureless desert of the ocean. It made the difference between life and death for maritime survivors.
“There! Beyond the boat. A child by the look of it.”
“Okay, I see. Drop me down and I’ll start to get them out,” Frank said.
Jack gently lowered the craft towards the sea, holding it steady as the crew lowered the winch with Frank clasping the harness. As he reached the water, he held out a hand and grasped the child, pulling her close as the winch was hoisted back up.
Then time froze.
The sea could have been ice, the waves still and silent in mid-air. The rotors ceased to spin and the helicopter remained suspended like a model aeroplane held to a child’s ceiling with fishing line and drawing pins.
Time, it seemed, didn’t know what to do next.
Thirty five years previously, Bristol.
Sandra Morgan stepped outside her front door and pulled it shut. She adjusted her woollen beret and turned to lift her bicycle from the garden wall against which it currently leaned. Then she stopped and went back to the door, giving it one final check before going back to the bike. Then, just to make sure, she went back again, opened the door, walked through the flat to the kitchen and checked that the gas hob was switched off, before returning to the front door, pulling it closed then pushing and pulling a few more times to be absolutely certain that it was locked shut.
Satisfied, she put her bag and books into the basket on the handlebars and wheeled the machine out through the gate. Looking up and down the street, she moved the bike into the road and sat astride it, facing down to the traffic light junction at the bottom of the hill. Pushing away from the kerb, she pedalled lightly to get moving and then allowed the machine to freewheel as it picked up speed.
She didn’t notice the ginger cat called Zorro sitting on the wall as she passed by. He looked up briefly and resumed his morning toilet, focussing his attention on the important task of licking his paws and wiping his whiskers. The open tin of tuna that he had stolen had gone down well even if it had made him temporarily cattus non grata. He decided that the prize had been worth the minor inconvenience of being chased out of the house and held in disgrace. The tuna was now in his stomach, so that was a win as far as he was concerned.
Charlie Sutton was running late. He down shifted and accelerated, ignoring the 30mph speed limit. The loud aftermarket exhaust fitted to his mundane Ford Focus made more noise than speed, but he enjoyed the cacophony even if those he passed on the pavement were less enthusiastic. He turned up the stereo and started tapping the steering wheel in time to the monotonous beat.
Archie Travis shut the front door with one hand and tried to restrain his excitable dog, Toby, with the other.
“Toby, wait!” He scolded, fiddling with the lock. Finally the door was secure and he could make the way to the garden gate. As he shut it behind him, he could see along the road to the traffic lights and Sandra setting off down the hill a hundred yards or so away. His heart skipped a beat and he sighed. One day perhaps he would pluck up the courage to do more than shout a breathless “hi” when they passed. As it was, this morning he didn’t even get that opportunity. Toby was one of those gangling dogs of indeterminate ancestry with more legs than seemed decent and a boundless enthusiasm for everything except discipline, so Archie had wasted several minutes calming him down enough to put on the collar and lead. Consequently, the brief morning exchange with his crush had been missed.
“Come on,” he said with a dispirited sigh. Toby needed no encouragement and bounded forwards, dragging Archie behind him.
And Death waited. He sat astride his horse atop the hill where he could see everything unfold. He looked across to the right, through the buildings to Charlie’s car now making steady progress towards the lights from that direction. Too fast, Death thought to himself. Currently Charlie was in luck as they were green in his favour and red against Sandra.
Death looked down from his saddle at the young woman freewheeling down the hill and sighed. He fished about in his cape and pulled out his phone. Tapping the app, stabbing at the screen with a bony digit with irritation, he got the same display as before.
“It still says there is an error message,” He muttered to no one in particular. “Why are these messages so unhelpful?” He frowned at the phone, which was pretty good going, given that he had neither flesh on his forehead nor eyebrows to frown with, but he managed it nonetheless.
“What is an out of memory error supposed to be anyway? Why don’t they tell you in plain English what they mean? Bloody technology!” Death looked back on the old days with some fondness—when he had a room full of hourglasses to work with. Sure, he thought to himself, it might be crude from a technology point of view, but it worked and was reliable—not like this modern stuff and its vague “out of memory” messages, which could mean anything. It hadn’t been the same since the IT guys took over and changed everything for the better—when they weren’t fannying about with Grand Theft Auto. Besides, he thought darkly, “better” is a subjective term. “Better” for him was a room full of nice comforting hourglasses in tactile wood and glass that you could touch and look at and worked as they were supposed to, not like this technology stuff that worked in ways mysterious to the mind of supernatural beings, lost in electrons and opaque gadgetry.
He snorted to himself as he watched events unfolding. Something wasn’t in tune here and he didn’t like it. Then he made a decision.
“No, no, no, this isn’t right. Not at all.” He snapped his fingers and time stopped. Just like that. Charlie at the wheel of his battered focus, fingers mid tap on the steering wheel, Sandra with her coat and skirt flying in the wind, one hand holding onto her woollen beret as she rolled down to the junction, Zorro, mid lick, Toby straining at the lead as he took Archie for a walk and Archie struggling to keep the dog in check and failing.
Everything stopped. The tableau became a frozen moment in time as time waited for events to happen.
Death turned his horse and rode off, leaving everything as it was.
Death dismounted and looked about him. The red brick structure stood above the bleak, empty landscape and was so tall that it came close to touching the ominous grey clouds that scudded across the dreary sky, oozing desolation for all who entered and dared to face the eternal bureaucracy that resided therein. He sighed as he looped the reins around a post, leaving his horse outside the building as he went inside with a heavy heart, for despite his better instincts, he had no choice.
Upon arriving at reception, he presented himself at a cubicle where a middle-aged woman with brassy hair looked at him with a disinterested stare, her cigarette dangling from the corner of her mouth.
“I need to speak to someone about this,” Death said, waving the phone in front of the glass partition that separated them.
The woman glanced down briefly. “That’s an IT issue.”
“Well, I need to speak to someone about it.”
She shrugged and glanced up at a screen on the wall opposite. The screen had a number on it: 137. She pulled a ticket from a reel and pushed it under the glass screen.
“Well, you will have to wait your turn.”
Death picked up the ticket. “Number two.” He looked about him at the room full of entities all waiting patiently for their number to come up. The screen changed to 136 and a man in full Napoleonic uniform of the Imperial Guard got up and walked across the room to the door.
“French,” Death muttered. “What are the French doing here?”
“We welcome all sorts here, you know. We do equal opportunities. You need to get with the programme. Have you been on the diversity course?”
Death glared a negative then grunted. “But the French…”
“Go and sit down and stop making a fuss before someone puts your name down for one.”
Death concluded that this was not going well already and he was not going on a diversity course come what may—he had other, more useful, things to be getting on with. He had managed to avoid going so far and intended to keep it that way so decided to drop the matter and wait. He realised looking at the room that this was not going to be a speedy affair and resigned himself to a long wait. He nodded down to the packet of cigarettes lying on the counter in front of the receptionist.
“Er, do you mind?”
She sighed. “Do you ever plan to buy any of your own? You do realise that you have a reputation for bumming ciggies off people?”
“I’m a supernatural being made of ectoplasm that exists in the folds of time and space. I don’t have any money to buy cigarettes. Besides, I have been banned from the local tobacconists.”
The receptionist raised an eyebrow. “Do tell.”
“Apparently I was frightening the clientele.”
She laughed and pushed the packet across the counter. “Here, take the packet.”
Death thanked her and walked across the room to an empty chair where he sat. He lit a cigarette and watched the plume of smoke as it spiralled into the air, up towards a cobweb that hung from the ceiling.
Death started out of his reverie and looked about him, but didn’t see the owner of the cough, so returned to idly watching the cobweb.
Again, Death looked about him. This time he identified the cougher. A goblin of indistinct age and gender with bright green spiky hair, a lobster coloured face and large pebble glasses. The black eyes seemed to leap out from the glasses and punch Death in the face with suppressed anger.
“Nasty cough, you have there,” Death said pleasantly, taking another drag on the cigarette. “You should try some throat pastilles.”
The lobster face went from pink to puce. Death thought to himself that the colour really didn’t match the green hair, but kept the thought to himself. The eyes leapt in and out of the pebble glasses in an attempt to spear him with their intensity.
Death realised that the goblin creature wasn’t looking at him at all. Indeed, he followed the line of the gimlet gaze, realising that it was fixed on an area above his head. He looked upwards, but saw nothing other than the cobweb and he thought it unlikely that the goblin creature was angry about that. Although, he thought idly, perhaps getting angry at cobwebs was a thing these days. He could never keep up with the latest trends.
This time the “AAAHEEEEMMM!!!” was accompanied by a stabbing finger as well as an exaggerated thumping of the chest with the other hand, just to make the point.
Death realised now that it was the wall behind him that was the problem, so he shifted in his chair and turned around to look at the “no smoking” sign above his head. The sign he had failed to notice when he sat down.
“Ah,” he said, glancing at the ashtray on the table between them, not missing the incongruity, “I see. Well, I wouldn’t worry about it, no one is alive in this room, so no harm done, what?”
“I’ll report you! You aren’t allowed to smoke in here!”
Death nodded to the ashtray filled with stubs and ash. “So why is this provided?” he asked pleasantly.
“I’m telling you, you can’t…”
Death was growing weary of the exchange. “Well, now you’ve told me, so report away,” he said, taking another drag and leaning back in the chair with no obvious sign that he planned to comply.
The goblin clenched its fists and huffed a bit before deciding that this was not a winning strategy, so muttered loudly to anyone who would listen—which wasn’t anyone at all—that Death’s cigarette made an offensive smell and took itself over to the other side of the room where it cast sulky glares across at Death, who by this time had forgotten the exchange, having returned his attention to the cobweb, which was far more interesting.
After what seemed an aeon, but was probably closer to an aeon and a half, Death noticed that the lobster-faced goblin had gone and his own number was now showing on the screen.
He stood, pulled his cape about him and hefted his scythe over his shoulder and walked to the door, turned the handle and stepped inside.
The room was empty. By empty, I mean devoid of anything. A complete lack of thing. Not even an atom. Like space but without the stars, planets and space junk. A void. Most would be alarmed by this, but Death was unperturbed. He stood there in the lightless emptiness and waited.
“OH, IT’S YOU.” The voice echoed across the ages of time and space.
“WELL, WHAT DO YOU WANT? I DON’T HAVE ALL DAY, YOU KNOW.”
“I have a problem. It’s an error message on my phone.”
There was silence for a moment—or maybe longer. It was difficult to tell. It could have been seconds, years, or decades, but Death became aware of a crossing of arms, a tapping foot impatiently urging him to get to the point and stop fannying about complaining about his mobile phone.
“THIS IS NOT THE IT DEPARTMENT. AND YOU SHOULD NOT BE MESSING ABOUT ON YOUR PHONE WHILE WORKING.”
“It’s the work phone,” Death replied, deadpan. “It has an out of memory error and keeps sending me to the same point in time. There’s something wrong.”
“THAT’S IT? SOMETHING WRONG WITH YOUR PHONE? DO I LOOK LIKE AN IT TECHNICIAN? I DON’T EVEN KNOW HOW TO PLAY GRAND THEFT AUTO.”
Death sighed. This wasn’t going to plan. He tried again. “It’s sending me to the wrong moment in time.”
The voice went silent for another moment and Death could have sworn there was some shuffling going on.
“I DON’T PAY YOU TO…”
“Actually, you don’t pay me—my being a supernatural being consisting of ectoplasm and all that.”
“DON’T GET SMART. HAVE YOU TRIED…”
“Switching it off and on again? Yes, of course.” Death sighed heavily, which merely served to irritate the voice even more. “I even did a factory reset, but it keeps doing the same thing—sending me to a specific point in time and space. The wrong point in time and space.”
“AND HOW DO YOU KNOW IT IS THE WRONG POINT IN TIME AND SPACE? ARE YOU BETTER THAN THE TECHNOLOGY? OR IS IT JUST A HUNCH?”
“I just know. Because I am aware of all of time.”
The voice sighed. “IF YOU THINK THERE IS A FAULT WITH THE PHONE, THEN TAKE IT TO SUPPORT—ASSUMING THEY AREN’T FANNYING ABOUT WITH GRAND THEFT AUTO. HOWEVER, AS I AM ALSO AWARE OF ALL THINGS ALL OF THE TIME, I AM NOT COGNISANT OF ANY ERROR, SO GO AND DO THE JOB YOU ARE PAID TO DO.”
“Actually… That payment thing… Seeing as you mentioned it…”
“ENOUGH! GET BACK TO WORK AND COMPLETE THE JOB YOU WERE SENT TO DO. TAKE THE PHONE TO THE IT DEPARTMENT WHEN YOU ARE NEXT IN THE OFFICE.”
There was a flash of light, indicating that the interview was over and Death found himself again at the road in Bristol, sitting astride his horse. “That went well.”
He fished out the phone and it still showed this time and date along with the error message. “Bugger!”
He contemplated matters for a moment or two and then made a decision. He looked across at the cat, Zorro, catching his eye. Zorro nodded, stood up and stretched. He then dropped onto the pavement directly in front of Toby, trying desperately to ignore the face full of bone breath that came his way accompanied by a sou’wester awash with canine drool. He arched his back, bushed out his tail, hissed and swiped the unfortunate dog across the nose, before turning and running down the hill.
Toby couldn’t help himself. He sprang into action and tore off after Zorro, legs and ears flapping in the breeze. Taken completely by surprise, Archie was pulled forwards, tripped on a loose paving slab and fell face forwards on the pavement releasing his tenuous grip on the leash. His glasses slid along the pavement after the departing dog. He was aware of a pain in his right knee as it hit the concrete. “Toby! Come back!” he yelled, to no avail.
Zorro hurtled down the hill, passing Sandra just as her bike was picking up speed. Once well clear, he executed a right turn between two parked cars, across the road and up a tree on the far side where he watched the hapless Toby try to follow. The dog’s brain was willing, but his hind quarters were slow to react and with feet flailing, he skidded, rolled and finally shot out between the cars directly into Sandra’s path.
Sandra yelped in alarm and grabbed the bicycle’s brakes, causing the front wheel to lock with the inevitable result. She somersaulted over the handlebars to land flat on her back among the debris of her books that had flown from the basket on the handlebars. She lay there, winded and aware that there was pain in various parts of her body, but mostly her ribs.
Archie, having dragged himself to his feet and replaced his glasses, limped across to where she lay, oblivious to the rip in his trousers or the blood seeping from the wound in his left knee.
“Are you alright? I’m so sorry!”
She sat gingerly and winced as he lifted her. “Ow! I may have cracked a rib.”
“Here, let me help you.”
Death looked down at the junction and noticed that the traffic lights had changed to green, which meant that Charlie was now approaching a red light. He was travelling too fast to react. His right foot briefly moved over the brake but he realised that he wasn’t going to stop, so put it back on the accelerator and pushed hard, sailing across the empty junction against a red light.
Archie was helping Sandra get herself and her bike back on the pavement and was fussing over her like a mother hen. Zorro was sitting in the tree nonchalantly dangling his tail, teasing Toby who tried to leap up the tree with an enthusiastic bark.
Death pulled his phone out. The error message was gone. “Another sixty-five years,” he said to no one in particular. “That’s more like it.”
He looked up at Zorro and exchanged a glance. He lifted a bony finger in salute and the cat nodded.
“Thanks for that,” he said. “She becomes a surgeon, you know. Saves countless lives during her career, but there’s something even more important. They have a son,” He explained as he looked across at the couple busily picking up books from the road. “Becomes a helicopter pilot with Air Sea Rescue. He too saves lives. But he has a knack of seeing what others miss. One of his rescues involves a little girl. No one else could see her in the sea. If he hadn’t been there, she would have died. Which means that the children she will rescue from the caves in Thailand years later would also have died.”
He sat watching the couple who were now in animated conversation. Archie finally got his wish to talk to the woman he had adored from afar. And Death was pleased with himself—being a bit of an old romantic at heart. He wondered briefly if perhaps he was in the wrong job.
“If she had died today, none of those other lives would have happened,” he said, returning his glance to Zorro who by this time had become bored with tormenting Toby. He was busy licking his nether regions with a loud slurping noise that bordered on the disgusting. Death grunted. “Talk to myself why not? Ah, well…”
He flicked the reins and nudged his horse into motion.
“Come on, we had better get back. I’m in enough trouble as it is.”