Ch. 0 – Prelude

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People tend to assume that when working in pairs, it helps to have a partner who shares one’s personality traits. For example, a pair that likes to listen to heavy metal music surely gets along better than a pair that consists of one person who enjoys heavy metal and another who’d rather listen to Vivaldi concertos, no?

Sure, if “getting along” is limited to downtimes. But work, by definition, isn’t about breaks. Work involves getting things done, no matter what.

That was why Flip sometimes wished that either she or her reaper partner, Flop (frequently mistaken as Flip’s husband), were a heavy-metal fan who applied the aggressive spirit of that musical style to the workday. Instead, they were both Vivaldi types. They liked their workday smooth and stressfree, much like a drowsy spring afternoon spent in the sitting room of a well-off, but not too powerful or ambitious baroness.

Flip liked to ponder about that imaginary afternoon. She liked to wonder if she’d been a baroness in her beforelife. Or maybe she’d been a sexy, cunning duchess who from time to time visited the sitting room of a less ambitious baroness to take a break from the treachery of the court. Sometime during the Habsburg era, say. That would’ve been a fitting time to live for Flip. (The question for Flip was always limited to what kind of a nobility she’d been, not whether she’d been a nobility or not. By the way, she didn’t think she could have been a royal; those people accomplished nothing on their own and their too-exalted position almost guaranteed their cluelessness as to what kinds of schemes happened around them.)

After having lived six or so wonderful decades as a baroness or a duchess, Flip conjectured, she’d died. Then came the eternity of work. As a reaper, she worked 24/7, aside from the short breaks during which she could contemplate her hypothetical baroness beforelife and her love for Vivaldi concertos.

Not to say that she didn’t enjoy being a reaper. It entailed a lot more power and control than being a Habsburg era woman (or man, for that matter), whether a peasant or the queen of the Austrian Empire. It was also lovely to cross spacetime (people died everywhere, all the time, requiring Flip’s presence) to visit coordinates in history at which people, in general, were a lot freer than in the time when the royals used to rule the world.

For example, here, now: Flip sat on top of a storm cloud that smelled of rain, near the huge hub that was New York City of early 1929.

Though Flip liked to conjure up Habsburg-era cutting-edge-relative-to-that-time French-style dresses, she did appreciate the fashion and tastes of the 1920s. From time to time, she’d even thought that black—a color that all reapers were required to wear—looked a lot better with modern dresses than for anything from the 19th century or earlier.

Flip knew that the more grandiose her black dress, the more it looked like mourning attire. A sixty-year-old corpse bride, she looked like, either a bride of a corpse or a bride who was a corpse. It didn’t matter whichever way.

But there was good reason Flip maintained her fashion style. She, a reaper, was a being whom no one could cage as long as she didn’t allow that to happen.

She didn’t need to breathe, so tight corsets were no problem.

Her joints didn’t hurt, so she could wear the highest of high chopines without worrying about falling and breaking bones.

She could cross spacetime, so walking around with an immense crinoline under her dress posed no difficulty, even when passing through doorways that were narrower than the width of the crinoline.

As long as Flip firmly grounded herself in her reaperdom (which, ironically, required that she grounded herself less in any one particular spacetime), physical limits were mere concepts remembered from beforelife. Technically, even her age was a mere illusion. But that one was harder to shake off than clothes, which people tended to change even in beforelife.

Occasionally, Flip forgot who she was and what she was capable of. It could be a particularly fragrant flower, the sight of an old couple still in love, or a fabulous musical performance. Such things compelled Flip to concentrate too hard—made her want to be in the here and now. They required her to zoom in on one particular spacetime, excluding all else.

That was when she found it difficult to breathe, to balance herself, to walk through doorways. That was when she became a slave to three-dimensional constraints.

So, being conventionally-ladylike as a reaper felt strangely freeing and powerful. It meant that Flip hadn’t fallen victim to beforeworld ways, that she could freely cross spacetimes—that she was in control.

Hence her dress choice: old school.

Anyway, the nice thing about early 1929, specifically, was that so many people had been moderately freed so recently and were excited about it. Even considering Prohibition. Because, when was that ever properly enforced?

Moreover, those recently-freed people didn’t know that more freeing would occur in the next few decades. They were also oblivious to the fact that their decade was going to end with the Great Depression in a few months. Therefore, people thought that they were the smartest people ever and that everyone who came before them must have been stupid for not having accomplished the current state earlier.

This kind of arrogant faith, of course, tended to be the default state of beforeworlders no matter in what time period and what location they lived in, so that element alone didn’t characterize this spacetime coordinate fully. What Flip found exquisite about this particular coordinate was that unlike some others, the beforeworlders of this one had at least some valid reason to believe that their arrogant faith represented the “truth.” As in, they weren’t acting entirely foolish and unreasonable, at least not yet, not until the Great Depression hit and people realized that they’d been foolish and unreasonable to expect an eternity of abundance.

Look at that flapper with her boyishly short hair, short dress, and short everything, such as her temper and the amount of time she’s required to spend wasting on “proper” “ladylike” “education.” Also short? The time she has to wait until she can vote: eighteen years, instead of never. Look at her strolling down the icy streets overflowing with music so that she can frequent the basements brimming with illegal liquor. She barely notices that her legs are freezing because she’s constantly on the move.

And there, the shiny, honking, soon-to-be-classic motorcars that aren’t classic yet because they’re new. They’re fuming exhaust and nobody cares because nobody has seen or done proper research on the deadliness of exhaust fumes yet. In fact, some men in suits and fedoras (men of this era sure like their hats) linger behind the cars to feel a moment of warm comfort in the otherwise freezing night.

Lights, everywhere. In the theaters, in the speakeasies, in the shops. Jazz music everywhere. Skyscrapers.

A wonderful city, at the peak of city pride, just before the crash. Sophisticated yet sinful, immoral with undeniable virtues.

But enough of that. Flip wasn’t supposed to be looking at New York City. It was just that the City was so bright that she couldn’t help being distracted.

Flip’s true focus was on Carningsby, a much smaller cluster of light some distance from the City.

Which brings us back to Flip’s ideal workday: smooth, stressfree, drowsy, like a spring afternoon. Too much to ask from a workday? Not necessarily. Not if the partners naturally complement each other.

Since reaper personalities were as diverse as the personalities of beforeworlders, Flip could have been assigned to a partner who happened to interpret her stress-inducers as stress-relievers, and vice versa.

For example, Flip could have taken care of the interaction with the beforeworlders who’d just died relatively peacefully. You know, those who’d died of old age or long-term diseases so that they’d been expecting death. She liked consoling them and taking them to their lawyers to prepare for trial in afterworld. Answering trivial questions—Can I stay and watch my funeral? Can I turn off the gas that I turned on before I died? Can I be reborn as the same exact person?—presented no problems for Flip. None at all. She totally understood that dying could be confusing.

In the meantime, her hypothetical heavy-metal-fan partner could have taken care of the bloodier aspects of reaping, such as reviewing cases that involved murder and handing them over to the women in black.

But alas, Flop, bless his heart, liked and disliked exactly the same things as Flip, and with greater intensity. It was a shame, though Flip really didn’t want to accuse Flop of having feelings that she herself found only natural. You had to respect a man who could own up to his feelings, even when he came across as a bit cowardly.

Flop looked about the same age as Flip. When the two of them reaped a beforeworlder, that person’s reaction tended to be one of relief and quiet surrender because few people doubted the good intention of a smiling old couple. (That was what people thought Flip and Flop were—a couple.)

Because Flop didn’t have a style preference beyond one requirement—that the fabric look and feel expensive—he tried to conjure up a wardrobe that matched Flip’s in terms of the time period. Then Flip adjusted it little by little. If she was going to be mistaken as Flop’s wife, she was going to damn well try to make him look like the archduke and not some tenant farmer who’d stolen fancy clothes from his master.

All in all, a deceased who was reaped by Flip and Flop could count on being led to afterworld with pomp and circumstance—precisely because both Flip and Flop enjoyed pomp and circumstance as well as all the order, structure, and refinery that they required. And, for the record, many people liked it. People liked to believe that their death had meaning. Preferably, lots of meaning.

But the liking-the-same-things part—that was a problem. Flop generally let Flip do whatever she wanted to do because it was also what he would have done. Also, he generally did what she asked of him because that, too, was what he’d have done anyway. But “generally” didn’t apply anymore when it came to the unpleasant tasks that he was too sensitive to handle.

This was why in the here and now, only Flip glanced down on Carningsby, near New York City, from on top of a storm cloud. Meanwhile, Flop sat next to her and rubbed his aching, chubby belly wrapped in a black velvet cape.

“Are the blood clouds still multiplying?” was all Flop said occasionally, as he did now.

“Yes,” Flip answered once again. “That entire town is murderous.”

Blood clouds represented murder intent. They were only visible to reapers and the women in black, as far as Flip knew. You know, the sort of people who were aware of both beforeworld and afterworld, and were allowed to cross over as they pleased.

Often, blood clouds simply ended as that—blood clouds. Murder intent never materialized; a misunderstanding resolved. That was why reapers usually didn’t waste time sitting around and monitoring blood clouds, waiting for someone to be killed. There were too many to die for certain and always a shortage of reapers.

At other times, however, blood clouds were highly likely to lead to an actual murder. Flip feared that this was one of those times. A thick layer of crimson clouds hung over the entire town of Carningsby in the state of New York.

Similar cloud layers appeared over battlefields, occasionally, but not always, and not always in these quantities. That was because some soldiers went to battle with the intent of killing the other party, while others went to battle with the intent of protecting something or someone.

But in the case of Carningsby? Phew. This blood cloud layer contained every shade of red, from deep crimson to bright scarlet, like the fresh gore of a slaughtered baby lamb. Cruel intent, definitely cruel intent. If that wasn’t going to lead to a real murder, nothing was.

“We might as well request the presence of the women in black now,” said Flop. Then he retched.

“Please don’t vomit again,” said Flip. “You’ve sent too many chills down there.”

That was what beforeworlders felt when a reaper vomited on them.

“Who cares?” Flop said. “It’s January. It’s supposed to be chilly.”

“Be quiet if you aren’t going to help me spot the victim.”

“But it’s not like we’re going to stop the murder.”

“Of course not.”

There was an old saying in afterworld, which was: Whatever happens, happens. It is not right, it is not wrong, but it is what happens.

Flip hated that saying.

“We can’t stop anything,” she said, “but we can appear at his or her side straightaway when it happens.”

“I don’t think it’ll be only one person dying tonight.”

But the Carningsby residents and visitors who ambled on the dimly lit streets didn’t seem particularly hostile toward each other. They moved slowly. Discussed things in whispers. Stopped and eyed the street corners…

As if they knew they were safe and knew who wasn’t.

“I think only one person will die tonight,” said Flip.

© 2022 Ithaka O.

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