I lean against my puke-green sedan, as it sits parked behind Death’s white Bronco, blocking them into their parking spot. “White Bronco. Pale horse. Nice touch,” I say.
Death’s head tilt is the closest they get to a smile. “The rituals must be observed, even if objects change.”
At our feet, two rats fight. The rats don’t wait for dark anymore.
The rats always know.
Over my shoulder, the blinking red neon sign above the strip club’s entrance blasts an intermittent, undeliverable promise of LIVE NUDE GIRLS.
“I’ve killed the other three. You’re the final one.”
“Don’t you know Heaven awaits after End Times?” Death asks.
“It ain’t about me, or what I know. I got a job.”
One of the rats–bleeding from a neck bite–curls up near Death, leaving its rival to enjoy victory. “Just following orders? Usually a sentiment expressed by those working with me rather than against.”
“You wanna know why I’m doing this?” I ask.
“I’ve got all the time in the end of the world.”
I laugh. It’s not a funny line, but it’s close. I hitch a thumb back to the sign. “Mind if we take a seat?”
I turn on my heels, just like at boot camp.
I shove open the tinted double doors. The music’s set to auto-play. Walking in, trap music’s throbbing bass slaps me in the face, travels down my legs and back up. I pull out a chair for Death at a table near a side stage.
“Can you turn that music off?”
Once seated, I pull out my cellphone and slide it across to Death. “Look at photos 1, 2, and 3.”
As they look, I talk. “Growing up, I was never good at anything. Maybe, I never found anything to be good at, ya know?”
Death pauses to nod. From below, the photo of Pestilence, face stabbed full of needles– plungers compressed, medicinal contents dripping down, stares up at them.
“Middle-of-going-nowhere kid says, ‘Fine, Dad,’ and signs up at his local recruiter’s. Things move fast and he finds that one thing he’s good at isn’t what they put in brochures or on billboards. It’s the killing, stupid.
“So, he takes his talents to the private sector. And Malcolm Gladwells the shit out of killing. The more he does it, the better he is at it. Eventually, gets so good people with real money notice.”
My eyes find the phone. Death’s pale, wrinkled fingers hover over War–naked and bleeding out from a headshot. You can just see the other fleeing orgy participants.
“The people I work for heard about what’s to happen.”
“Signs and portents.”
Death mutters the words, studying the last photo–the one with Famine and the chocolate cake.
(No one ever said art had to be pretty…)
“But my benefactors aren’t Revelation-Truther types. Why would they be? Eyes, camels, and needles, right?”
I wait to see if Death will move. They stay still.
“They’re paying me to kill you and stop the apocalypse.”
Death claps their hands, the sound blending with hair metal keytar–probably used to introduce some sad girl named “Brandy.”
“Curing Pestilence, loving War, feeding Famine. You must be proud.”
“Of course. I take pride in my craft.”
Death pushes my phone back to me. The music promises that we’re “all gonna get laid, all gonna get paid tonight.”
“You can’t kill Death though. Can you?”
I stand, always ready to move fast. I sprint across the stained carpet to the DJ booth. I’m up the steps and yanking open the small half-door separating the DJ from the masses.
“Come down,” Death says, “I admire your work, young man. I’ve always admired the work of young men like you. Don’t end this as a coward.”
I press buttons, turn knobs, and pull sliders on the turntable. The main track drops, pounding drums fade to nothing. The other track–my hidden track–fills the club:
“You’ll remember your mother washing your face after you played in the mud. You won’t remember the mud, but you’ll remember after–and your mother…”
Death’s question stumbles at the gate.
As our eyes meet, I tap the tiny earplugs, inserted back in the sedan. Years of sniper duty and artillery fire, I’m damn good at reading lips and feeling vibrations.
“You’ll remember your first kiss in the sixth grade. She tastes like cinnamon gum…”
Tears fall down Death’s cheeks, as my subliminal recording continues overwriting.
“You’re right,” I say, “I couldn’t kill you, Death.”
“Death?” they ask, familiar with the concept, but a stranger to their name.
I turn off the recording.
They insist their name is the one I’ve implanted. They say that they’re a life insurance salesman. But people aren’t interested in buying policies any more, they say with a chuckle. That chuckle’s a confused and helpless thrashing against settling brainwashed synapses.
They touch their face. Wrinkled fingers pull at the few wispy hairs on their head. This new life settles over Death. I watch them catch a glimpse of their reflection in the mirror ball spinning above the booth. I see them smile–really smile.
Only then do I reach for the Glock taped to the underside of the turntable.
I turn the music back up after I’m finished.
It’s night when I step outside again. I kick a rat, as its fat, pink tail slides across my laces. It lands hard, neck broken on concrete.
Death’s keys dangle from the Bronco’s ignition. Opting for an upgrade, I move aside the sedan and climb into Death’s driver’s seat. I turn the key and fiddle with the radio dial, landing on A.M. static. I peel out of the deserted parking lot and onto a deserted street, with more deserted streets ahead.
In the rear view, I see the top of the neon sign.
“LIVE,” it says.
For now. For now.
This story first appeared in Factor Four Magazine April 2019.
Edited by Marie Ginga
Patrick Barb is a freelance writer and editor from the southern United States, currently living (and trying not to freeze to death) in Saint Paul, Minnesota. Previously, his short fiction has appeared in Sci-Fi & Scary , Crystal Lake Publishing's Shallow Waters Vol. 7, Boneyard Soup Magazine, and other publications (see Patrick Barb for more info).