Death sighed and consulted the next name on the list. Another heart attack. Why couldnt it be something more interesting? Like, say, a car wreck. It had been a long time since the last car wreck assignment. But the preferred method now was heart attacks. Oh, and cancer. Lung canacer, breast cancer, prostate cancer, skin cancer, brain cancer, cancer, cancer up the wazoo. The same routine over and over again, day after day. Why couldnt there be a nice car wreck?
Death sighed again. The price of being low man on the totem pole. There were actually thousands of beings called Death; there had to be, to take care of all the people dropping like flies all over the world. Naturally, the structure inside this organization was based on seniority. Every angel had to pull death duty once in a while, but the ones whod been on duty the longest called the shots, and they made sure they got the most interesting assignments. Plane crashes, terrorist bombings, mysterious wasting diseases; these were the dream of every Fatality Agent. But no plane crash in history had ever been assigned to anything less than a Morbid Avatar.
Death read the biographical data off the list. The subject was one Myra Kendall, age 54. Occupation, professor of womens studies at New York University. A well-known feminist, author of several highly acclaimed novels and famous for her fiery rhetoric on the lecture circuit. A heavy smoker, for which the regional Fatality Coordinator had gleefully deducted 12 years and 7 months from her previously allotted lifespan. Never married, no close relatives. Scheduled to speak that day at a conference in Manhattan.
Now this might have possibilities. The time of death was left up to the agent in the field, provided only that the subject died on the day specified. And while the death had to be by the method specified, the way in which it came about was also at the agents discretion. Ordinary murders had become spectacular terminations of treasonous spies as a result of subtle interference.
The key here was to arrange a particularly dramatic or artistic death. Aesthetically pleasing deaths, deaths with that extra special zing, resulted in rewards for the agents involved. One friend of Deaths had received a routine heart attack assignment for a well-known rebel leader, who gave regular speeches to rally his forces. At the perfect moment in the middle of the speech, the angel struck, and the dying leaders last words were "the rebellion will live forever..." The angels superiors had been so delighted by this that the angel received a promotion on the spot, a most unusual violation of the seniority system. But not everyone was blessed with such creativity. Another angel that Death knew simply knocked people off left and right. Despite impeccable efficiency ratings, he had been a lowly Fatality Agent for 277 years, and would remain in that position until seniority absolutely mandated his promotion.
It was time to get to work. Death pulled on the regulation uniform and, as usual, winced at the result. The ominous black cloak and gigantic reaper were bad enough, but the artificial skull was just plain putrid. Even more than the uniform itself, Death hated the fact that it made it impossible to travel incognito. It was quite difficult to escape notice when every human who saw you instantly recognized you for what you were. The uniform had been originally designed by an ambitious young angel with a backlog of heart attack assignments. His idea was to try to scare people so much with the outfit that they would drop over dead. This method had met with decidedly mixed results, but that once-young angel was now the Grand Executioner, and had instituted the uniform policy immediately upon his ascension to the top post. As he would remain there for another 3,000 years or so until his tour of duty was up, everyone would just have to get used to it. Not for the first time, Death roundly cursed the Grand Executioner.
Well. There was no sense crying over spilt milk. An agent had to be within 100 feet of the subject to execute the fatality. It was possible, but tedious, to make arrangements to secure a hiding place near the podium where Kendall was scheduled to speak. The problem was that after Deaths friend was promoted, many copycats had tried to come up with artistic deaths on the "Last Words" theme. The top brass had become so incensed by the constant predictability of orators deaths that they had threatened to declare a moratorium on this tactic, whereupon it had fallen distinctly out of fashion. That had been many years ago, but Death did not want to be unfashionable or tedious today. And Kendalls apartment was only a few blocks away. Death considered carefully. Hmm. Yes. That was the way to do it.
The apartment was a posh affair, as expected. Kendall was obviously well-to-do from her royalties and speech honoraria, not that it would do her good for much longer. Death smiled at the sounds of activity coming from the kitchen. Kendall lived alone and cooked her own meals. Death entered the room.
Kendall froze at the gentle throat-clearing sound behind her and slowly turned around. "My God," she said softly. The figure at the door was obviously supernatural, radiating a black glow and levitating a foot in the air. And the cloak, scythe, and skull were instantly recognizable.
"Your time has come, Myra," the figure said.
"No! Wait!" she screamed. "I have work left to do!"
The figure gave a ghastly rictus grin. "And what work might that be?"
Kendall babbled and stammered, then managed to get herself under control. "Women are oppressed in the world today. We earn less than men, we are sexually harrassed, we do not even have the right to vote in many countries. Please, let me live. I must continue the struggle for women. I want to live to see the day when we have true equality. Please!"
The figure chuckled softly. "A reasonable wish."
Myra Kendall sagged against the refrigerator in relief as Death sank to the floor, stopped radiating the menacing glow, and began to take off the uniform.
And Myra Kendall screamed and fell over stone dead.
Death was furious. "What do you mean, Im being given a demerit!! That was the most artistic fatality I have ever arranged!"
The supervising angel was sympathetic. "I entirely agree. But the Grand Executioner himself ruled on this one. You are to be reprimanded for removing your uniform while on duty."
"But the artistry required that I do so!"
The supervisor smiled sadly. "Yes. This is most ironic, is it not? It seems you did not fulfill Kendalls request after all."
Death snarled. "That pig! When I am Grand Executioner, I will make them all pay!" And Death strode out of the room, leaving the supervisor alone with his thoughts.
He smiled. Now there was a pretty one. With brains too she had understood exactly how Kendall would react to the knowledge that Death was a woman. And such spirit! She had been so angry she hadnt realized the demerit had not been served yet. And it would not be served; not if she were nice to him. Very nice. He laughed.
There were definite possibilities here.