by Stephen G Parks
The Grim Reaper has been summoned by angry young girls looking for vengeance. He’s been summoned by rich old men looking to make a deal. He’s been summoned by apprentice witches foolishly trying to prove their skills to peers.
He’d never previously been summoned by the Internal Revenue Service. The novelty of it was enough to ensure he answered.
Bah-BOOM. The door of the interview room slammed shut. The far seat was suddenly occupied by his large, dark bulk.
“I was summoned?” The Grim Reaper looked, well, not up, because even seated he was as tall as the one standing in front of him. So he looked … out … with his glowing red eye sockets at … a newly minted agent of the IRS. The agent looked a little embarrassed at how loudly the door had shut.
“You were. Thank you for appearing.” The agent sat down opposite the Grim Reaper. A stack of files sat on the desk. The Reaper had been aware of them, but hadn’t felt curiosity. It wasn’t part of his makeup.
The Grim Reaper pushed the reconstructed summons-to-appear toward the agent. “I don’t appreciate the method used. A confetti gun loaded with a shredded summons, hooked to the heart monitor of a terminal man? There was a lack of grace, of style. Uncouth, one might say.”
“It touched you. You were served. That’s the law. Shall we begin?” Agent Healey turned on the voice recorder. “Your name, for the record, is the Grim Reaper?”
“Yes. And what shall I call you?” The Reaper saw the clip-on name tag, “Ah, yes. Investigator Chuck Healey. Tell me about your family, Investigator Chuck Healey…”
“Personal questions will not be tolerated.”
“Nor answered, I presume.” If the Grim Reaper could change facial expressions, that tone would have had a Machiavellian smile attached it. As it was, the Reaper had to settle for its usual fixed grin. “Do you feel fear?”
In the observation room, connected by cameras, but safely separated by two floors and many doors, observers were getting worried.
“He's losing it.” One agent whispered.
“This could be so bad,” said another. “This was such a mistake.”
“Just wait. Have faith.” The focus technician replied. “All of the parameters are within the range of normal.”
“Intimidation will not be tolerated,” Healey continued, just a slight hint of sternness edging in the voice. “Do you have a fixed address?”
“No. Do you?”
“Irrelevant.” Healey, unfazed by the Grim Reaper’s stare, flipped open a legal pad. “On the street, they call you ‘Death’?”
“They do?” The Grim Reaper sat up straighter, as if that were possible. He had not heard this before.
“Yes,” Investigator Healey paused. Every response had been anticipated, practiced, scripted - except that one. How to go forward? Healey read the Grim Reaper’s presumed biography, “You are a member of a gang called the Four Horsemen — ”
“Yes, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.” The Grim Reaper just shook his head. “War? Pestilence? Famine? Are none of these familiar to you?”
The Grim Reaper kept shaking his head. “Words. Nouns? Nothing more.”
“Oh come, everybody’s heard these stories.”
Healey nodded. This was going to be more challenging than expected. The agent scribbled a note on the legal pad, knowing the observers would be able to read it. The Grim Reaper leaned over, curious to see what Healey had written, but the agent pulled an arm around, shielding the notes from the Grim Reaper’s view.
“Do you mind?” Slight indignation crept into Healey’s voice. Then the agent straightened up, turned to a fresh page on the legal pad. “The quicker we start, the quicker we can finish. Do you know why you are here?”
“Of course. I believe I know better than you do.”
“Fine. The charges that are being investigated are that you have been complicit in tax fraud by participating in assisted suicides at optimal times for tax purposes. Do you understand?”
“I’ve…” The Grim Reaper paraphrased, “killed people so that they could pay less tax?”
“Do dead people come back to life?”
“I could ask you that, but from my understanding, usually no.”
“So, how is dying in any way a tax advantage to a human?” The Grim Reaper had never paid much heed to taxes. He was aware of the saying, Death and Taxes, but he hadn’t known that it meant him, specifically. Now that he thought about it, it seemed so odd, conjoining a recurring event with a once in a lifetime encounter.
Healey, falling back on training protocols, shrugged off the Grim Reaper’s question.
“Let’s talk about,” Healey pulled down the top case file, “Mabel Huffinper. Do you know that name?”
“I don’t remember names, per se.” Healey opened the file and showed the Grim Reaper a picture. The shake turned to a nod. It had been a nice private care room in a very large mansion.
“She died December 31, 2023,” Healey summarized. “A day later and her estate would have been taxed at seventy-five percent. Instead her estate paid only fifty-five percent. We lost a lot of money due to that one day’s difference. Tell me, was she alive when you arrived, Mr Death?”
“They’re all alive when I arrive. Otherwise I would not be needed. And it’s Reaper.”
“Sorry, Mr Reaper.” Again with the scribbling of notes, “So, you admit to killing Mabel Huffinper? In aiding and abetting tax fraud?”
“I admit that I did my job. I am unaware of such things as tax fraud.”
“Ignorance of the law is no excuse for breaking it, Mr Reaper.” Healey chastised.
Healey paused, changing tack to a more conciliatory tone. A hand reached out and patted the Grim Reaper’s digits. “This doesn’t look good for you. At this time I am obliged to advise you that you are allowed legal counsel. Would you like to call a lawyer or have a court appoint one for you?”
“I know no living lawyers. Although I’ve met all the greats,” The Grim Reaper chuckled, “in passing.”
“Please stop trying to intimidate me, it will not work.”
“I’m not trying to intimidate you,” Death slowly turned his red gaze straight into the camera mounted above the locked door.
In the crowded observation room there was panic.
“Why’s he looking at us? Is everyone OK? Anyone? Everyone?”
Some discretely messaged family members to ensure that they were safe. A few simply sent “I love you” to those closest to them, last words, if needed. More than one questioned the decisions that had led them into this very room at this very time.
It took a few moments for the sweep of hysteria to pass, but they were all well, give or take a bladder.
“Let’s talk about Zarinne Shoshanni,” Agent Healey continued, unperturbed, as the next case file fell open on the desk, photo ready. The Grim Reaper leaned in at that one. It had bothered him: A reaction to a bee sting, a missing Epipen, Her daughter crying for help. It should never have happened. And then the ambulance had shown up, just too late.
Just too late to beat the Grim Reaper.
He had wondered often, should he have waited? But Zarinne had thanked him, even as she had tried unsuccessfully to comfort her daughter, her wispy form passing through the girl twice before giving up.
“It’s better this way,” she had told Death as she faded.
“Maria Shoshanni saved almost three million dollars in taxes, thanks to you.” The Grim Reaper was slower to react to this one. A faint shake of his head started to get stronger. If Agent Healey was aware of the rising anger, he didn’t show it. “Sir, honestly, we have no jurisdiction over you —”
“Nor, honestly, I over you,” Metaphysical spittle jumped from the Grim Reaper’s non-existent lips.
“— However, I have been tasked with informing you that estate and inheritance taxes are increasing again this year. Please do not interfere with the government of the United States’ ability to collect what is rightfully ours.”
“Rightfully yours? You have no rights. I am not responsible for human constructs of obligations and responsibilities.” He spoke directly to Agent Healey, leaning in, raising his voice. “And I am not responsible for you.”
If Healey felt anything, it didn’t show, not even a blink. Nerves of steel.
The Grim Reaper stood tall, polar bear tall, and turned to look levelly at the camera. “I have had enough of this. Summons me again for this foolishness and there will be a price.”
And he was gone, leaving a pile of ash where the summons-to-appear had been.
In the observation room, cheering broke out, as much from relief as from excitement.
“How the hell did we pull that off?” One of the few actual IRS agents in the room looked around. It was a crowded room, filled with department heads, computer technicians, and soldiers.
“Ssh. Let’s get Healey down first.”
“How is he?”
“Energy’s at thirty-two percent. Lower than expected. Time to recharge.”
“Sleep, call it ‘sleep’.”
A tech opened a line. “Hey, Chuck, well done. It’s time to sleep.”
On the camera they watched Healey pull a cable out from under the table, plug it into his fingertip and go to sleep. The quiet expectation within the room finally broke.
“He passed, right? Healey passed?” One of the techs kept asking against the sound of cheering and backslapping.
“Yes, son,” Major General Hendricks assured him, speaking loudly enough for all to hear. “Chuck Healey v4.0 passed your Turing test with flying colours.”
“Um, sir …. I … I, I don’t think he did.” A young woman was waving a printout towards the General.
“Who are you?” The General wanted to freeze her with terror, he wanted to ensure that she knew just how much trouble she was in for raining on his parade.
“I… uh … I’m the transcriptionist?” She hesitantly tapped the printout. “I think we failed.”
He snatched the papers from her hand, refusing to break eye contact,his icy stare willing her to disappear.
But the temperature drop in the room was real, and sudden; the lights dimming noticeably; shivering and clouds of expelled breath broke out everywhere.
The voice that spoke was sonorous; soul-penetrating in a way that the General could only dream his would ever be.
“So do I.” Was all it said.