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The music was jacked up so hard and loud, every note felt like a punch to the head.
Nathaniel shouldered his way through the club's fevered crowd. The black T-shirt under his jacket turned darker, soaking up the mingled sweat of too many bodies packed too close together.
From up on the club's stage, the bass line set the air vibrating like a chrome hammer, cutting through the old-school schranz pumped out by a pair of sequenced TR-909s. The DJ, a near-comatose gearhead slumped behind the equipment rack, paid minimal attention to the Serato cues scrolling by on his beat-up laptop. At 180 BMP, the raw-throated vocal samples sounded like a Thai slasher flick with all the silences and dialogue spliced out. The crowd loved it, writhing wide-eyed into each other with wild abandon.
As Nathaniel watched, he felt the distance between himself and the dancers expand. He knew that they belonged here; he didn't. They were enjoying themselves, in their own frenetic, addled way; he was on the job. He felt hollow and cold inside, envying those who knew so little about death and darkness.
One of the dancers, in a spangly silver outfit that barely covered her hips, threw him a flirty look. She likes you, Nathaniel told himself—the spark that sizzled between her eyes and his seemed to tell him as much. But maybe it meant nothing at all. He didn't know.
"Beat it, punk." To Nathaniel's relief, the girl's obvious boyfriend showed up next to her. Tank top showing off 'roid-enhanced muscles, a forehead that could be spanned by the width of two fingers.
Nathaniel didn't feel like messing around with the guy. Or the girl, or anybody else. He had work to do. He closed his eyes and drew the club's smoke-laden air deep inside himself. He didn't let it out. Instead, a little room opened at the center of his skull, a space he had been in before, and that he had come to dread. But that was part of the job as well. Dark things were in there, and he let them slip out, silent and fatal.
Outside himself, he could hear the music slowing, the beats per minute dropping into the double digits, the treble dopplering down into the bottom octaves, the rumbling bass fading into unheard infrasonic. The crowd's screams and laughter morphed into the dying groan of some immense, wounded beast.
Then there was silence. For which he was grateful. He let the breath out of his aching lungs, and opened his eyes.
Nothing moved. Nothing would, until he let go.
The light had shifted down into the slow red end of the visible spectrum. Across the club, the dancers were frozen in the murky haze, like an ink-wash illustration in some ancient travel guide through the more disturbing circles of Hell. He glanced back over his shoulder and saw the girl, now with wild outflung hands, teeth clenched in the raging sway of the silenced beat and whatever crystalline substance still glittered at the rim of her nostrils. Her hair swung across her face and to one side like a raven's wing. Nathaniel could have walked back over and kissed her, and it wouldn't have been anything more to her than a hallucinated spark inside her brain's overamped circuits. He had done that kind of thing before, when he had first started out on this job and halting Time had been a new thing for him. But he'd stopped when the realization had sunk in that whatever he did, the ones he held in the grip of his power would always have something he could never have. There wasn't a stolen kiss hot enough to thaw the ice that had formed around his heart.
He walked farther across the locked-down tomb that had been the club's dance floor, before he'd willed it otherwise. He looked up at the ceiling's high-domed skylight. Frozen rivulets of rain streaked the glass panes; the storm clouds hung low enough to be edged by the glow of neon from the streets outside. A bright, jagged tangle of lightning cracked the night sky, caught before it could flash back into the dark.
He looked back down and stared at the crowd for another moment. He knew he should be getting on with the job, the reason he had come to the club. But the work he had done already tonight—this was the last one, the last name on the list he carried inside his head—had left him more than tired. Envy and disgust soured his guts.
One thing to stop Time. Another to waste it. Nathaniel headed for the back of the club, brushing past the frenzied, motionless bodies. He knew without glancing over his shoulder—he'd seen it before—that he'd left something behind. His shadow was still there, caught where the reddened light had still been in wave motion, before he'd stopped that as well.
He kept walking, shadowless now.
* * *
Should've waited, Nathaniel told himself, until I got where I needed to be. That was one of the main problems with stopping Time: if people were in the way before, when they were still moving, they were ten times as much of an obstruction after they'd been frozen in place.
Especially someplace like the back of a nightclub, where people went to do the things they didn't want to be seen doing in public. He squeezed past the inert, inconvenient bodies in the tightly packed corridor behind the stage. Some of them were caught against the walls in full-on, stand-up sexual passion, hands and faces all over each other's sweating bodies; they probably wouldn't have noticed him pushing his way past, even if all the world's clocks had still been ticking.
There were others, more furtive and hyperaware of their surroundings, their paranoid, over-the-shoulder scans of the darkened space stapled to their visages by Nathaniel's power. Beneath the dangling lightbulbs and the asbestos-wrapped ductwork, they stood trapped in tight knots, their hands caught passing folded wads of money and receiving little foil-wrapped bundles in exchange.
He managed to get past the various deals going down, both sex- and chemical-driven, all the way to the toilets at the rear of the building. He shoved open the men's room door and stepped inside.
More bodies were frozen in place. Some of them were caught hunched over the white porcelain sinks, vomiting up the hard kick of whatever they had purchased in the corridor outside. Others splashed cold water straight from the taps into their smoke-reddened eyes.
Nathaniel stood in the center of the tiled space, searching for someone. Someone in particular.
"You've done well." A soft, emotionless voice spoke behind him. "Your powers are developing … immensely."
He looked behind himself. And saw Death.
"Thanks," said Nathaniel. "I've been getting a lot of practice lately."
"Indeed." Death's pallid face remained expressionless.
"Maybe … a little too much, actually."
Death slowly nodded. "Ten years you've worked for me. Without complaint." Death lowered his head to peer into his apprentice's eyes. "You've become nearly as proficient in these arts as me. I confess I find it surprising that you speak of weariness now. Now, when you're so close to being that for which I purchased you."
This kind of talk drew a layer of discomfort on top of the fatigue Nathaniel already suffered. Death had treated him kindly enough for the last ten years. Better than Nathaniel's own father would have. He had no complaints. But even so, whenever he came along on what he called Death's reaping rounds, a tension grew inside him. He had come to dread each encounter with those whose names Death gave him.
"Come on." Nathaniel looked away from his master. "Let's get this over with."
"Very well." Death's reply was as flat and uninflected as always. "This way."
Death led him down the row of stalls at the back of the men's room, then pointed to one of the thin metal doors. With the flat of his own hand, Nathaniel shoved it open.
A young guy knelt beside the toilet, but wasn't hurling up his guts. Instead, he had a pocket mirror set out on the seat's lid, with three lines of glistening white powder reflected on the shiny glass. From the pocket of his suit jacket protruded a ripped-open envelope, which had held the six-figure quarterly bonus from the hedge fund company where he was a junior stockbroker. Sweat pasted the guy's hair to his forehead as he looked up with an angry scowl on his narrow face, a twenty-dollar bill rolled into a tube in one hand. "What the hell do you want?"
"You already know." Death spoke in a whisper. "It's time."
Red-rimmed eyes snapping wide, the stockbroker scrambled to his feet. He looked up higher, as if finally noticing the silence, the pounding techno shut down with the other processes of Time. Panicking, he tried to shove his way out of the stall, but Nathaniel caught him with one hand against his thin shoulder. But the stockbroker got far enough to see out into the men's room; the sight of the figures frozen statuelike at the sinks and urinals visibly horrified him. He backed away, trembling hands upraised.
Nathaniel stepped forward. "There's no way to fight this. So, for your own good, try to relax. It won't hurt, I promise."
"But … It can't be happening. I'm still so young."
"Age has nothing to do with it."
He heard the soft, agonized moan that escaped the stockbroker's lips. He felt sorry for the man. Just as he'd felt sorry for all of them. But there was a job to be done. He went on, despite the man's mounting fear.
"It's all right." Nathaniel laid a hand back on the stockbroker's shoulder. "There's nothing to be afraid of.…" He slowly nodded, trying to reassure the man. "Just take it easy. Death isn't the end. Not completely."
The man turned away, unwilling to listen to the hard, simple truth. But Nathaniel knew that he understood, at least a little bit, what was about to take place.
Death slipped past Nathaniel and reached out to the man in the stall. His hand, with no nails at the ends of the fingers, might have been something fashioned from translucent candle wax. As Nathaniel watched, he could feel the metal panels trembling around them, echoing the man's pulse. The vibration hammered at his own spine, too, as the man's heartbeat raced faster and louder. The figure underneath Death's pale hands writhed in fear, his hands pressing at his own chest in an attempt to stop the glow that had started to rise within it. The light of the man's soul burst through Death's outspread fingers, hard and searing enough to blind. Nathaniel twisted away, shielding his eyes. Burned on his retinas was the blurred image of the stockbroker's rib cage, and the fiery ball pressed against it.
He turned farther, so that Death would not witness the agony that was mirrored in his own face, too, as the soul rose up. That dark suffering never ended; it returned with every soul that he saw gathered. All Nathaniel could do was hide his agony within himself, so that his master did not see.
Behind him, he could hear the body jolting against the side of the stall. And a smaller, sharper noise, as one by one the pins, which had held the divine and unsullied essence prisoner inside the corrupted flesh, snapped. The last one broke apart, and Nathaniel could sense the light slowly gathering itself into the air.
The soul floated free for a moment, caught between Death's waxen hands. Then, with a whispered incantation, Death lifted it further into the air and released it from the mortal world forever—sending it away to the distant realm of Purgatory, where its sins would be judged and its eternal fate pronounced.
The brilliance faded; soon enough, the pain Nathaniel had endured would diminish as well. He turned around again and saw the lifeless, blank-eyed corpse slumped between the toilet and the side of the stall. He tried to slow his own racing pulse, taking one deep breath after another. This part of the job was over.
Something had gone wrong. The pain filling his chest—it didn't pass, as it always had before. It sharpened, as though his heart were seized in a steel-taloned fist, tighter and tighter. A new fear, dark and unrecognizable, coiled around his spine.
Dizzied by his own unfamiliar panic, he gripped the stall's door to keep from falling. He could hear Death's musing words.
"Why are they always surprised?" Death sounded almost puzzled, even though it was the same question he had asked so many times before. "By something they know will come. From the moment they are born—they know."
Nathaniel tried to answer. But couldn't. The knifelike pain—blazing as it was sharp—had stabbed him when he had felt the fiery ball rising from the man's chest. Now it grew as large as the world, annihilating every thought. He screamed in agony, and the floor swung toward his face.
As consciousness faded, he was dimly aware of Death standing above him.
"What has happened to you?"
Through the bathroom's one small window, he could see the frozen lightning, caught as it streaked across the night sky. Somewhere, out beyond the rain and the stars, the gears of Time started up again. But not inside Nathaniel. In there, it was just blackness and silence …
Copyright © 2012 by Gareth Jefferson Jones and St. Martin's Press