CHAPTER ONE


“Will the defendant please rise?” said the judge about to pass sentence on a burglar. Margold James, the lawyer, and the defendant to whom the judge referred, got to their feet. Six foot seven inch Margold stood, his fingertips touching the table, the defendant’s file open before him.

Today was a routine sentencing after a plea agreement had been reached, and nobody expected the lad to do any actual time. Even the officer from parole and probation who had prepared the pre-sentencing report for the judge recommended a suspended sentence and probation.

Margold had put on a dog-and-pony-show, parading the defendant’s mother, brother, and friends before the judge pleading for leniency for the poor misguided defendant who needed but one more chance. An otherwise fine young lad who transgressed only this once by burglarizing apartments. In contrast, the State presented testimony from the victims, who described in detail the horror and anguish they felt upon realizing they had been robbed. Those victims who could not come to court had written letters to the judge, which he considered silently, Margold having already seen them.

Margold reckoned everyone in the room, except for the lawyers, the judge, and the deputies, had cried during the hearing.  His job was over. All he had to do was hear the sentence and deal with the aftermath. His mind had already turned to the question of whether he would have two or three olives in his martini.

The judge, a man in his 60s known for leniency, gazed straight ahead while the defendant got to his feet. The prosecutor, a woman in her early 30s, plain of face, uninteresting of figure, and dressed in a black pantsuit, remained seated, eyed the defendant with disdain. 

The tired and shopworn courtroom smelled of mildew and disinfectant. The carpet was filthy, the tables scratched and marred, the chairs soiled by human grease. The judge’s bench, so far from the counsel tables it might as well have been on another planet, contributed to its black-robed occupant’s air of aloofness and superiority.

The defendant, a tall athletic college boy from a well-to-do but not rich family had been caught by the police crawling out of the window of someone else’s apartment. While in police custody, and without the benefit of counsel, he had had the wisdom to write out and sign confessions to several other unsolved burglaries in the same area. In the boy’s defense, he did so on the promise that he would not be charged. The cops only needed to clear the books with respect to some unsolved break-ins. On the basis of these confessions, however, the boy was charged with seventeen different crimes. Margold, seeing the error of the cops’ ways, had gotten all the charges arising from the confession dropped. The real problem he faced today, though, was that the boy and his family expected him to get off with a good scolding, and be sent home to smoke weed and jerk off in the comfort of his upper middle-class bedroom. The investigator for the pre-sentencing report reinforced that notion, and Margold knew even the State didn’t expect him to go to jail.

Nevertheless, the judge could give the boy a fair piece of the twenty-five years to which he was subject. Margold tried to prepare the lad and his family for this eventuality. After all, society frowns on breaking into other people’s houses and taking their stuff. The boy’s mother, however, was sure no judge would put her little William in prison, particularly once she had the chance to explain what a good and upstanding young man he was, and that none of what he did was his fault.

With lawyer and defendant standing, the judge lectured the boy at length, sometimes loudly and with great animation and pounding of bench. He made reference to the statements from the victims, how they were violated, and pointing out that the home is sacred. How would he feel? Margold took that as a good sign. Often a good public ass-chewing is followed by a lenient disposition. The prosecutor looked on with a smug grin, arms folded, legs crossed. Margold grew impatient. Even after twenty-five years, he still felt as though the judge addressed him personally when berating a client. Yeah, yeah, yeah, we know what he did, all against the peace, dignity, and government of the State. Out with it.

The judge grew quiet, took a drink of water, and wrote something on a form. Two deputies moved in behind the defendant. 

In a calm voice, the judge addressed the boy. “Young man, you are an enigma to me. You come from a good home. Your parents care about you. You have many advantages and privileges that few enjoy. And yet—”

His mother stood. “Your honor?” 

Jesus.

“Please, ma’am,” the judge said, “don’t interrupt. You’ve had your say.”

“But—”

“But nothing. Kindly sit down and be quiet, or I’ll have to remove you from the courtroom.”

Margold turned to her and held up is hand for her to stay calm and sit down.

The judge continued. “And yet, you break into other peoples’ homes. I’ll never understand it.”

A terrible silence filled the room as the judge shuffled papers on the bench. 

“You are a very lucky man,” the judge said. “Mr. James has done an excellent job of protecting your rights and working to mitigate your punishment. But there has to be punishment. After considering arguments of counsel in mitigation, and after considering the pre-sentencing investigation, I hereby sentence you to five years in the penitentiary—”

His mother cried out.

“Silence!” the judge said. “All suspended but ninety days.”

Oh boy. The son-of-a-bitch had his pockets full of bullshit, wore a belt, carried a cell phone, and had a wallet the size of a Volkswagen, none of which was allowed in jail.

The boy’s mother began to scream and cry. The prosecutor watched the scene with her mouth open, as even she didn’t expect the little parasite to go to prison. The judge called for order. One of the deputies handed Margold all the boy’s horseshit, put the cuffs on him, and took him from the courtroom. Margold turned to face the unhappy family and handed them the boy’s belongings.

It was not because his client went to jail that Margold was unhappy. Little William would have gotten five to ten if it weren’t for Margold. Fuck him. The little bastard did a lot more than he got punished for. The real bitter herb that called for about a gallon of gin to wash out of his throat was the fact Margold knew the shithead’s mother would blame him. It would be all Margold’s fault the boy went to jail, although she ought to be on her fucking hands and knees thanking him, crawling around barking like a dog in gratitude that he only got ninety days. He’d be out in sixty if he behaved himself. Fucking enabler.

The boy’s father just stood there like the pussy-whipped dope he was. When they left the room, the boy’s father, for all his faults, was polite and shook Margold’s hand, thanked him, and said good-bye. His mother turned her back.

On the way to his car Margold reached into his pocket for the cash to pay the parking garage. It was empty. He had left his wallet at home. He had no driver’s license, no credit card, no ID, no money, no nothing. Not penny one, and no way to get it. He couldn’t buy so much as a cup of coffee. “Cocksucker,” he said out loud. 

Although he had many cases in this jurisdiction, his office was in another county, and he didn’t know many people here. He didn’t want to go back to the court house because his client’s family no doubt lurked there planning his death. Maybe he could sweet-talk the girl at the parking lot gate. She always seemed nice. But that was probably because he just paid his bill and was not a pain in the ass. Then the prosecutor emerged from the court.

Fortunately, he had talked to this woman many times and been very friendly and professional toward her. He had learned early in his career to be nice to opposing counsel. Laymen think lawyers are argumentative and confrontational with each other because that’s what they see on TV. Although that sometimes happens, it’s the exception. For one thing, it always helps the case reach a favorable conclusion if the lawyers get along, or are at least civil to each other. More importantly, you never know when opposing counsel will be appointed to the bench. You don’t want to wake up one day with the guy you screwed over a time or two hearing your case. So, as a lawyer, as in any profession, it was important to treat your peers with courtesy and respect. You may need a favor one day to save your ass. 

He crossed the street to meet her.

“Hey, Sue,” he said, “that was a bit of a surprise.”

She smiled. “Yeah, I didn’t expect him to go to jail.”

“Neither did Mom. She doesn’t seem able to take a joke.”

She laughed. “No, I’d say she was a tad bit unhappy.”

“That’s an understatement.”

“On the other hand, you can’t say that justice wasn’t done.”

“No, absolutely. By the way, I seem to have left all my money and my wallet home this morning.” He turned his pockets inside out. “Might you be able to spot a learned friend about five American to get his car out of hock?”

“Tsk, tsk, tsk. There is justice in the world after all.”

“Come on. We’re both really on the same side. We both want justice.”

She rolled her eyes. “I’ve seen you in action enough times to know that justice is not necessarily your goal.”

“Oh, now. Depends on what you mean by justice.”

She shook her head. “I’ll give you the money, but don’t forget that I’m a government employee, not a big rich defense attorney. Pay me back.”

“No problem, as soon as the client pays me.” He immediately regretted letting that slip.

She furrowed her brow. “You’ve got to be kidding. You haven’t been paid?”

Margold thought he detected a hint of perverse pleasure in her voice. He scrunched up his face as if in pain. “Not all I got comin’.”

She laughed again, a pleasurable laugh, as though watching clowns at the circus. “Here,” she said, giving him five bucks.

He folded it and put it in his shirt pocket. “Thanks.”

“Pay me back, even if you have to borrow it from your secretary.”

“My secretary has cut me off.”

She smiled and shook her head.

“I’m good for it. You'll see.”

“That’s what my brother says.”

“There’s one in every family, but I’m the good son.”

“Sure.”

“Thanks again,” he said, shaking her hand. “Take it easy, and good doing business with you. See you next time.”

“No problem, Margold, see ya. And don’t forget, I know where you live.”

“I’ll pay, I’ll pay. Jeez, you’re worse than my secretary.”

He crossed the street to the parking garage. Nice girl. Up close and friendly, out in the street away from all the conflict, she didn’t look all that bad. She didn’t have good skin, it being pale and pot-marked, but there was something attractive about her. She was slender, and something in her eyes said she could be a lot of fun with a little tequila in her.

#

Back at the office, his secretary sat at her desk typing. In her 70s, short gray hair, ashen skin and deep raspy voice of a smoker of many years (now reformed), she began working at the law firm before Margold went to law school. Although her beauty had been obscured by booze, time, and tobacco, Margold would like to have seen her fifty years ago. She knew every client the firm had for the past forty-five years, what their case was about, the outcome, and probably the file number. And she knew where everything was. It was like watching a magic show when he would ask for some obscure long-forgotten thing, and she would cause it to materialize before him. The best part was that her name was Evelyn. Nobody had named a kid Evelyn since Roosevelt. 

“I hope you’re looking at the keys,” he said, closing the door behind him.

“Ha, ha. You and Soupy Sales.”

He laughed. 

“What happened to William?” she asked.

“He got five years.” 

Her eyes grew big and she gasped. “They took him to prison?”

“No, no. To the detention center. The judge suspended all but ninety days.”

“He’s actually going to jail for ninety days?”

“Yep, although it will probably be less with good behavior.”

She frowned. “Serves him right.” 

“You have no sympathy. He was a good boy. It wasn’t his fault.”

“Then whose fault was it?”

“It was obviously mine,” he said, pouring himself a cup of coffee.

“Why do they always blame the lawyer?” she asked, shaking her head.

“Who else you gonna blame? Mom and Dad? No, they only raised him. Was it his fault? Of course not, he was the victim in all this.”

“He was the victim?” she said.

“Yeah. Somehow, in their minds, he was driven to this by circumstances beyond his control. He’s a good boy, and for the court to treat him this way is just plain wrong.”

She put her head in her hands.

“He’s obviously going to jail because the lawyer didn’t do his job.” He blew on his coffee and took a sip. “What they fail to understand is the reason he’s not going to the penitentiary for twenty years is because I pulled a frickin’ rabbit out of my hat.”

She looked up. “He was just a spoiled brat who always got away with everything.” She slammed a file drawer shut. “There were never any consequences for his actions. His mother always covered up for him, or made excuses.”

“Ipso facto.”

She fixed her eyes on him. “Did he pay you?”

“What do you think? It’s all I could do to get out of there with my skin.”

“Guess what. Not counting today, he owes you ten grand.”

Bile rose in Margold’s throat and screamed for gin. His first instinct was to shout every cuss word he knew, and he was pretty much a walking encyclopedia of obscenity. “Obese probability of ever seeing any of that.”

The secretary mumbled something under her breath he could not hear, but had the sound of indignation and disgust, as she noisily shuffled papers on her desk.

“Anything else I need to know about?” he asked.

“Not really. Mr. Whozits called about his neighbor again, but that’s it.”

“He can wait. I’ve had enough fun for one day. I'm going home. See you tomorrow.”

#

Blue light from the big TV filled the dark room, reflecting in Margold’s glasses and beer bottle. His Golden Retriever, Fred, lay stretched out at his feet, snoring. “Take a knee,” Margold calmly told the quarterback. “Six seconds left, and we’re up by a field goal. All you gotta do is take a knee, and . . .” The center snapped the ball, which went dancing across the turf. A big fat lineman from the opposing team, who never has had, and never will again have, a touchdown, scooped it up and lumbered into the end zone. Game over.

“Son-of-a-bitch,” he shouted at the TV, “I want that butterfingered quarterback shot.” Fred raised his head, sighed, and put it back down. Margold picked up a bottle and drew back his arm to throw it at the screen. As a younger man with a cheaper TV, he might have done it, but, after two pumps of the arm, he remembered this TV cost five grand. Middle age had tempered his tendency to destroy shit when other shit didn’t go his way.

His son, Jonathan, would normally be here with him watching the game, but he had had a more pressing matter that evening. Margold got up to get another beer and to call Jonathan to commiserate. As he turned toward the fridge, he was surprised by the sight of a man, whom he didn’t know and didn’t hear come in, and who hitherto had not been in the room, occupying one of the large leather chairs facing the TV. He jumped a little at the shock. Fred didn’t move.

Must be one of the fags from his wife’s book club. Maybe he should be polite. Instead of saying the litany of obscenities that went through his mind, and in spite of the effects of six or seven beers consumed during the game, and in spite of his current state of mind as a result of the outcome of the game, all he said was “Can I help you?”

The man considered Margold for a moment, legs crossed, wearing a very expensive suit and sporting a dapper haircut. He smiled and said “Yes, you may. That’s why I’m here.”

Margold had learned a long time ago not to be rude and obnoxious until you knew exactly to whom you were being rude and obnoxious. At least the guy had the decency to wait until the game was over to barge in. Between the beer and the fumble, however, there was a limit to the extent of his good nature. Incivility was on the tip of his tongue, but this must certainly be a friend of his wife who came down to see whether he knew where the chai was. How else would he have gotten in, and how else would he have had the balls to sit in one of his chairs looking self-important?

“By all means,” Margold said. “Please, how may I be of service?”

“I’m not sure where to begin. I’m not accustomed to coming in like this and talking to people.”

“While you work that out, maybe I can get you a drink. How ’bout some beer? Or maybe you would prefer scotch.” Nobody was going to say a man sat in Margold James’ club room without a drink in his hand.

“Scotch would be very nice, thank you.”

Margold poured the drink without asking whether he wanted ice. Nobody was gonna put ice in this scotch in this house.

“Now,” Margold said, “why don’t you get to the point? I need to drown my sorrows. Let’s just start with who are you?”

The man swallowed a sip of scotch. “Very well.” He hesitated. “I don’t know why I’m finding this so difficult, but I’ll just come out and say it.”

“Please,” Margold said, pouring himself a drink. “That’s always the best way.”

“This may sound cliché, but I am known by many names.”

“Why don’t you just tell me what your friends call you.”

Again the man hesitated, swirled his glass. “Death. They call me Death.”

Margold blinked at the man over his glasses. “What?”

“I am commonly called ‘Death.’”

Margold shouted up the stairs for his wife. “Mare-ree!” Then he asked the man “Are you here for the book club? If you just wanted to get a scotch off me, all you had to do was ask. Say: ‘Hi, my name is Ethelrod, or whatever, I’m here reading Oprah’s book of the frickin’ month, and I would like a scotch, pretty please with sugar on top, no ice.’ I’d have given you a scotch, no problem. Any guest in my house can have a scotch, Oprah fan or not.”

“She can’t hear you.”

“Who?” Margold asked with his face screwed up.

“Your wife. She’s not here.”

He shouted up to the kitchen again. “Mare!” 

No answer.

“And I’m not here for the book club.”

“Do an old man a favor, and just scurry on out of here before I lose my temper. I have some serious and prolonged drinking to do before I go to bed. It’s already late and I have a few windmills to tilt at tomorrow.”

“You must learn to relax, Mr. James, it’s going to kill you. And you wouldn’t kick a man out before he finished his drink, would you?”

Margold yelled upstairs again.

“I told you, she’s not here.”

“If you’re not here for the book club, and my wife is not here, where did you come from and how did you get in?”

“That’s complicated.”

“I’m a lawyer. I deal with complications all day long. Give it a shot.”

“You seem agitated, so I’ll get to the point.”

“Lovely.”

“I am the Angel of Death. My job is to separate the soul from the body at the moment of death which, to a great extent, is determined by me.”

Margold poured himself a big glass of scotch and dropped into his chair. He would sit and listen to what this nut had to say, then escort him to the door. And from now on, the book club would be banned from the house. He can’t have these kooks waltzing in begging for scotch and scaring the hell out of him. “You must be one busy son-of-a-bitch these days.”

The man smiled. “I’m here to personally deliver a message to you.”

“A message? A message from whom?”

“From me. I wanted to give it to you myself.”

Margold swallowed a mouthful of scotch. “I’m listening, but hurry it up. My attention span is shortened with every sip of booze.”

“The message is this: you’re going to die six months from . . . right now.”

Margold’s anger rose. He stood and pointed to the stairs. “That tears it. Now get out of here.”

The man leaned back in the chair, spreading his arms across the back of it. “I understand if you’re skeptical.”

“Skeptical might not be the right word. Skeptical means I don’t believe it, but there could be something to it. I think the right word is outraged. Pissed. I’m outraged and pissed that someone would just walk in here and tell a man he’s going to die.”

“I understand your point of view, but please bear with me. I’m not a nut, and I’m quite serious. You have six months to live.”

“I’ll play along. How do you know that? Are you from the doctor’s office?”

“No. There’s nothing wrong with you. There is no reason for you to die, other than I decided you would. I decided to tell you the exact time because I want to see what you will do.”

“That’s it?”

“That’s it.”

Margold furrowed his brow. “See what I will do in what respect?”

“How you want to be remembered. How you spend the rest of your time.”

“Seems like kind of a flimsy reason to take me from this Earth and the bosom of my family.”

“Yes, well—”

“I’m not buying it. First of all, I’m not buying that you’re the Angel of Death, as I don’t believe in such things. Secondly, although I’m right close to picking you up and throwing you out, you bring up an interesting topic, and I’ve had just enough booze to make me want to wax philosophical. But most of all, I’m not buying the reason. From what I see on the news, Death has much better things to do than waltz into a guy’s house and tell him the hour of his death just to see what he does. Why don’t you tell me the real reason?”

Death smiled, looking into his glass as he swirled his drink. “What I’m doing is not without precedent. Are you familiar with the story of Job in the Bible?”

“I’m not exactly a biblical scholar. Maybe you could help me with that.”

“Job was a very devout man, ‘blameless and upright,’ as the Bible describes him, with lots of wealth and a large family. One day God and his sons are having a little get together—”

“Sons? God had sons? I thought he had only one son, and I take it this story predates the birth of that one.”

“That’s a discussion for another day. I’m simply relating the story.”

“Fine, go on.”

“In comes Satan. God asks Satan where he’s been.”

Margold held up his hand. “I don’t want this to turn into a biblical debate, but Satan and God are just having a chat?”

“That’s what it says. Satan says he’s just been strolling about the Earth. God asks him whether he had a chance to see Job, what a good and upright man he is. Satan says of course, you gave him everything, and he’s rich. Take away his stuff and he will curse you. God says no, Job will remain faithful. They make a little wager. God gives Satan a free hand to ruin Job, so long as he doesn’t kill him. It’s not quite clear whether God does the actual dirty work, or it’s Satan, but they take away his wealth, kill his family, and make him sick, to see whether he turns from God. In other words, simply to see what he does.”

“Seems like a rather prick-like thing to do.”

“The morality of it is open to debate. In any case, that’s all there is to it.”

“Don’t you have someone else, someone who is really going to die, to try this little experiment on?”

“No. A sick person, a person who has been diagnosed with a disease from which they will soon die has the benefit of the family knowing it as well. They try the treatment, of course, which puts them in the hospital and degrades the quality of what’s left of their lives, but they are still able to wind things up. Everyone knows what they’re doing and why. They may have a chance to set things straight, do things they’ve always wanted to do. Quit their jobs. Spend all their money. And many of them get religion.

“You, on the other hand, have no physical ailments or conditions that will kill you before your time. You have only my word. Since there will be no other evidence of it, your friends and family won’t believe it. You’ll be in the unenviable position of knowing when you’re going to die, but having nothing wrong with you to cause you to die. Nothing you can show to others to gain their sympathy and support. Within this vacuum you have to decide how you want to spend your last days, which will depend on how you want to be remembered.”

“But why me? I can think a lot of people much more deserving of this than I am. For example, wouldn’t humanity be better served by doing up that shithead running North Korea?”

“You are where the die was cast, if you will.”

“You’re warning me, is that it? In other words, you’re telling me that if I don’t watch out I’m going to be hit by a bus, or something, in six months. Be nicer. Don’t cuss. Stop drinking.”

Death shook his head and sipped his scotch. “No. I’m telling you you’re going to die, no matter what you do.”

“I’m too drunk for this. Wait, I get it. I represented your wife in a divorce.”

“No, Mr. James, I am not a disgruntled spouse. I am Death.”

“Then you’re a religious nut trying to convert me. You’re barking up the wrong tree.”

“Nope. Just Death.”

“Tell you what, Mr. Death, if you’re quite finished, Bible School is over. Take your leave by going out the way you came in. If you get out now, I won’t call the cops. I’m a criminal defense lawyer, and I’m loathe to call the cops, but I will.”

“Very well, Mr. James, I’m leaving. I know you don’t believe me, and I didn’t expect you to, but I wanted to start the ball rolling, as it were. Start the clock. You and I will talk later, but remember, your time is running out, even now.”

“I don’t intend to talk to you again, if I can help it. Now, I don’t mean to be rude, but you have my permission to withdraw.”

The man inadvertently dropped a twenty-dollar bill. Margold picked it up to hand it to him, but the man was gone. What are they putting in beer these days? It must be the preservatives. Nut job. At least I got a twenty out of it, which is about the value of the scotch the son-of-a-bitch drank. And some watchdog you are, he said to Fred. Fred yawned and sighed.

Margold glanced at the TV. They were still showing replays of the last play of the game. Christ, why are they beating it to death? The game was still on. Margold checked the time. The man claiming to be Death had been in the room about five seconds.

#

He went upstairs to find his wife. He entered the kitchen just as the garage door opened and she pulled in. He needed to have a serious talk with her, but he had to be careful. With his great height and thunderous voice he could make Dirty Harry cry.

She met him at the door from the kitchen to the garage with two tote bags of groceries. He took the bags. “What are you doing going to the store at this hour?” he asked.

“Hi, Honey,” she said, “glad to see you, too.”

“Sorry,” he said, giving her a kiss. “How was your day?”

“Fine, thanks. I had my hair done.” She ran her hair over her dishwater-blonde shoulder-length hair. “And yours?”

“The kid went to jail.” He unloaded groceries onto the counter. “And your hair looks great.”

“Thanks. I bet his mother was happy,” she said, folding the empty totes and putting them into the pantry.

“Thrilled right out of her enabling mind. I cut out of there before they could organize a lynching party. To top it all off, after I left the court I realized I had left my wallet home. I didn’t have any money to get my car out of the garage, and no way to get any.”

“What’d you do?”

“I had to borrow money from the prosecutor.”

“There is justice in the world.”

Margold smiled. “Funny, that’s what she said.”

Mary’s expression darkened. “Oh, it was a woman.” 

He should have said ‘he.’” 

“Yeah, a lot of that going around these days. But don’t worry, she’s ugly.”

She didn’t quite smile. “How was the game?”

He showed his teeth like a growling dog. “Don’t ask, it’s technical.”

“I take it we lost,” she said as she put groceries into the cupboards.

“Yes, ma’am.”

“I’m sorry. Did you wear your hat?”

“Yes, but it did no good. I’ll get over it, though.”

“Good, I hate to see you suffer.”

He put groceries in the fridge. “There is one little thing I would like to talk to you about, though.”

“What’s on your little mind?” she asked as she poured herself a glass of wine.

“Just as the game ended, one of your friends from the book club pranced into the basement and plopped himself down in one of my chairs.”

She sipped her wine and wrinkled her brow. “Wasn’t one of my friends. There was no meeting tonight.”

“Oh, really? You have a man about my age, nice haircut, expensive suit, in your book club?”

“No, they’re all women.”

“Ah. Well, this man came down, sat in a chair, and asked for some scotch. Then he told me he was the Angel of Death, and that I was gonna die in six months.”

She peered at him over her glass. “I think you had one too many salt-and-vinegar chips.”

That thought had crossed his mind, particularly given the short time of the man’s visit. But he had the twenty and an empty scotch glass.

“You’re probably right,” he said, walking toward the basement stairs. “Must have been a dream.”

CHAPTER TWO


The next morning on the way to the office Margold thought about what the man claiming to be Death had told him. How did he want to be remembered? Would he return to the fold, as it were, as death approached? “Forget it,” he told himself. “You have enough trouble.” It was all bullshit, anyway. There’s no such thing as the Angel of Death. He was not in your basement last night, and he didn’t decide to kill you.

As he came to a stoplight he glanced over at the car next to him. There, smiling, was Death. Fuck, the guy is a stalker. He knew it! The light was still red. He thought about calling the police, but what would they do? And it would take them a coon’s age to get there. He had to do something right now. He decided to shoot through the intersection, through the red light, and get away. He checked for oncoming traffic. Clear. He punched the gas. He was met by the sickening sound of squealing tires and the acrid smell of burning rubber. A teenager in a fast car tried to beat the light from the other direction. The boy’s car stopped inches short of striking Margold. The boy, at first pale and wide-eyed, recovered sufficiently to give him the finger.

Margold’s heart pounded. He felt no offense at the boy’s gesture, as it was warranted. Margold held up his hand to say “I’m sorry,” and continued through the intersection. As he did so, one of the cars that had been waiting at the light behind him pulled out and gave chase. An unmarked patrol car, lights in the grill. Margold pulled over. The light had changed. The car in which he had seen Death rolled past with a little old lady at the wheel. “It’s worse than I thought,” he said to himself. “It’s my brain. It has turned into slop. Mary always said I drank too much. Now it’s gone. It’s calcifying.” 

The cop approached the car cautiously along the driver’s side, with his hand on his gun. Margold knew these people were dangerous, so he kept both hands on the wheel where the cop could see them. The cop indicated for him to roll down his window, asked for his license and registration, and gave him a blast of shit about nearly causing an accident. Margold’s mind raced. What should he tell the cop? A bunch of lies came to mind, but the truth would be better, or at least something close to it. He explained he was a lawyer and he thought the guy in the car next to him was the husband of a client, and was stalking him. Turns out he was wrong. The cop gave him a ticket for running the red light and left it at that.

He arrived at his office and strode through the reception area. He told Evelyn no calls, and went into his room and shut the door.

#

He spent most of the day staring out the window contemplating what had happened. He took no calls, saw no clients, and did no work. He simply sat in his chair, rocking. He didn’t eat lunch, and went home about three. Before he left he called Mary to tell her he wanted to eat dinner out tonight. He made a reservation at their favorite restaurant. That should make him feel better.

When he got home he went into the basement, put the prelude to Act I of Wagner’s Parsifal on the stereo, and sat staring at nothing. The slow, hymn-like chords of the prelude soothed his mind. How could anyone write music this beautiful? Where did ideas like this come from? It was all he could do to put his shoes on the right feet. If Wagner had written only this prelude, he would have been remembered forever. Margold reclined in his chair. With his eyes closed, he had the sensation of floating.

He was brought out this trance by Mary’s car coming into the garage. He went up to the kitchen to greet her. 

She put her briefcase on the counter, kicked her heels off and poured herself a glass of white wine. “Would you like a martini?”

“That would be great. Dry.”

She peered at him over her glasses. “You think after all these years I don’t know how you want your martini?”

“Of course. Sorry.”

She clanked several ice cubes into the shaker, added a few drops of vermouth, a fair pour of gin, shook it about, poured it into a glass, and stuck in three olives. “Here.” She handed him the drink.

He tasted it. “Beautiful.”

They went into the living room. There was still some time before the dinner reservation.

“How was your day?” he asked.

“Hectic, as always. Nothing is easy.”

“I know the feeling, but that’s why you get the big bucks, as they say.”

She put both feet up on the couch and lay back. “Seems like little consolation.”

“We’ll have a nice quiet dinner. You’ll feel a lot better.”

“I hope so. How was your day?”

He chewed an olive. “You don’t want to know.”

“Did we have a rough day?”

“We had no day. I sat in my chair staring into space. I did nothing.”

She smiled. “I’ve tried that. There’s no revenue in it.”

He sipped his martini. Cold, delicious, herbal. “Yeah, hopefully my partner billed a few hours today.”

“What was bothering you?”

“The visit I had last night.”

“That was probably a dream. Don’t worry about it.”

“I thought so at first, but when I think about it, there are a couple of details that make me doubt it.”

“Such as?”

“Just as he was leaving he dropped a twenty-dollar bill. He also drank a glass of scotch, and I had the empty glass.”

“Oh,” she said, sipping wine.

“And this morning, I saw him sitting in the car next to me at a stoplight.”

She swirled her wine, then said, “Maybe you should see someone.”

He frowned. “You mean a shrink?”

“A counselor, or whatever you want to call it. Just have a talk. It can’t hurt.”

He pursed his lips, considering the idea. “You’re probably right,” he said at length. “Now let’s go to dinner.”

The night was warm for the time of year, so they took the convertible, a two-seater, and drove with the top down. This always made him feel better. He popped in the Rolling Stones’ Voodoo Lounge, and cranked it up. With this music, this car, and the air blowing through his hair, there were no troubles in the world. At the end of the ride waited some of the finest seafood in the city.

The parking valet greeted him with recognition and a smile, as he knew Margold would give him a nice fat tip if the car were returned clean and undented. Inside, the maître d’ greeted him by his first name, shook his hand, and took them to their table. This level of service was accomplished by not only being a regular, but by handing out twenty dollar bills. Margold believed the twenty was the key to the universe. Ten was not enough, and fifty meant you were a fucking nut trying to look like a big shot. The next step from a twenty, really, was a hundred, which made you look like a mobster. Give a guy a twenty and you look like a nice man who likes to take care of people, but not a schmuck.

They started with oysters on the half-shell (malpeques, from Prince Edward Island), and a glass of white wine for her, and a martini for him. Outside of acts of sexual depravity, there was nothing like an icy martini with raw oysters. 

The soft blue lighting and soothing classical music relaxed him. Huge aquariums bubbled on the opposite wall.

“How are you feeling?” she asked. The pale blue of the ambient light reflected in her glasses and diamonds around her neck.

“Much better, thanks. Sometimes I wonder what gets into me.”

“We’ll have a nice evening. Things will look better tomorrow.”

“I expect so. Now, what are you having?”

She perused the menu. “I’m in the mood for a big fat lobster. How ’bout you?”

He pointed to the menu. “Grilled red snapper.”

“You going to order a bottle of wine?”

“Yes. I like the Sauvignon Blanc they have here.”

“Me too.”

“Watch it, though,” he said. “You’re the designated driver.”

“Thanks for reminding me.”

As they chatted, he noticed Death sitting at a table on the other side of the restaurant.

“Oh shit,” Margold whispered. “There he is. He’s following me.”

She glanced around. “Who?”

“The man who came to the basement saying he was Death. He’s sitting at the table across the room by the wall.”

She turned her head. “Let me see.”

“No! Don’t look.”

“Then I’m going to the ladies’ room, and catch a peek as I go by.”

“Fine, but be subtle.”

She got up and walked toward the restrooms. When she came out she stole another glance.

“Did you see him?” he asked.

She hesitated for a moment, sipped her wine, then said, “All I saw was a young couple.”

Margold looked over again. Two early twenty-somethings were at the table. They seemed out of place and uncomfortable. Clearly not used to this sort of place.

“He was there a minute ago,” he said, his eyes wide and excited.

She half smiled. “Okay, take it easy. Forget it and let’s eat our dinner.”

“But I swear–”

She put her hand on his. “I know, honey, but let’s forget it for now.”

When they placed their order he told the waitress to add the young couple’s tab to his bill.

He soon calmed down, but kept glancing around the restaurant for Death. They were able to finish their meal without any further sightings.

When they got home he went into the basement to think. She went to bed.

“Don’t stay up too late,” she said from the top of the stairs. “You have to work in the morning.”

“I know, I’ll be up shortly. Good night.”

“Good night.”

He sank into a large leather chair, drinking a martini, and staring at the dark television. What was happening to him? How can this be? Perhaps he drank too much, but not so much as would cause hallucinations. At least he didn’t think so. Maybe he had suffered a stroke. Maybe he should see the doctor. And maybe he should see a shrink. See if anyone can tell him what was going on. Just as these thoughts passed from his mind into the eternal void, there appeared, in the chair to his left, Death.

“You’re just everywhere, aren’t you?” Margold said.

“I get around.”

“You’ve got to stop just appearing like that. What if I was looking at porn, or something?”

“I’d know it, anyway.”

“You mean—”

“Yep.”

Margold turned red, sipped his martini, and ate the olive. “Where are my manners? Can I fix you a martini?”

“That would be very nice. I hate to see a man drink alone.”

Margold fixed the drink and handed it to him. He wore a suit and looked quite dapper for one in the business of hauling the dead off to wherever it was he took them.

“Now that we’re all comfy,” Margold said, “what are you doing here, and why do you keep appearing to me?”

“Didn’t they teach you in law school not to ask more than one question at a time?”

Margold chuckled. “No. They didn’t actually teach me much. Everything I know about being a lawyer I learned after law school. Answer the questions.”

“I’m here now because you do not yet believe, and I’m afraid you’re wasting what time you have left. You have better things to do than sit in your chair all day and stare into space.”

“Yes, and?”

“And what? In my book that answers both questions.” He peered over his martini at Margold, smiling.

“Then I have another question. Let’s assume you are who and what you say you are. You wouldn’t mind giving a skeptical and jaded old lawyer a little proof, would you?”

Death gazed into his glass. Without looking up, he said, “We shall have a demonstration.”

“Wonderful. Can we start with that quarterback?”

“No. No people. Think of something else.”

Margold sipped his drink. “I have it. How about that yapping dog next door? The woman has a shit toy poodle she leaves out all night, and the son-of-a-bitch barks and yaps at all hours.”

“Let’s go find the rascal.”

They went into the yard looking for the dog.

“Where do you think he’d be?” Death asked.

“He is either on the woman’s front porch, or wandering around the yard.”

After a few minutes the dog’s high-pitched bark filled the air from the other side of the house.

“There the son-of-a-bitch is,” Margold said. “How are you going to kill him? I hope it’s slow and painful.”

“And here I thought you were kind to dumb animals.”

“Oh, I am. I love dogs. The only real friend I have in this world is my dog, Fred. But I don’t love this one. What are you going to do?”

“For a man of your culture and refinement, you sometimes lack subtlety and finesse.”

“That has been said about me.”

“Behold,” Death said, with a subtle gesture with his hand. One of the ugliest dogs Margold had ever seen trotted up the street.

“What the fuck is that?” Margold asked, stepping back a bit in the direction of his front porch.

“That, my good man, is a coyote.”

“I’ll be damned. I heard they were around here, but I haven’t seen one.”

“Watch and learn, dear boy.”

The coyote trotted up the street on long and gangly legs. It crossed in the direction of the little dog, which at the same time came running around the corner. By the time the little mutt saw the coyote, it was too late. The dog turned to run. In two quick steps the coyote had hold of it by the throat, ran back in the direction of the wooded park at the end of the street, and vanished into the darkness. 

“Christ,” Margold said. “Let’s get back inside before someone sees us.” 

They returned to the basement to finish their drinks.

“What do you think now?” Death asked.

“Okay, Mr. Death, you’ve got my attention.”

“That’s better.”

With that, Margold found himself alone again.

#

“Guess who visited me again last night?” he said to Mary the next morning over coffee.

“Your spook?”

“Very funny. He’s not a spook. He showed up bustin’ my balls about why I didn’t believe him.”

“What’d he say?”

He told her.

“What’d you tell him?”

“I told him I wanted proof.”

She raised her brow. “And?”

“Let’s just say that the problem with the noisy dog next door has been resolved.”

Her eyes grew large. “Don’t tell me . . .”

He nodded and told her what happened.

“Oh my God.”

“It wasn’t me, it was him, although I suggested the possibility.”

She put her hand to her forehead. “What are we going to tell Cynthia?”

He took toast from the toaster and began to butter it. “We’re not going to tell her anything.”

“But she’s going to be running around wondering what happened to her dog.”

“I suggest we keep our mouths shut about it. Act all sympathetic when the subject comes up. In any event, I believe him now.”

“You believe him? You mean you believe he’s the Angel of Death and you’re going to die in six months?”

“Yes.”

She was quiet for a moment, sipped her coffee, then said “Do me one favor.”

“Sure, what?”

“Go see your doctor.”

He handed her a piece of toast and nodded.

“And you may want to talk to a psychiatrist. Maybe the doctor can give a referral.”

“I’ve already thought about that. I’m going to the doctor this afternoon.”

“Good. And you probably should not drink so much.”

“You said one favor. That’s three. And as far as the drinking, there’s no reason to get wacky about it.”

She furrowed her brow. “I’m serious.”

“I’ll think about it,” he said, his mouth full of toast.

 

CHAPTER THREE


Margold sat in the examination room, waiting. Next to his chair stood the monstrous table upholstered in black vinyl, over which was stretched thin white paper from a roll. He hated to go to the doctor because it usually involved discomfort and pain. The smell of the place, that antiseptic smell, scared the hell out of him. He feared needles, and all the silvery metallic instruments in the place. He remembered being chased around one of these tables as a kid so the nurse could give him a shot in the ass. 

Paintings of pleasant Mediterranean resort towns with flowers and calming colors hung on the wall to make the place less intimidating. It didn’t help. The table with the paper roll was nothing less than a torture device. A rack. After a few minutes, the doctor came in.

“Hi, Margold,” the doctor said. “How are you? What can I do for you today?”

“I think I’m going to die.”

The doctor laughed. “Care to elaborate?”

“I just had this feeling, that’s all. Maybe I need a test, or something.”

“You’re as fit as one can expect, given your advanced years. You had a complete physical less than six months ago, which included all the intrusive exams I could think of—”

“Tell me about it. I still can’t stand to look at a rubber glove.”

“And there’s nothing wrong with you, other than you probably drink too much.”

“You been talking to my wife?”

“No, I’ve been to your house for dinner, remember?”

“Not really.”

“See what I mean?”

“I’m not going to die?”

The doctor pushed his hands into the pockets of his lab coat. “Of course you’re going to die, but not for a long time, unless you get hit by one of those ambulances you chase.”

“That’s real funny, Doc.”

“Do you have any symptoms that concern you?”

Margold thought for a moment. “No.”

“Then you’re not going to die any time soon.”

“But why does this guy keep appearing to me?” Christ, he’d blurted it out.

“What guy?”

He told him.

“Maybe it’s an hallucination. Based on what you told me, at least three of the times he appeared you had been drinking. Heavily.”

Margold frowned. “Heavily is such a harsh word, but yes, I’d had a few. But one time was in the morning. I was sober.”

“Yes, but you had been drinking the night before.”

“That’s true.”

“You taking anything else? Coke, acid, pot?”

“No, never did that.”

“Never?”

“Never.”

The doctor looked him in the eye. “Then stop drinking.”

Margold recoiled in shock. “Now I think you have gone nuts.”

“Are you taking any medication I don’t know about?”

“No.”

“Then lay off the booze for a while and see what happens.”

“Jesus.”

“Now get out of here, I have real patients to see. Make sure you pay on the way out.”

“Would I stiff you?”

The doctor gave him a look that said “Yes, and you have.”

“I like your bedside manner, Doc. A man comes in here with a serious problem and all you can do is bust his balls about the bill.”

“I gotta eat too.”

“I understand. Are we finished?”

“One more little thing,” the doctor said.

“Yes?”

“Maybe you should see a psychiatrist.”

“Goddamn, you have been talking to my wife.”

“No, but you are having hallucinations.”

He knew they weren’t hallucinations, but he kept his mouth shut.

“I’m going to write a referral,” the doctor said. “Go see Dr. Weiner, he’s quite good.”

Margold took the referral. On the way out to his car he threw it into the trash.

 

#

He didn’t need no shrink. So what if he was nuts, everyone was nuts. So what if he had hallucinations? The doctor said it could be due to the booze. He wasn’t going to die from being nuts, and dying was not going to kill him, unless he got suicidal, which he wasn’t. He retired to his TV room to ponder these and other things with his mind properly lubricated by scotch. Such things could not be considered on a sober mind, as a mind not liberated with alcohol would make some idiotic rational decision, such as to go to church, God forbid, or to help the poor, spend time with the family, or some other equally ludicrous nonsense.

With his mind clarified by booze, he contemplated the world and his place in it. He’d suffered for decades for the benefit of others. Like Christ himself. He’d slaved his whole life so others may have things. Of course, he got some of the fruits of his labors, but the lion’s share went to others. Between banks, insurance companies, the tax man, his kid and his wife, he got little. And for these efforts all he usually got was ridicule. Did he do without? No. But he compromised. On everything. He had a nice TV, but he wanted a bigger one. He had a good stereo, but he wanted (and could afford) a better one. Everything he did was subject to the scrutiny of others. Was that so bad? No. But now he was going to take a canoe over the River Styx, and soon. What to do? The answer was not clear, at least not in its entirety. But part of it was. Whatever he decided to do was going be what he wanted to do. He had toiled long enough for others. Some might argue that in your last days you should be with your family. But his family would get along without him for a while, and would have plenty of opportunity to suffer without him, and to suffer on account of him. The paramount concern in this world is the self. One had certain responsibilities requiring sacrifice, certainly. You have kids, you have to take care of them. You take on a legal matter, you must do your best as a lawyer.

Here is the liberating thing: if you know you’re going to die on a certain day at a certain time not far in the future, there is a lot you can get away with. You’ve got to stay out of jail, but if you’re smart, you can do about anything. You could kill someone, and it may take the cops years to solve the murder. You could steal something, and even if you get caught, you’d be out on bail and dead before the matter came to trial, particularly if you have a good lawyer. You can run up the credit cards and let your heirs worry about it. Glory fucking osky. 

Should he go somewhere? Take a trip? See the world? Go to Antarctica, or India? He had seen a show the other day about New Orleans. That might be a good idea. He’d been there before and liked it. Interesting place. Great food and good booze. And they had fortune-tellers. There was an interesting idea. He would see if a fortune-teller could see whether he was going to die. Maybe he would gain an appreciation for jazz, which up to now has evaded him. He immediately began to make plans.

#

“What?” Mary asked, over coffee the next morning. “You have got to be kidding. You have a wife, a family, a house, a law practice, responsibilities, and people who love you. You can’t just up and go to New Orleans.”

“It won’t be for long. I intend to stay for a few weeks, then see what happens. But if I’m going to die, I need to spend my last few months doing what I feel like doing.”

“You’re not going to die! The doctor said there’s nothing wrong with you.”

“Then why is Death visiting me?”

She dropped her head, then looked up. “He didn’t.”

“Then where is the neighbor’s dog?”

“You did something to it. Everyone says so.”

“Oh, really? Now we’re siding with ‘everyone,’ whoever that might be.”

“It makes sense.”

This annoyed him and he felt his anger rise. “It makes sense I would want to do something to the little bastard,” he said, “because it was a fucking nuisance. But it wasn’t me, it was Death.”

“You know what? On second thought, you should go to New Orleans. Take a couple of weeks off. Relax. Then come home. I’ll give you that much. Then we’ll see where you are and where we are.”

“I’ll be leaving in a couple of days.”

She glared at him. “You already have it planned. You were going to go no matter what I said.”

“Ipso facto.”

“I wish you would stop saying that.”

“You won’t hear it for a while.” 

She put her coffee down. “Oh, come on, don’t be like that. You know we love you, and we’re concerned about you. It’s just that I’m not happy you made all these plans without talking to me about it first.”

He poured them each more coffee. “What am I supposed to do? I see Death, I talk to him one-on-one in my TV room, and I see him hither and thither. He tells me I’m going to die, although there’s nothing wrong with me, gives proof as to who he is and that he’s really there, and not an hallucination. I saw him, but no one believes me.”

“You’ve got to admit it’s a bit out the ordinary, particularly for a guy like you. Out of character, even. It will take time for us to understand what you’re going through.”

He nodded. “I’ll grant you that. I’m going to take some time to go to New Orleans, get a change of scenery, and then decide what to do.”

She smiled. “All right. Enjoy yourself. Try to clear your head. Just promise me one thing.”

“What’s that?”

“Come back to us.”

He took her hand. “I’ll be back, I promise.”

“That’s all I ask.”

 

CHAPTER FOUR


The French Quarter was as he remembered it. Beautiful buildings, lots of character, and wonderful food and wine. He had been to New Orleans several times, and each time he stayed at a little hotel in the middle of the Quarter, known for giving each guest a free cocktail upon arrival. He sat alone in the hotel bar drinking his complimentary martini. The bar had been part of a nineteenth-century whore house, and still looked it. Tired, seedy, rundown, and filled with worn furniture upholstered in heavy maroon and gold fabric, with large dark wooden arms and backs. Threadbare antique oriental carpets lay on the floor resting from a century of labor. Dark red wall paper, coming off here and there, covered the walls, broken up by old gilt-framed photographs of whores. The room smelled of leather, beer, and cigars. But it was quaint, the service good, and Margold James was not above a place with a little less polish in exchange for character. And you can’t beat the price of the first martini.

Margold chatted with the bartender, a friendly young man in his early twenties with a thin scraggly beard and long red hair. Margold thought it would be interesting to go to a fortune-teller, so he asked the bartender whether he knew where he could find a good one. 

“This is a hell of a good martini,” Margold said.

The bartender turned toward Margold, wiping a glass with a towel. “Thanks, bro, I went to school for it.”

Margold smiled. “Bartender school. Got to be better than law school.”

“I reckon so. But it ain’t all that easy. Lots to learn.”

“I’m sure.”

“And the instructor was a real prick.”

“Seems to be a lot of that going on in the world of instructors. You should have seen the ones in law school.”

The bartender laughed. “I bet. Never met a lawyer wasn’t a prick.”

“Neither have I.”

“How’s the drink doing? Want me to put a head on it?”

Margold set the glass on the bar. “Now, that’s the nicest thing anyone has said to me all day.”

The bartender began to rig the drink. “It’s five o’clock somewhere.”

“That’s my motto.”

“You’re one big son of a gun. You can hold it. What do you do for a living?”

“I’m a lawyer.”

“Oops.”

“Don’t worry about it, chief. You didn’t say anything that wasn’t true.”

The bartender’s face had turned red. “Still, it ain’t right I should talk bad ’bout a customer.”

Margold held up a hand. “Please—”

“Drink’s on the house.”

“I feel better already.”

The bartender smiled.

“Let me ask you something,” Margold said. “Do you know any psychics around here?”

“Course.”

“Any that might be legit?”

“I know some’s pretty good.”

The bartender gave him a few names. 

Margold went to his room to rest before going out. Still only mid-morning, he had to sleep off two martinis before going out for lunch to look for the fortune-tellers.

#

Yellow neon stars and white moons filled the front window of the fortune-teller. The palm of a hand in purple neon, and the words “Tarot” and “Palm Readings” in green neon, beckoned to passers-by. A bell jingled as he entered a small anteroom. A large woman in her thirties came out dressed in a pink muumuu, hair dyed blond with dark roots, big rings on several of her fingers, and a face not unlike that of a pig. She froze mid-step when she saw six-foot-seven Margold. She regained her composure after a few seconds, introduced herself as Lady Mira, and took him into a back room. Painted with pale yellow gloss, the room contained only a small table covered in a purple cloth, and a few wooden chairs. He told her he wanted a palm reading, paid her the twenty-dollar fee, and sat down at the table. She took his hands.

“Ever have your palm read before?” she asked, gazing at the huge palms.

“No.”

“I don’t get many like you, to be honest. Normally middle aged working-class women.”

“That’s what the bartender told me, but I’m curious.”

She smiled. “At least you know where to get good advice.”

He nodded. “Best place in the world. True philosophers, those people.”

“Which hand do you write with?”

“The right,” he said, waving the fingers on his right hand.

She took his hand and used a small black stick with a pointing hand carved on the end to trace the lines in his palm. It tickled, but he held still. 

“This is your head line,” she said, moving the tip of the pointer along one of the grooves in his palm. “This is your heart line, and this is your life line. Your life line touches your head line, meaning you are very intelligent. You think before you act.”

“That’s probably true.”

“You’re married.”

“You can see that in the palm?”

She grinned. “No, you’re wearing a wedding ring.”

He laughed.

“Says here you have two kids.”

“No, only one.”

“Doesn’t say you know about both of them, only that you have them. Or will.”

“Interesting.”

“Over here are your relationship lines. You’ve been married to the same person for a long time, and it says that will continue.”

“What about the life line? I’m sure everyone asks you about that.”

“Your life line is very long. I certainly can’t put a date on it, but short of getting hit by a bus, you will live a long life. In fact, it’s extremely long.”

“That’s a relief.”

“Your fingers are interesting. You have a combination of types, meaning you’re a complex and interesting person. You’re analytical and scientific, but at the same time you’re very artistic. A musician, or a painter.”

“I think that’s accurate.”

She went on to tell him general things, many of which could be deduced by looking at him or talking to him for five minutes. For example, he was an educated man and worked with his mind. Of course. His hands were as soft as a baby’s ass, and he looked like he might have a few bucks. Then she went on to tell the future. His business venture would be a great success, but he should keep an eye on his partners.

“Do you have any questions?” she asked.

“Will I be rich?”

“You already are.”

“How do you know?”

“I get a lot of people in here and, for most of them, it’s all they can do to scrape up the twenty bucks. They’re poor and uneducated, and it shows. I ain’t exactly holdin’ a PhD, but I know people. You got money, and lots of it.”

He smiled and nodded slowly. He thanked her and left. All in all, the reading was not bad, but she didn’t say anything about Death. Maybe that was good. It meant his palms didn’t show his impending demise, or she was a fake. Or Death was.

Maybe he should have a tarot reading. He didn’t believe this mumbo jumbo, but he didn’t believe in the Angel of Death, either, until he was sitting in his TV room drinking scotch. And then he still didn’t believe. Can’t hurt anything, and it was only about twenty bucks. He found the next shop with “Tarot” in the window, and went in. 

Like the other place, there was a front room, behind which was the reading room. A woman with dark shoulder-length frizzy hair and pleasant face came out. She wore a purple dress with lace at the skirt, big purple beads, and a small headband. He told her what he wanted and she led him into the back. 

The reading room, lit with candles, had furniture with deep red throws covering it. New-age music played in the background, and incense filled the air, accounting for the hazy atmosphere. She had him sit at a round table covered in purple velvet with a gold pentagram embroidered in the center. She sat across from him with a deck of cards. 

“These are standard tarot cards,” she said. “When I read, I normally use the Celtic Cross spread.”

“Okay,” he said, not quite understanding what all that meant, but he figured he was about to be enlightened.

“Have you ever done this before?”

“No.”

“You don’t look the type. That is, you’re not my usual client.”

“I don’t suppose I am.”

“What we do is, you ask a question, and then I lay out the cards in a certain pattern.”

“All right.”

“Then I interpret them for you.”

“Okay.”

“What is your question?”

He was afraid to just ask the question, “Am I going to die in a few months,” or “how long will I live?” so he thought of a way to ask indirectly. “I’m planning a trip to Europe for this time next year. Is that a good time to go?”

She shuffled the cards several times, then flipped one over. On the card was a skeleton on a horse, carrying a black flag with a white rose in the center. 

“Death.”

“Shit.”

She smiled. “That’s not what it means. Many people think it means you’re going to die. It doesn’t. It means there is going to be a big change. The passing away of one thing, a way of life, for example, and the beginning of another.”

“That’s a relief.”

She turned over a second card. It was another Death. When she saw it, she jumped and sat gazing at the card, eyes wide.

“What’s the matter?” he asked. “Not good to have two Death cards in a row?”

She was quiet for a moment, and sat still as though trying to collect herself. “No,” she said in a shaky voice. “Particularly since there is only one Death card in a deck.”

“Ah. Maybe they got mixed up.”

“I don’t think so,” she said, looking through the deck. “Let’s start again. The deck looks okay. I’ll just take the extra Death card and set it aside, then reshuffle the deck.”

“Okay.”

She shuffled, and turned up the first card. Death. She gasped. 

“We seem to have a pattern here,” Margold said.

She shook her head. “There’s still a chance it would come up. Let’s continue.” 

She turned up the next card. Death. 

“Dear Jesus,” she said.

She turned over the deck, and spread all the cards on the table, face up. All Death.

Her hands shook.

It occurred to Margold that his friend Death was having a little joke. “Maybe you should get a new deck.”

“Yes. Right.” She went over to a cabinet, her face colorless, supporting herself on furniture as she went. She took out a pack of cards still wrapped in cellophane. She returned to her seat, undid the wrapper, examined the cards, and seemed satisfied with them. She showed them to Margold, and he saw they were all different. She shuffled them and turned up the first card. Death. 

She let out a whimper.

“I’m starting to get a complex,” Margold said.

She turned up the next card. Death. 

She spread this deck out face up. All Death. She stood up shaking with fear, moaning. After a moment, she said “Mr., you get out of here.”

“But my reading—”

“You got no reading. Here’s your money. Now please get out!”

“What do you mean, I got no reading?”

“There is some magic here I don’t understand. I’ve heard of this happening before, but not for hundreds of years. It’s in the old texts.”

“What does it mean? Am I going to die?”

“No man, you’re already dead,” she said a tremor in her voice. She waved her hands. “Now please, go!”

A strong breeze came into the room, blowing out all the candles. The woman screamed, and Margold headed for the door, fell over a chair, got up, and left the shop.

He had had enough of this sort of entertainment, and decided to go into the nearest bar and have a martini. The bartender, a scrawny and tattoo-covered man in his 50s, wearing his long gray hair in a ponytail, put the drink down in front of Margold at the bar.

“Tell me something,” Margold said, chugging the martini and indicating for another. “Is there anything to this fortune-telling bullshit?”

 The bartender stood with his back to Margold, facing a row of bottles in front of a wall-sized mirror illuminated from below. The bottles glowed, illuminating the bartender with a ghastly light. He looked at Margold in the mirror while preparing the second martini.

“Not really,” the bartender said. “They’re pretty much all con artists.”

“That’s what I thought.”

“You thinkin’ of goin’ to a fortune-teller?” the bartender asked, putting down the second martini.

“I already tried a couple.”

“You don’t look the type.”

Margold sipped the drink and ate the olive. “Really? What’s the type?”

“Mainly women. Very few men, unless either they’re with women who bust they balls to have a reading done to make sure she’s the love of his life. Or gays, if you’ll pardon my sayin’ so.”

Margold smiled. It occurred to him that these women thought he was gay. Maybe the woman with the Death cards thought he had AIDS. “I see. No, I’m not gay, and no one has busted my balls. I have my reasons.”

“That’s fine. None of my business.”

“I just went to a palm reader, and got the usual story, I suppose.”

“I’m sure.”

“Then I went to Tarot reader. Had a more interesting result.”

“Yeah?”

He told him about the Death cards. The bartender, who until then had been wiping glasses and putting them on the lit-up glass shelf, stopped what he was doing, and gazed at the glass in his hand. He turned.

“You look like an educated man,” the bartender said. “A man of means. Why d’you need a reading?”

Margold stared into his drink playing with the toothpick on which the olive had been skewered. He contemplated whether he should tell the truth, or make up a lie. He had nothing to lose by telling the truth.

“You want the truth?” Margold asked.

The bartender smiled, exposing a mouthful of rotten teeth. “Up to you. People lie to me all day long.”

“The truth, then. I’m going to die, and I want to hear what they have to say about it.”

“Sorry, man, I didn’t mean to—”

Margold held up a hand and shook his head. “Don’t worry about it. It’s not what you think.”

“You sick, or something?”

“No, that’s the thing. There ain’t a goddamn thing wrong with me.”

“Then why you think you’re gonna die?”

“I was visited by the Angel of Death.”

The bartender’s eyes widened. “I’ve got to tell ya, I’ve heard about everything there is to hear in this line of work, but I ain’t never heard that.”

“I know what you mean. I’m a lawyer. Just when I think I’ve heard it all, boom! Someone comes in with something so off the fucking wall that I wouldn’t believe it if it weren’t for the police report.”

“How do you know it was Death?”

Margold told him about seeing him around town, and about the demonstration with the little dog.

“Send ’im ’round here,” the bartender said. “I got some work for ’im.”

Margold laughed.

“Could explain the Death cards, though,” the bartender said.

“You don’t think it was a con?”

“No, sir. They will tell a lot of lies to get your money, but all Death cards and kicking you out ain’t one.”

“Do you know anyone around here who has honest-to-God psychic ability?”

The bartender considered the question for a moment while he wiped another glass, examined it against the light, and placed it on the shelf. “Yes, I know a black woman a few blocks over who does readings and voodoo. She runs one of them voodoo shops you see ’round. Does readings in the back. She’s for real. I seen her do some wild shit. She must have fuckin’ ESP, or be connected to the spirit world, or somethin’.”

Margold pointed a finger at him. “That is exactly what I need.”

From the other end of the bar came the laughter of a man. There sat Death.

Margold scowled. “You little cocksucker, what’s so funny?”

“What?” said the bartender.

“Sorry,” Margold said, “I’m not talking to you. I’m talking to that son-of-a-bitch at the end of the bar.”

“At the end of the bar? I don’t see . . ..” He backed away, holding his hands up defensively. “Hey, whatever. You ain’t the first swingin’ dick to come in here and see shit what ain’t there. Have a blast.”

“Now, Mr. James,” Death said, “is that any way to be?”

“I ought to bust this stool over your head.”

“Take it easy, boss,” the bartender said. “We don’t want no physical damage.”

Margold held up his hand. “Don’t worry, I’m cool. And if I bust anything, I’ll pay. Double.”

Death laughed. 

“What do you want?” Margold said.

“How did you like my little joke with the Tarot?”

Margold faked a smile. “Yeah, you’re a regular card.”

“Come on, now. It scared the shit out of that hag, and you had entertainment few people get.”

“It was a more accurate reading than I expected, but she put the cart before the horse.”

“That’s my fault. She had no idea. Seeing all the cards come up Death, knowing they had started out in her hand as a regular deck, was more than she could take.”

Margold downed the remainder of his martini and signaled for another. “You know, there’s a lot of shit going on in the Middle East. Aren’t you needed there?”

“They are doing fine without me.”

The bartender put the new drink on the bar. Margold picked it up, took the olive and ate it. “I’m just one important son-of-a-bitch, then?” he said, looking up. 

Death was gone. 

Margold grunted. “Fucking prick. Just pops in and pops out whenever he wants to. I’m afraid to so much as beat off.”

The judge, a man in his 60s known for leniency, gazed straight ahead while the defendant got to his feet. The prosecutor, a woman in her early 30s, plain of face, uninteresting of figure, and dressed in a black pantsuit, remained seated, eyed the defendant with disdain. 

The tired and shopworn courtroom smelled of mildew and disinfectant. The carpet was filthy, the tables scratched and marred, the chairs soiled by human grease. The judge’s bench, so far from the counsel tables it might as well have been on another planet, contributed to its black-robed occupant’s air of aloofness and superiority.

The defendant, a tall athletic college boy from a well-to-do but not rich family had been caught by the police crawling out of the window of someone else’s apartment. While in police custody, and without the benefit of counsel, he had had the wisdom to write out and sign confessions to several other unsolved burglaries in the same area. In the boy’s defense, he did so on the promise that he would not be charged. The cops only needed to clear the books with respect to some unsolved break-ins. On the basis of these confessions, however, the boy was charged with seventeen different crimes. Margold, seeing the error of the cops’ ways, had gotten all the charges arising from the confession dropped. The real problem he faced today, though, was that the boy and his family expected him to get off with a good scolding, and be sent home to smoke weed and jerk off in the comfort of his upper middle-class bedroom. The investigator for the pre-sentencing report reinforced that notion, and Margold knew even the State didn’t expect him to go to jail.

Nevertheless, the judge could give the boy a fair piece of the twenty-five years to which he was subject. Margold tried to prepare the lad and his family for this eventuality. After all, society frowns on breaking into other people’s houses and taking their stuff. The boy’s mother, however, was sure no judge would put her little William in prison, particularly once she had the chance to explain what a good and upstanding young man he was, and that none of what he did was his fault.

With lawyer and defendant standing, the judge lectured the boy at length, sometimes loudly and with great animation and pounding of bench. He made reference to the statements from the victims, how they were violated, and pointing out that the home is sacred. How would he feel? Margold took that as a good sign. Often a good public ass-chewing is followed by a lenient disposition. The prosecutor looked on with a smug grin, arms folded, legs crossed. Margold grew impatient. Even after twenty-five years, he still felt as though the judge addressed him personally when berating a client. Yeah, yeah, yeah, we know what he did, all against the peace, dignity, and government of the State. Out with it.

The judge grew quiet, took a drink of water, and wrote something on a form. Two deputies moved in behind the defendant. 

In a calm voice, the judge addressed the boy. “Young man, you are an enigma to me. You come from a good home. Your parents care about you. You have many advantages and privileges that few enjoy. And yet—”

His mother stood. “Your honor?” 

Jesus.

“Please, ma’am,” the judge said, “don’t interrupt. You’ve had your say.”

“But—”

“But nothing. Kindly sit down and be quiet, or I’ll have to remove you from the courtroom.”

Margold turned to her and held up is hand for her to stay calm and sit down.

The judge continued. “And yet, you break into other peoples’ homes. I’ll never understand it.”

A terrible silence filled the room as the judge shuffled papers on the bench. 

“You are a very lucky man,” the judge said. “Mr. James has done an excellent job of protecting your rights and working to mitigate your punishment. But there has to be punishment. After considering arguments of counsel in mitigation, and after considering the pre-sentencing investigation, I hereby sentence you to five years in the penitentiary—”

His mother cried out.

“Silence!” the judge said. “All suspended but ninety days.”

Oh boy. The son-of-a-bitch had his pockets full of bullshit, wore a belt, carried a cell phone, and had a wallet the size of a Volkswagen, none of which was allowed in jail.

The boy’s mother began to scream and cry. The prosecutor watched the scene with her mouth open, as even she didn’t expect the little parasite to go to prison. The judge called for order. One of the deputies handed Margold all the boy’s horseshit, put the cuffs on him, and took him from the courtroom. Margold turned to face the unhappy family and handed them the boy’s belongings.

It was not because his client went to jail that Margold was unhappy. Little William would have gotten five to ten if it weren’t for Margold. Fuck him. The little bastard did a lot more than he got punished for. The real bitter herb that called for about a gallon of gin to wash out of his throat was the fact Margold knew the shithead’s mother would blame him. It would be all Margold’s fault the boy went to jail, although she ought to be on her fucking hands and knees thanking him, crawling around barking like a dog in gratitude that he only got ninety days. He’d be out in sixty if he behaved himself. Fucking enabler.

The boy’s father just stood there like the pussy-whipped dope he was. When they left the room, the boy’s father, for all his faults, was polite and shook Margold’s hand, thanked him, and said good-bye. His mother turned her back.

On the way to his car Margold reached into his pocket for the cash to pay the parking garage. It was empty. He had left his wallet at home. He had no driver’s license, no credit card, no ID, no money, no nothing. Not penny one, and no way to get it. He couldn’t buy so much as a cup of coffee. “Cocksucker,” he said out loud. 

Although he had many cases in this jurisdiction, his office was in another county, and he didn’t know many people here. He didn’t want to go back to the court house because his client’s family no doubt lurked there planning his death. Maybe he could sweet-talk the girl at the parking lot gate. She always seemed nice. But that was probably because he just paid his bill and was not a pain in the ass. Then the prosecutor emerged from the court.

Fortunately, he had talked to this woman many times and been very friendly and professional toward her. He had learned early in his career to be nice to opposing counsel. Laymen think lawyers are argumentative and confrontational with each other because that’s what they see on TV. Although that sometimes happens, it’s the exception. For one thing, it always helps the case reach a favorable conclusion if the lawyers get along, or are at least civil to each other. More importantly, you never know when opposing counsel will be appointed to the bench. You don’t want to wake up one day with the guy you screwed over a time or two hearing your case. So, as a lawyer, as in any profession, it was important to treat your peers with courtesy and respect. You may need a favor one day to save your ass. 

He crossed the street to meet her.

“Hey, Sue,” he said, “that was a bit of a surprise.”

She smiled. “Yeah, I didn’t expect him to go to jail.”

“Neither did Mom. She doesn’t seem able to take a joke.”

She laughed. “No, I’d say she was a tad bit unhappy.”

“That’s an understatement.”

“On the other hand, you can’t say that justice wasn’t done.”

“No, absolutely. By the way, I seem to have left all my money and my wallet home this morning.” He turned his pockets inside out. “Might you be able to spot a learned friend about five American to get his car out of hock?”

“Tsk, tsk, tsk. There is justice in the world after all.”

“Come on. We’re both really on the same side. We both want justice.”

She rolled her eyes. “I’ve seen you in action enough times to know that justice is not necessarily your goal.”

“Oh, now. Depends on what you mean by justice.”

She shook her head. “I’ll give you the money, but don’t forget that I’m a government employee, not a big rich defense attorney. Pay me back.”

“No problem, as soon as the client pays me.” He immediately regretted letting that slip.

She furrowed her brow. “You’ve got to be kidding. You haven’t been paid?”

Margold thought he detected a hint of perverse pleasure in her voice. He scrunched up his face as if in pain. “Not all I got comin’.”

She laughed again, a pleasurable laugh, as though watching clowns at the circus. “Here,” she said, giving him five bucks.

He folded it and put it in his shirt pocket. “Thanks.”

“Pay me back, even if you have to borrow it from your secretary.”

“My secretary has cut me off.”

She smiled and shook her head.

“I’m good for it. You'll see.”

“That’s what my brother says.”

“There’s one in every family, but I’m the good son.”

“Sure.”

“Thanks again,” he said, shaking her hand. “Take it easy, and good doing business with you. See you next time.”

“No problem, Margold, see ya. And don’t forget, I know where you live.”

“I’ll pay, I’ll pay. Jeez, you’re worse than my secretary.”

He crossed the street to the parking garage. Nice girl. Up close and friendly, out in the street away from all the conflict, she didn’t look all that bad. She didn’t have good skin, it being pale and pot-marked, but there was something attractive about her. She was slender, and something in her eyes said she could be a lot of fun with a little tequila in her.

#

Back at the office, his secretary sat at her desk typing. In her 70s, short gray hair, ashen skin and deep raspy voice of a smoker of many years (now reformed), she began working at the law firm before Margold went to law school. Although her beauty had been obscured by booze, time, and tobacco, Margold would like to have seen her fifty years ago. She knew every client the firm had for the past forty-five years, what their case was about, the outcome, and probably the file number. And she knew where everything was. It was like watching a magic show when he would ask for some obscure long-forgotten thing, and she would cause it to materialize before him. The best part was that her name was Evelyn. Nobody had named a kid Evelyn since Roosevelt. 

“I hope you’re looking at the keys,” he said, closing the door behind him.

“Ha, ha. You and Soupy Sales.”

He laughed. 

“What happened to William?” she asked.

“He got five years.” 

Her eyes grew big and she gasped. “They took him to prison?”

“No, no. To the detention center. The judge suspended all but ninety days.”

“He’s actually going to jail for ninety days?”

“Yep, although it will probably be less with good behavior.”

She frowned. “Serves him right.” 

“You have no sympathy. He was a good boy. It wasn’t his fault.”

“Then whose fault was it?”

“It was obviously mine,” he said, pouring himself a cup of coffee.

“Why do they always blame the lawyer?” she asked, shaking her head.

“Who else you gonna blame? Mom and Dad? No, they only raised him. Was it his fault? Of course not, he was the victim in all this.”

“He was the victim?” she said.

“Yeah. Somehow, in their minds, he was driven to this by circumstances beyond his control. He’s a good boy, and for the court to treat him this way is just plain wrong.”

She put her head in her hands.

“He’s obviously going to jail because the lawyer didn’t do his job.” He blew on his coffee and took a sip. “What they fail to understand is the reason he’s not going to the penitentiary for twenty years is because I pulled a frickin’ rabbit out of my hat.”

She looked up. “He was just a spoiled brat who always got away with everything.” She slammed a file drawer shut. “There were never any consequences for his actions. His mother always covered up for him, or made excuses.”

“Ipso facto.”

She fixed her eyes on him. “Did he pay you?”

“What do you think? It’s all I could do to get out of there with my skin.”

“Guess what. Not counting today, he owes you ten grand.”

Bile rose in Margold’s throat and screamed for gin. His first instinct was to shout every cuss word he knew, and he was pretty much a walking encyclopedia of obscenity. “Obese probability of ever seeing any of that.”

The secretary mumbled something under her breath he could not hear, but had the sound of indignation and disgust, as she noisily shuffled papers on her desk.

“Anything else I need to know about?” he asked.

“Not really. Mr. Whozits called about his neighbor again, but that’s it.”

“He can wait. I’ve had enough fun for one day. I'm going home. See you tomorrow.”

#

Blue light from the big TV filled the dark room, reflecting in Margold’s glasses and beer bottle. His Golden Retriever, Fred, lay stretched out at his feet, snoring. “Take a knee,” Margold calmly told the quarterback. “Six seconds left, and we’re up by a field goal. All you gotta do is take a knee, and . . .” The center snapped the ball, which went dancing across the turf. A big fat lineman from the opposing team, who never has had, and never will again have, a touchdown, scooped it up and lumbered into the end zone. Game over.

“Son-of-a-bitch,” he shouted at the TV, “I want that butterfingered quarterback shot.” Fred raised his head, sighed, and put it back down. Margold picked up a bottle and drew back his arm to throw it at the screen. As a younger man with a cheaper TV, he might have done it, but, after two pumps of the arm, he remembered this TV cost five grand. Middle age had tempered his tendency to destroy shit when other shit didn’t go his way.

His son, Jonathan, would normally be here with him watching the game, but he had had a more pressing matter that evening. Margold got up to get another beer and to call Jonathan to commiserate. As he turned toward the fridge, he was surprised by the sight of a man, whom he didn’t know and didn’t hear come in, and who hitherto had not been in the room, occupying one of the large leather chairs facing the TV. He jumped a little at the shock. Fred didn’t move.

Must be one of the fags from his wife’s book club. Maybe he should be polite. Instead of saying the litany of obscenities that went through his mind, and in spite of the effects of six or seven beers consumed during the game, and in spite of his current state of mind as a result of the outcome of the game, all he said was “Can I help you?”

The man considered Margold for a moment, legs crossed, wearing a very expensive suit and sporting a dapper haircut. He smiled and said “Yes, you may. That’s why I’m here.”

Margold had learned a long time ago not to be rude and obnoxious until you knew exactly to whom you were being rude and obnoxious. At least the guy had the decency to wait until the game was over to barge in. Between the beer and the fumble, however, there was a limit to the extent of his good nature. Incivility was on the tip of his tongue, but this must certainly be a friend of his wife who came down to see whether he knew where the chai was. How else would he have gotten in, and how else would he have had the balls to sit in one of his chairs looking self-important?

“By all means,” Margold said. “Please, how may I be of service?”

“I’m not sure where to begin. I’m not accustomed to coming in like this and talking to people.”

“While you work that out, maybe I can get you a drink. How ’bout some beer? Or maybe you would prefer scotch.” Nobody was going to say a man sat in Margold James’ club room without a drink in his hand.

“Scotch would be very nice, thank you.”

Margold poured the drink without asking whether he wanted ice. Nobody was gonna put ice in this scotch in this house.

“Now,” Margold said, “why don’t you get to the point? I need to drown my sorrows. Let’s just start with who are you?”

The man swallowed a sip of scotch. “Very well.” He hesitated. “I don’t know why I’m finding this so difficult, but I’ll just come out and say it.”

“Please,” Margold said, pouring himself a drink. “That’s always the best way.”

“This may sound cliché, but I am known by many names.”

“Why don’t you just tell me what your friends call you.”

Again the man hesitated, swirled his glass. “Death. They call me Death.”

Margold blinked at the man over his glasses. “What?”

“I am commonly called ‘Death.’”

Margold shouted up the stairs for his wife. “Mare-ree!” Then he asked the man “Are you here for the book club? If you just wanted to get a scotch off me, all you had to do was ask. Say: ‘Hi, my name is Ethelrod, or whatever, I’m here reading Oprah’s book of the frickin’ month, and I would like a scotch, pretty please with sugar on top, no ice.’ I’d have given you a scotch, no problem. Any guest in my house can have a scotch, Oprah fan or not.”

“She can’t hear you.”

“Who?” Margold asked with his face screwed up.

“Your wife. She’s not here.”

He shouted up to the kitchen again. “Mare!” 

No answer.

“And I’m not here for the book club.”

“Do an old man a favor, and just scurry on out of here before I lose my temper. I have some serious and prolonged drinking to do before I go to bed. It’s already late and I have a few windmills to tilt at tomorrow.”

“You must learn to relax, Mr. James, it’s going to kill you. And you wouldn’t kick a man out before he finished his drink, would you?”

Margold yelled upstairs again.

“I told you, she’s not here.”

“If you’re not here for the book club, and my wife is not here, where did you come from and how did you get in?”

“That’s complicated.”

“I’m a lawyer. I deal with complications all day long. Give it a shot.”

“You seem agitated, so I’ll get to the point.”

“Lovely.”

“I am the Angel of Death. My job is to separate the soul from the body at the moment of death which, to a great extent, is determined by me.”

Margold poured himself a big glass of scotch and dropped into his chair. He would sit and listen to what this nut had to say, then escort him to the door. And from now on, the book club would be banned from the house. He can’t have these kooks waltzing in begging for scotch and scaring the hell out of him. “You must be one busy son-of-a-bitch these days.”

The man smiled. “I’m here to personally deliver a message to you.”

“A message? A message from whom?”

“From me. I wanted to give it to you myself.”

Margold swallowed a mouthful of scotch. “I’m listening, but hurry it up. My attention span is shortened with every sip of booze.”

“The message is this: you’re going to die six months from . . . right now.”

Margold’s anger rose. He stood and pointed to the stairs. “That tears it. Now get out of here.”

The man leaned back in the chair, spreading his arms across the back of it. “I understand if you’re skeptical.”

“Skeptical might not be the right word. Skeptical means I don’t believe it, but there could be something to it. I think the right word is outraged. Pissed. I’m outraged and pissed that someone would just walk in here and tell a man he’s going to die.”

“I understand your point of view, but please bear with me. I’m not a nut, and I’m quite serious. You have six months to live.”

“I’ll play along. How do you know that? Are you from the doctor’s office?”

“No. There’s nothing wrong with you. There is no reason for you to die, other than I decided you would. I decided to tell you the exact time because I want to see what you will do.”

“That’s it?”

“That’s it.”

Margold furrowed his brow. “See what I will do in what respect?”

“How you want to be remembered. How you spend the rest of your time.”

“Seems like kind of a flimsy reason to take me from this Earth and the bosom of my family.”

“Yes, well—”

“I’m not buying it. First of all, I’m not buying that you’re the Angel of Death, as I don’t believe in such things. Secondly, although I’m right close to picking you up and throwing you out, you bring up an interesting topic, and I’ve had just enough booze to make me want to wax philosophical. But most of all, I’m not buying the reason. From what I see on the news, Death has much better things to do than waltz into a guy’s house and tell him the hour of his death just to see what he does. Why don’t you tell me the real reason?”

Death smiled, looking into his glass as he swirled his drink. “What I’m doing is not without precedent. Are you familiar with the story of Job in the Bible?”

“I’m not exactly a biblical scholar. Maybe you could help me with that.”

“Job was a very devout man, ‘blameless and upright,’ as the Bible describes him, with lots of wealth and a large family. One day God and his sons are having a little get together—”

“Sons? God had sons? I thought he had only one son, and I take it this story predates the birth of that one.”

“That’s a discussion for another day. I’m simply relating the story.”

“Fine, go on.”

“In comes Satan. God asks Satan where he’s been.”

Margold held up his hand. “I don’t want this to turn into a biblical debate, but Satan and God are just having a chat?”

“That’s what it says. Satan says he’s just been strolling about the Earth. God asks him whether he had a chance to see Job, what a good and upright man he is. Satan says of course, you gave him everything, and he’s rich. Take away his stuff and he will curse you. God says no, Job will remain faithful. They make a little wager. God gives Satan a free hand to ruin Job, so long as he doesn’t kill him. It’s not quite clear whether God does the actual dirty work, or it’s Satan, but they take away his wealth, kill his family, and make him sick, to see whether he turns from God. In other words, simply to see what he does.”

“Seems like a rather prick-like thing to do.”

“The morality of it is open to debate. In any case, that’s all there is to it.”

“Don’t you have someone else, someone who is really going to die, to try this little experiment on?”

“No. A sick person, a person who has been diagnosed with a disease from which they will soon die has the benefit of the family knowing it as well. They try the treatment, of course, which puts them in the hospital and degrades the quality of what’s left of their lives, but they are still able to wind things up. Everyone knows what they’re doing and why. They may have a chance to set things straight, do things they’ve always wanted to do. Quit their jobs. Spend all their money. And many of them get religion.

“You, on the other hand, have no physical ailments or conditions that will kill you before your time. You have only my word. Since there will be no other evidence of it, your friends and family won’t believe it. You’ll be in the unenviable position of knowing when you’re going to die, but having nothing wrong with you to cause you to die. Nothing you can show to others to gain their sympathy and support. Within this vacuum you have to decide how you want to spend your last days, which will depend on how you want to be remembered.”

“But why me? I can think a lot of people much more deserving of this than I am. For example, wouldn’t humanity be better served by doing up that shithead running North Korea?”

“You are where the die was cast, if you will.”

“You’re warning me, is that it? In other words, you’re telling me that if I don’t watch out I’m going to be hit by a bus, or something, in six months. Be nicer. Don’t cuss. Stop drinking.”

Death shook his head and sipped his scotch. “No. I’m telling you you’re going to die, no matter what you do.”

“I’m too drunk for this. Wait, I get it. I represented your wife in a divorce.”

“No, Mr. James, I am not a disgruntled spouse. I am Death.”

“Then you’re a religious nut trying to convert me. You’re barking up the wrong tree.”

“Nope. Just Death.”

“Tell you what, Mr. Death, if you’re quite finished, Bible School is over. Take your leave by going out the way you came in. If you get out now, I won’t call the cops. I’m a criminal defense lawyer, and I’m loathe to call the cops, but I will.”

“Very well, Mr. James, I’m leaving. I know you don’t believe me, and I didn’t expect you to, but I wanted to start the ball rolling, as it were. Start the clock. You and I will talk later, but remember, your time is running out, even now.”

“I don’t intend to talk to you again, if I can help it. Now, I don’t mean to be rude, but you have my permission to withdraw.”

The man inadvertently dropped a twenty-dollar bill. Margold picked it up to hand it to him, but the man was gone. What are they putting in beer these days? It must be the preservatives. Nut job. At least I got a twenty out of it, which is about the value of the scotch the son-of-a-bitch drank. And some watchdog you are, he said to Fred. Fred yawned and sighed.

Margold glanced at the TV. They were still showing replays of the last play of the game. Christ, why are they beating it to death? The game was still on. Margold checked the time. The man claiming to be Death had been in the room about five seconds.

#

He went upstairs to find his wife. He entered the kitchen just as the garage door opened and she pulled in. He needed to have a serious talk with her, but he had to be careful. With his great height and thunderous voice he could make Dirty Harry cry.

She met him at the door from the kitchen to the garage with two tote bags of groceries. He took the bags. “What are you doing going to the store at this hour?” he asked.

“Hi, Honey,” she said, “glad to see you, too.”

“Sorry,” he said, giving her a kiss. “How was your day?”

“Fine, thanks. I had my hair done.” She ran her hair over her dishwater-blonde shoulder-length hair. “And yours?”

“The kid went to jail.” He unloaded groceries onto the counter. “And your hair looks great.”

“Thanks. I bet his mother was happy,” she said, folding the empty totes and putting them into the pantry.

“Thrilled right out of her enabling mind. I cut out of there before they could organize a lynching party. To top it all off, after I left the court I realized I had left my wallet home. I didn’t have any money to get my car out of the garage, and no way to get any.”

“What’d you do?”

“I had to borrow money from the prosecutor.”

“There is justice in the world.”

Margold smiled. “Funny, that’s what she said.”

Mary’s expression darkened. “Oh, it was a woman.” 

He should have said ‘he.’” 

“Yeah, a lot of that going around these days. But don’t worry, she’s ugly.”

She didn’t quite smile. “How was the game?”

He showed his teeth like a growling dog. “Don’t ask, it’s technical.”

“I take it we lost,” she said as she put groceries into the cupboards.

“Yes, ma’am.”

“I’m sorry. Did you wear your hat?”

“Yes, but it did no good. I’ll get over it, though.”

“Good, I hate to see you suffer.”

He put groceries in the fridge. “There is one little thing I would like to talk to you about, though.”

“What’s on your little mind?” she asked as she poured herself a glass of wine.

“Just as the game ended, one of your friends from the book club pranced into the basement and plopped himself down in one of my chairs.”

She sipped her wine and wrinkled her brow. “Wasn’t one of my friends. There was no meeting tonight.”

“Oh, really? You have a man about my age, nice haircut, expensive suit, in your book club?”

“No, they’re all women.”

“Ah. Well, this man came down, sat in a chair, and asked for some scotch. Then he told me he was the Angel of Death, and that I was gonna die in six months.”

She peered at him over her glass. “I think you had one too many salt-and-vinegar chips.”

That thought had crossed his mind, particularly given the short time of the man’s visit. But he had the twenty and an empty scotch glass.

“You’re probably right,” he said, walking toward the basement stairs. “Must have been a dream.”

CHAPTER TWO


The next morning on the way to the office Margold thought about what the man claiming to be Death had told him. How did he want to be remembered? Would he return to the fold, as it were, as death approached? “Forget it,” he told himself. “You have enough trouble.” It was all bullshit, anyway. There’s no such thing as the Angel of Death. He was not in your basement last night, and he didn’t decide to kill you.

As he came to a stoplight he glanced over at the car next to him. There, smiling, was Death. Fuck, the guy is a stalker. He knew it! The light was still red. He thought about calling the police, but what would they do? And it would take them a coon’s age to get there. He had to do something right now. He decided to shoot through the intersection, through the red light, and get away. He checked for oncoming traffic. Clear. He punched the gas. He was met by the sickening sound of squealing tires and the acrid smell of burning rubber. A teenager in a fast car tried to beat the light from the other direction. The boy’s car stopped inches short of striking Margold. The boy, at first pale and wide-eyed, recovered sufficiently to give him the finger.

Margold’s heart pounded. He felt no offense at the boy’s gesture, as it was warranted. Margold held up his hand to say “I’m sorry,” and continued through the intersection. As he did so, one of the cars that had been waiting at the light behind him pulled out and gave chase. An unmarked patrol car, lights in the grill. Margold pulled over. The light had changed. The car in which he had seen Death rolled past with a little old lady at the wheel. “It’s worse than I thought,” he said to himself. “It’s my brain. It has turned into slop. Mary always said I drank too much. Now it’s gone. It’s calcifying.” 

The cop approached the car cautiously along the driver’s side, with his hand on his gun. Margold knew these people were dangerous, so he kept both hands on the wheel where the cop could see them. The cop indicated for him to roll down his window, asked for his license and registration, and gave him a blast of shit about nearly causing an accident. Margold’s mind raced. What should he tell the cop? A bunch of lies came to mind, but the truth would be better, or at least something close to it. He explained he was a lawyer and he thought the guy in the car next to him was the husband of a client, and was stalking him. Turns out he was wrong. The cop gave him a ticket for running the red light and left it at that.

He arrived at his office and strode through the reception area. He told Evelyn no calls, and went into his room and shut the door.

#

He spent most of the day staring out the window contemplating what had happened. He took no calls, saw no clients, and did no work. He simply sat in his chair, rocking. He didn’t eat lunch, and went home about three. Before he left he called Mary to tell her he wanted to eat dinner out tonight. He made a reservation at their favorite restaurant. That should make him feel better.

When he got home he went into the basement, put the prelude to Act I of Wagner’s Parsifal on the stereo, and sat staring at nothing. The slow, hymn-like chords of the prelude soothed his mind. How could anyone write music this beautiful? Where did ideas like this come from? It was all he could do to put his shoes on the right feet. If Wagner had written only this prelude, he would have been remembered forever. Margold reclined in his chair. With his eyes closed, he had the sensation of floating.

He was brought out this trance by Mary’s car coming into the garage. He went up to the kitchen to greet her. 

She put her briefcase on the counter, kicked her heels off and poured herself a glass of white wine. “Would you like a martini?”

“That would be great. Dry.”

She peered at him over her glasses. “You think after all these years I don’t know how you want your martini?”

“Of course. Sorry.”

She clanked several ice cubes into the shaker, added a few drops of vermouth, a fair pour of gin, shook it about, poured it into a glass, and stuck in three olives. “Here.” She handed him the drink.

He tasted it. “Beautiful.”

They went into the living room. There was still some time before the dinner reservation.

“How was your day?” he asked.

“Hectic, as always. Nothing is easy.”

“I know the feeling, but that’s why you get the big bucks, as they say.”

She put both feet up on the couch and lay back. “Seems like little consolation.”

“We’ll have a nice quiet dinner. You’ll feel a lot better.”

“I hope so. How was your day?”

He chewed an olive. “You don’t want to know.”

“Did we have a rough day?”

“We had no day. I sat in my chair staring into space. I did nothing.”

She smiled. “I’ve tried that. There’s no revenue in it.”

He sipped his martini. Cold, delicious, herbal. “Yeah, hopefully my partner billed a few hours today.”

“What was bothering you?”

“The visit I had last night.”

“That was probably a dream. Don’t worry about it.”

“I thought so at first, but when I think about it, there are a couple of details that make me doubt it.”

“Such as?”

“Just as he was leaving he dropped a twenty-dollar bill. He also drank a glass of scotch, and I had the empty glass.”

“Oh,” she said, sipping wine.

“And this morning, I saw him sitting in the car next to me at a stoplight.”

She swirled her wine, then said, “Maybe you should see someone.”

He frowned. “You mean a shrink?”

“A counselor, or whatever you want to call it. Just have a talk. It can’t hurt.”

He pursed his lips, considering the idea. “You’re probably right,” he said at length. “Now let’s go to dinner.”

The night was warm for the time of year, so they took the convertible, a two-seater, and drove with the top down. This always made him feel better. He popped in the Rolling Stones’ Voodoo Lounge, and cranked it up. With this music, this car, and the air blowing through his hair, there were no troubles in the world. At the end of the ride waited some of the finest seafood in the city.

The parking valet greeted him with recognition and a smile, as he knew Margold would give him a nice fat tip if the car were returned clean and undented. Inside, the maître d’ greeted him by his first name, shook his hand, and took them to their table. This level of service was accomplished by not only being a regular, but by handing out twenty dollar bills. Margold believed the twenty was the key to the universe. Ten was not enough, and fifty meant you were a fucking nut trying to look like a big shot. The next step from a twenty, really, was a hundred, which made you look like a mobster. Give a guy a twenty and you look like a nice man who likes to take care of people, but not a schmuck.

They started with oysters on the half-shell (malpeques, from Prince Edward Island), and a glass of white wine for her, and a martini for him. Outside of acts of sexual depravity, there was nothing like an icy martini with raw oysters. 

The soft blue lighting and soothing classical music relaxed him. Huge aquariums bubbled on the opposite wall.

“How are you feeling?” she asked. The pale blue of the ambient light reflected in her glasses and diamonds around her neck.

“Much better, thanks. Sometimes I wonder what gets into me.”

“We’ll have a nice evening. Things will look better tomorrow.”

“I expect so. Now, what are you having?”

She perused the menu. “I’m in the mood for a big fat lobster. How ’bout you?”

He pointed to the menu. “Grilled red snapper.”

“You going to order a bottle of wine?”

“Yes. I like the Sauvignon Blanc they have here.”

“Me too.”

“Watch it, though,” he said. “You’re the designated driver.”

“Thanks for reminding me.”

As they chatted, he noticed Death sitting at a table on the other side of the restaurant.

“Oh shit,” Margold whispered. “There he is. He’s following me.”

She glanced around. “Who?”

“The man who came to the basement saying he was Death. He’s sitting at the table across the room by the wall.”

She turned her head. “Let me see.”

“No! Don’t look.”

“Then I’m going to the ladies’ room, and catch a peek as I go by.”

“Fine, but be subtle.”

She got up and walked toward the restrooms. When she came out she stole another glance.

“Did you see him?” he asked.

She hesitated for a moment, sipped her wine, then said, “All I saw was a young couple.”

Margold looked over again. Two early twenty-somethings were at the table. They seemed out of place and uncomfortable. Clearly not used to this sort of place.

“He was there a minute ago,” he said, his eyes wide and excited.

She half smiled. “Okay, take it easy. Forget it and let’s eat our dinner.”

“But I swear–”

She put her hand on his. “I know, honey, but let’s forget it for now.”

When they placed their order he told the waitress to add the young couple’s tab to his bill.

He soon calmed down, but kept glancing around the restaurant for Death. They were able to finish their meal without any further sightings.

When they got home he went into the basement to think. She went to bed.

“Don’t stay up too late,” she said from the top of the stairs. “You have to work in the morning.”

“I know, I’ll be up shortly. Good night.”

“Good night.”

He sank into a large leather chair, drinking a martini, and staring at the dark television. What was happening to him? How can this be? Perhaps he drank too much, but not so much as would cause hallucinations. At least he didn’t think so. Maybe he had suffered a stroke. Maybe he should see the doctor. And maybe he should see a shrink. See if anyone can tell him what was going on. Just as these thoughts passed from his mind into the eternal void, there appeared, in the chair to his left, Death.

“You’re just everywhere, aren’t you?” Margold said.

“I get around.”

“You’ve got to stop just appearing like that. What if I was looking at porn, or something?”

“I’d know it, anyway.”

“You mean—”

“Yep.”

Margold turned red, sipped his martini, and ate the olive. “Where are my manners? Can I fix you a martini?”

“That would be very nice. I hate to see a man drink alone.”

Margold fixed the drink and handed it to him. He wore a suit and looked quite dapper for one in the business of hauling the dead off to wherever it was he took them.

“Now that we’re all comfy,” Margold said, “what are you doing here, and why do you keep appearing to me?”

“Didn’t they teach you in law school not to ask more than one question at a time?”

Margold chuckled. “No. They didn’t actually teach me much. Everything I know about being a lawyer I learned after law school. Answer the questions.”

“I’m here now because you do not yet believe, and I’m afraid you’re wasting what time you have left. You have better things to do than sit in your chair all day and stare into space.”

“Yes, and?”

“And what? In my book that answers both questions.” He peered over his martini at Margold, smiling.

“Then I have another question. Let’s assume you are who and what you say you are. You wouldn’t mind giving a skeptical and jaded old lawyer a little proof, would you?”

Death gazed into his glass. Without looking up, he said, “We shall have a demonstration.”

“Wonderful. Can we start with that quarterback?”

“No. No people. Think of something else.”

Margold sipped his drink. “I have it. How about that yapping dog next door? The woman has a shit toy poodle she leaves out all night, and the son-of-a-bitch barks and yaps at all hours.”

“Let’s go find the rascal.”

They went into the yard looking for the dog.

“Where do you think he’d be?” Death asked.

“He is either on the woman’s front porch, or wandering around the yard.”

After a few minutes the dog’s high-pitched bark filled the air from the other side of the house.

“There the son-of-a-bitch is,” Margold said. “How are you going to kill him? I hope it’s slow and painful.”

“And here I thought you were kind to dumb animals.”

“Oh, I am. I love dogs. The only real friend I have in this world is my dog, Fred. But I don’t love this one. What are you going to do?”

“For a man of your culture and refinement, you sometimes lack subtlety and finesse.”

“That has been said about me.”

“Behold,” Death said, with a subtle gesture with his hand. One of the ugliest dogs Margold had ever seen trotted up the street.

“What the fuck is that?” Margold asked, stepping back a bit in the direction of his front porch.

“That, my good man, is a coyote.”

“I’ll be damned. I heard they were around here, but I haven’t seen one.”

“Watch and learn, dear boy.”

The coyote trotted up the street on long and gangly legs. It crossed in the direction of the little dog, which at the same time came running around the corner. By the time the little mutt saw the coyote, it was too late. The dog turned to run. In two quick steps the coyote had hold of it by the throat, ran back in the direction of the wooded park at the end of the street, and vanished into the darkness. 

“Christ,” Margold said. “Let’s get back inside before someone sees us.” 

They returned to the basement to finish their drinks.

“What do you think now?” Death asked.

“Okay, Mr. Death, you’ve got my attention.”

“That’s better.”

With that, Margold found himself alone again.

#

“Guess who visited me again last night?” he said to Mary the next morning over coffee.

“Your spook?”

“Very funny. He’s not a spook. He showed up bustin’ my balls about why I didn’t believe him.”

“What’d he say?”

He told her.

“What’d you tell him?”

“I told him I wanted proof.”

She raised her brow. “And?”

“Let’s just say that the problem with the noisy dog next door has been resolved.”

Her eyes grew large. “Don’t tell me . . .”

He nodded and told her what happened.

“Oh my God.”

“It wasn’t me, it was him, although I suggested the possibility.”

She put her hand to her forehead. “What are we going to tell Cynthia?”

He took toast from the toaster and began to butter it. “We’re not going to tell her anything.”

“But she’s going to be running around wondering what happened to her dog.”

“I suggest we keep our mouths shut about it. Act all sympathetic when the subject comes up. In any event, I believe him now.”

“You believe him? You mean you believe he’s the Angel of Death and you’re going to die in six months?”

“Yes.”

She was quiet for a moment, sipped her coffee, then said “Do me one favor.”

“Sure, what?”

“Go see your doctor.”

He handed her a piece of toast and nodded.

“And you may want to talk to a psychiatrist. Maybe the doctor can give a referral.”

“I’ve already thought about that. I’m going to the doctor this afternoon.”

“Good. And you probably should not drink so much.”

“You said one favor. That’s three. And as far as the drinking, there’s no reason to get wacky about it.”

She furrowed her brow. “I’m serious.”

“I’ll think about it,” he said, his mouth full of toast.

 

CHAPTER THREE


Margold sat in the examination room, waiting. Next to his chair stood the monstrous table upholstered in black vinyl, over which was stretched thin white paper from a roll. He hated to go to the doctor because it usually involved discomfort and pain. The smell of the place, that antiseptic smell, scared the hell out of him. He feared needles, and all the silvery metallic instruments in the place. He remembered being chased around one of these tables as a kid so the nurse could give him a shot in the ass. 

Paintings of pleasant Mediterranean resort towns with flowers and calming colors hung on the wall to make the place less intimidating. It didn’t help. The table with the paper roll was nothing less than a torture device. A rack. After a few minutes, the doctor came in.

“Hi, Margold,” the doctor said. “How are you? What can I do for you today?”

“I think I’m going to die.”

The doctor laughed. “Care to elaborate?”

“I just had this feeling, that’s all. Maybe I need a test, or something.”

“You’re as fit as one can expect, given your advanced years. You had a complete physical less than six months ago, which included all the intrusive exams I could think of—”

“Tell me about it. I still can’t stand to look at a rubber glove.”

“And there’s nothing wrong with you, other than you probably drink too much.”

“You been talking to my wife?”

“No, I’ve been to your house for dinner, remember?”

“Not really.”

“See what I mean?”

“I’m not going to die?”

The doctor pushed his hands into the pockets of his lab coat. “Of course you’re going to die, but not for a long time, unless you get hit by one of those ambulances you chase.”

“That’s real funny, Doc.”

“Do you have any symptoms that concern you?”

Margold thought for a moment. “No.”

“Then you’re not going to die any time soon.”

“But why does this guy keep appearing to me?” Christ, he’d blurted it out.

“What guy?”

He told him.

“Maybe it’s an hallucination. Based on what you told me, at least three of the times he appeared you had been drinking. Heavily.”

Margold frowned. “Heavily is such a harsh word, but yes, I’d had a few. But one time was in the morning. I was sober.”

“Yes, but you had been drinking the night before.”

“That’s true.”

“You taking anything else? Coke, acid, pot?”

“No, never did that.”

“Never?”

“Never.”

The doctor looked him in the eye. “Then stop drinking.”

Margold recoiled in shock. “Now I think you have gone nuts.”

“Are you taking any medication I don’t know about?”

“No.”

“Then lay off the booze for a while and see what happens.”

“Jesus.”

“Now get out of here, I have real patients to see. Make sure you pay on the way out.”

“Would I stiff you?”

The doctor gave him a look that said “Yes, and you have.”

“I like your bedside manner, Doc. A man comes in here with a serious problem and all you can do is bust his balls about the bill.”

“I gotta eat too.”

“I understand. Are we finished?”

“One more little thing,” the doctor said.

“Yes?”

“Maybe you should see a psychiatrist.”

“Goddamn, you have been talking to my wife.”

“No, but you are having hallucinations.”

He knew they weren’t hallucinations, but he kept his mouth shut.

“I’m going to write a referral,” the doctor said. “Go see Dr. Weiner, he’s quite good.”

Margold took the referral. On the way out to his car he threw it into the trash.

 

#

He didn’t need no shrink. So what if he was nuts, everyone was nuts. So what if he had hallucinations? The doctor said it could be due to the booze. He wasn’t going to die from being nuts, and dying was not going to kill him, unless he got suicidal, which he wasn’t. He retired to his TV room to ponder these and other things with his mind properly lubricated by scotch. Such things could not be considered on a sober mind, as a mind not liberated with alcohol would make some idiotic rational decision, such as to go to church, God forbid, or to help the poor, spend time with the family, or some other equally ludicrous nonsense.

With his mind clarified by booze, he contemplated the world and his place in it. He’d suffered for decades for the benefit of others. Like Christ himself. He’d slaved his whole life so others may have things. Of course, he got some of the fruits of his labors, but the lion’s share went to others. Between banks, insurance companies, the tax man, his kid and his wife, he got little. And for these efforts all he usually got was ridicule. Did he do without? No. But he compromised. On everything. He had a nice TV, but he wanted a bigger one. He had a good stereo, but he wanted (and could afford) a better one. Everything he did was subject to the scrutiny of others. Was that so bad? No. But now he was going to take a canoe over the River Styx, and soon. What to do? The answer was not clear, at least not in its entirety. But part of it was. Whatever he decided to do was going be what he wanted to do. He had toiled long enough for others. Some might argue that in your last days you should be with your family. But his family would get along without him for a while, and would have plenty of opportunity to suffer without him, and to suffer on account of him. The paramount concern in this world is the self. One had certain responsibilities requiring sacrifice, certainly. You have kids, you have to take care of them. You take on a legal matter, you must do your best as a lawyer.

Here is the liberating thing: if you know you’re going to die on a certain day at a certain time not far in the future, there is a lot you can get away with. You’ve got to stay out of jail, but if you’re smart, you can do about anything. You could kill someone, and it may take the cops years to solve the murder. You could steal something, and even if you get caught, you’d be out on bail and dead before the matter came to trial, particularly if you have a good lawyer. You can run up the credit cards and let your heirs worry about it. Glory fucking osky. 

Should he go somewhere? Take a trip? See the world? Go to Antarctica, or India? He had seen a show the other day about New Orleans. That might be a good idea. He’d been there before and liked it. Interesting place. Great food and good booze. And they had fortune-tellers. There was an interesting idea. He would see if a fortune-teller could see whether he was going to die. Maybe he would gain an appreciation for jazz, which up to now has evaded him. He immediately began to make plans.

#

“What?” Mary asked, over coffee the next morning. “You have got to be kidding. You have a wife, a family, a house, a law practice, responsibilities, and people who love you. You can’t just up and go to New Orleans.”

“It won’t be for long. I intend to stay for a few weeks, then see what happens. But if I’m going to die, I need to spend my last few months doing what I feel like doing.”

“You’re not going to die! The doctor said there’s nothing wrong with you.”

“Then why is Death visiting me?”

She dropped her head, then looked up. “He didn’t.”

“Then where is the neighbor’s dog?”

“You did something to it. Everyone says so.”

“Oh, really? Now we’re siding with ‘everyone,’ whoever that might be.”

“It makes sense.”

This annoyed him and he felt his anger rise. “It makes sense I would want to do something to the little bastard,” he said, “because it was a fucking nuisance. But it wasn’t me, it was Death.”

“You know what? On second thought, you should go to New Orleans. Take a couple of weeks off. Relax. Then come home. I’ll give you that much. Then we’ll see where you are and where we are.”

“I’ll be leaving in a couple of days.”

She glared at him. “You already have it planned. You were going to go no matter what I said.”

“Ipso facto.”

“I wish you would stop saying that.”

“You won’t hear it for a while.” 

She put her coffee down. “Oh, come on, don’t be like that. You know we love you, and we’re concerned about you. It’s just that I’m not happy you made all these plans without talking to me about it first.”

He poured them each more coffee. “What am I supposed to do? I see Death, I talk to him one-on-one in my TV room, and I see him hither and thither. He tells me I’m going to die, although there’s nothing wrong with me, gives proof as to who he is and that he’s really there, and not an hallucination. I saw him, but no one believes me.”

“You’ve got to admit it’s a bit out the ordinary, particularly for a guy like you. Out of character, even. It will take time for us to understand what you’re going through.”

He nodded. “I’ll grant you that. I’m going to take some time to go to New Orleans, get a change of scenery, and then decide what to do.”

She smiled. “All right. Enjoy yourself. Try to clear your head. Just promise me one thing.”

“What’s that?”

“Come back to us.”

He took her hand. “I’ll be back, I promise.”

“That’s all I ask.”

 

CHAPTER FOUR


The French Quarter was as he remembered it. Beautiful buildings, lots of character, and wonderful food and wine. He had been to New Orleans several times, and each time he stayed at a little hotel in the middle of the Quarter, known for giving each guest a free cocktail upon arrival. He sat alone in the hotel bar drinking his complimentary martini. The bar had been part of a nineteenth-century whore house, and still looked it. Tired, seedy, rundown, and filled with worn furniture upholstered in heavy maroon and gold fabric, with large dark wooden arms and backs. Threadbare antique oriental carpets lay on the floor resting from a century of labor. Dark red wall paper, coming off here and there, covered the walls, broken up by old gilt-framed photographs of whores. The room smelled of leather, beer, and cigars. But it was quaint, the service good, and Margold James was not above a place with a little less polish in exchange for character. And you can’t beat the price of the first martini.

Margold chatted with the bartender, a friendly young man in his early twenties with a thin scraggly beard and long red hair. Margold thought it would be interesting to go to a fortune-teller, so he asked the bartender whether he knew where he could find a good one. 

“This is a hell of a good martini,” Margold said.

The bartender turned toward Margold, wiping a glass with a towel. “Thanks, bro, I went to school for it.”

Margold smiled. “Bartender school. Got to be better than law school.”

“I reckon so. But it ain’t all that easy. Lots to learn.”

“I’m sure.”

“And the instructor was a real prick.”

“Seems to be a lot of that going on in the world of instructors. You should have seen the ones in law school.”

The bartender laughed. “I bet. Never met a lawyer wasn’t a prick.”

“Neither have I.”

“How’s the drink doing? Want me to put a head on it?”

Margold set the glass on the bar. “Now, that’s the nicest thing anyone has said to me all day.”

The bartender began to rig the drink. “It’s five o’clock somewhere.”

“That’s my motto.”

“You’re one big son of a gun. You can hold it. What do you do for a living?”

“I’m a lawyer.”

“Oops.”

“Don’t worry about it, chief. You didn’t say anything that wasn’t true.”

The bartender’s face had turned red. “Still, it ain’t right I should talk bad ’bout a customer.”

Margold held up a hand. “Please—”

“Drink’s on the house.”

“I feel better already.”

The bartender smiled.

“Let me ask you something,” Margold said. “Do you know any psychics around here?”

“Course.”

“Any that might be legit?”

“I know some’s pretty good.”

The bartender gave him a few names. 

Margold went to his room to rest before going out. Still only mid-morning, he had to sleep off two martinis before going out for lunch to look for the fortune-tellers.

#

Yellow neon stars and white moons filled the front window of the fortune-teller. The palm of a hand in purple neon, and the words “Tarot” and “Palm Readings” in green neon, beckoned to passers-by. A bell jingled as he entered a small anteroom. A large woman in her thirties came out dressed in a pink muumuu, hair dyed blond with dark roots, big rings on several of her fingers, and a face not unlike that of a pig. She froze mid-step when she saw six-foot-seven Margold. She regained her composure after a few seconds, introduced herself as Lady Mira, and took him into a back room. Painted with pale yellow gloss, the room contained only a small table covered in a purple cloth, and a few wooden chairs. He told her he wanted a palm reading, paid her the twenty-dollar fee, and sat down at the table. She took his hands.

“Ever have your palm read before?” she asked, gazing at the huge palms.

“No.”

“I don’t get many like you, to be honest. Normally middle aged working-class women.”

“That’s what the bartender told me, but I’m curious.”

She smiled. “At least you know where to get good advice.”

He nodded. “Best place in the world. True philosophers, those people.”

“Which hand do you write with?”

“The right,” he said, waving the fingers on his right hand.

She took his hand and used a small black stick with a pointing hand carved on the end to trace the lines in his palm. It tickled, but he held still. 

“This is your head line,” she said, moving the tip of the pointer along one of the grooves in his palm. “This is your heart line, and this is your life line. Your life line touches your head line, meaning you are very intelligent. You think before you act.”

“That’s probably true.”

“You’re married.”

“You can see that in the palm?”

She grinned. “No, you’re wearing a wedding ring.”

He laughed.

“Says here you have two kids.”

“No, only one.”

“Doesn’t say you know about both of them, only that you have them. Or will.”

“Interesting.”

“Over here are your relationship lines. You’ve been married to the same person for a long time, and it says that will continue.”

“What about the life line? I’m sure everyone asks you about that.”

“Your life line is very long. I certainly can’t put a date on it, but short of getting hit by a bus, you will live a long life. In fact, it’s extremely long.”

“That’s a relief.”

“Your fingers are interesting. You have a combination of types, meaning you’re a complex and interesting person. You’re analytical and scientific, but at the same time you’re very artistic. A musician, or a painter.”

“I think that’s accurate.”

She went on to tell him general things, many of which could be deduced by looking at him or talking to him for five minutes. For example, he was an educated man and worked with his mind. Of course. His hands were as soft as a baby’s ass, and he looked like he might have a few bucks. Then she went on to tell the future. His business venture would be a great success, but he should keep an eye on his partners.

“Do you have any questions?” she asked.

“Will I be rich?”

“You already are.”

“How do you know?”

“I get a lot of people in here and, for most of them, it’s all they can do to scrape up the twenty bucks. They’re poor and uneducated, and it shows. I ain’t exactly holdin’ a PhD, but I know people. You got money, and lots of it.”

He smiled and nodded slowly. He thanked her and left. All in all, the reading was not bad, but she didn’t say anything about Death. Maybe that was good. It meant his palms didn’t show his impending demise, or she was a fake. Or Death was.

Maybe he should have a tarot reading. He didn’t believe this mumbo jumbo, but he didn’t believe in the Angel of Death, either, until he was sitting in his TV room drinking scotch. And then he still didn’t believe. Can’t hurt anything, and it was only about twenty bucks. He found the next shop with “Tarot” in the window, and went in. 

Like the other place, there was a front room, behind which was the reading room. A woman with dark shoulder-length frizzy hair and pleasant face came out. She wore a purple dress with lace at the skirt, big purple beads, and a small headband. He told her what he wanted and she led him into the back. 

The reading room, lit with candles, had furniture with deep red throws covering it. New-age music played in the background, and incense filled the air, accounting for the hazy atmosphere. She had him sit at a round table covered in purple velvet with a gold pentagram embroidered in the center. She sat across from him with a deck of cards. 

“These are standard tarot cards,” she said. “When I read, I normally use the Celtic Cross spread.”

“Okay,” he said, not quite understanding what all that meant, but he figured he was about to be enlightened.

“Have you ever done this before?”

“No.”

“You don’t look the type. That is, you’re not my usual client.”

“I don’t suppose I am.”

“What we do is, you ask a question, and then I lay out the cards in a certain pattern.”

“All right.”

“Then I interpret them for you.”

“Okay.”

“What is your question?”

He was afraid to just ask the question, “Am I going to die in a few months,” or “how long will I live?” so he thought of a way to ask indirectly. “I’m planning a trip to Europe for this time next year. Is that a good time to go?”

She shuffled the cards several times, then flipped one over. On the card was a skeleton on a horse, carrying a black flag with a white rose in the center. 

“Death.”

“Shit.”

She smiled. “That’s not what it means. Many people think it means you’re going to die. It doesn’t. It means there is going to be a big change. The passing away of one thing, a way of life, for example, and the beginning of another.”

“That’s a relief.”

She turned over a second card. It was another Death. When she saw it, she jumped and sat gazing at the card, eyes wide.

“What’s the matter?” he asked. “Not good to have two Death cards in a row?”

She was quiet for a moment, and sat still as though trying to collect herself. “No,” she said in a shaky voice. “Particularly since there is only one Death card in a deck.”

“Ah. Maybe they got mixed up.”

“I don’t think so,” she said, looking through the deck. “Let’s start again. The deck looks okay. I’ll just take the extra Death card and set it aside, then reshuffle the deck.”

“Okay.”

She shuffled, and turned up the first card. Death. She gasped. 

“We seem to have a pattern here,” Margold said.

She shook her head. “There’s still a chance it would come up. Let’s continue.” 

She turned up the next card. Death. 

“Dear Jesus,” she said.

She turned over the deck, and spread all the cards on the table, face up. All Death.

Her hands shook.

It occurred to Margold that his friend Death was having a little joke. “Maybe you should get a new deck.”

“Yes. Right.” She went over to a cabinet, her face colorless, supporting herself on furniture as she went. She took out a pack of cards still wrapped in cellophane. She returned to her seat, undid the wrapper, examined the cards, and seemed satisfied with them. She showed them to Margold, and he saw they were all different. She shuffled them and turned up the first card. Death. 

She let out a whimper.

“I’m starting to get a complex,” Margold said.

She turned up the next card. Death. 

She spread this deck out face up. All Death. She stood up shaking with fear, moaning. After a moment, she said “Mr., you get out of here.”

“But my reading—”

“You got no reading. Here’s your money. Now please get out!”

“What do you mean, I got no reading?”

“There is some magic here I don’t understand. I’ve heard of this happening before, but not for hundreds of years. It’s in the old texts.”

“What does it mean? Am I going to die?”

“No man, you’re already dead,” she said a tremor in her voice. She waved her hands. “Now please, go!”

A strong breeze came into the room, blowing out all the candles. The woman screamed, and Margold headed for the door, fell over a chair, got up, and left the shop.

He had had enough of this sort of entertainment, and decided to go into the nearest bar and have a martini. The bartender, a scrawny and tattoo-covered man in his 50s, wearing his long gray hair in a ponytail, put the drink down in front of Margold at the bar.

“Tell me something,” Margold said, chugging the martini and indicating for another. “Is there anything to this fortune-telling bullshit?”

 The bartender stood with his back to Margold, facing a row of bottles in front of a wall-sized mirror illuminated from below. The bottles glowed, illuminating the bartender with a ghastly light. He looked at Margold in the mirror while preparing the second martini.

“Not really,” the bartender said. “They’re pretty much all con artists.”

“That’s what I thought.”

“You thinkin’ of goin’ to a fortune-teller?” the bartender asked, putting down the second martini.

“I already tried a couple.”

“You don’t look the type.”

Margold sipped the drink and ate the olive. “Really? What’s the type?”

“Mainly women. Very few men, unless either they’re with women who bust they balls to have a reading done to make sure she’s the love of his life. Or gays, if you’ll pardon my sayin’ so.”

Margold smiled. It occurred to him that these women thought he was gay. Maybe the woman with the Death cards thought he had AIDS. “I see. No, I’m not gay, and no one has busted my balls. I have my reasons.”

“That’s fine. None of my business.”

“I just went to a palm reader, and got the usual story, I suppose.”

“I’m sure.”

“Then I went to Tarot reader. Had a more interesting result.”

“Yeah?”

He told him about the Death cards. The bartender, who until then had been wiping glasses and putting them on the lit-up glass shelf, stopped what he was doing, and gazed at the glass in his hand. He turned.

“You look like an educated man,” the bartender said. “A man of means. Why d’you need a reading?”

Margold stared into his drink playing with the toothpick on which the olive had been skewered. He contemplated whether he should tell the truth, or make up a lie. He had nothing to lose by telling the truth.

“You want the truth?” Margold asked.

The bartender smiled, exposing a mouthful of rotten teeth. “Up to you. People lie to me all day long.”

“The truth, then. I’m going to die, and I want to hear what they have to say about it.”

“Sorry, man, I didn’t mean to—”

Margold held up a hand and shook his head. “Don’t worry about it. It’s not what you think.”

“You sick, or something?”

“No, that’s the thing. There ain’t a goddamn thing wrong with me.”

“Then why you think you’re gonna die?”

“I was visited by the Angel of Death.”

The bartender’s eyes widened. “I’ve got to tell ya, I’ve heard about everything there is to hear in this line of work, but I ain’t never heard that.”

“I know what you mean. I’m a lawyer. Just when I think I’ve heard it all, boom! Someone comes in with something so off the fucking wall that I wouldn’t believe it if it weren’t for the police report.”

“How do you know it was Death?”

Margold told him about seeing him around town, and about the demonstration with the little dog.

“Send ’im ’round here,” the bartender said. “I got some work for ’im.”

Margold laughed.

“Could explain the Death cards, though,” the bartender said.

“You don’t think it was a con?”

“No, sir. They will tell a lot of lies to get your money, but all Death cards and kicking you out ain’t one.”

“Do you know anyone around here who has honest-to-God psychic ability?”

The bartender considered the question for a moment while he wiped another glass, examined it against the light, and placed it on the shelf. “Yes, I know a black woman a few blocks over who does readings and voodoo. She runs one of them voodoo shops you see ’round. Does readings in the back. She’s for real. I seen her do some wild shit. She must have fuckin’ ESP, or be connected to the spirit world, or somethin’.”

Margold pointed a finger at him. “That is exactly what I need.”

From the other end of the bar came the laughter of a man. There sat Death.

Margold scowled. “You little cocksucker, what’s so funny?”

“What?” said the bartender.

“Sorry,” Margold said, “I’m not talking to you. I’m talking to that son-of-a-bitch at the end of the bar.”

“At the end of the bar? I don’t see . . ..” He backed away, holding his hands up defensively. “Hey, whatever. You ain’t the first swingin’ dick to come in here and see shit what ain’t there. Have a blast.”

“Now, Mr. James,” Death said, “is that any way to be?”

“I ought to bust this stool over your head.”

“Take it easy, boss,” the bartender said. “We don’t want no physical damage.”

Margold held up his hand. “Don’t worry, I’m cool. And if I bust anything, I’ll pay. Double.”

Death laughed. 

“What do you want?” Margold said.

“How did you like my little joke with the Tarot?”

Margold faked a smile. “Yeah, you’re a regular card.”

“Come on, now. It scared the shit out of that hag, and you had entertainment few people get.”

“It was a more accurate reading than I expected, but she put the cart before the horse.”

“That’s my fault. She had no idea. Seeing all the cards come up Death, knowing they had started out in her hand as a regular deck, was more than she could take.”

Margold downed the remainder of his martini and signaled for another. “You know, there’s a lot of shit going on in the Middle East. Aren’t you needed there?”

“They are doing fine without me.”

The bartender put the new drink on the bar. Margold picked it up, took the olive and ate it. “I’m just one important son-of-a-bitch, then?” he said, looking up. 

Death was gone. 

Margold grunted. “Fucking prick. Just pops in and pops out whenever he wants to. I’m afraid to so much as beat off.”