Loading...
Menu
Ebooks   ➡  Fiction  ➡  Fantasy  ➡  Contemporary  ➡  Black comedy

Kingston Raine and the Grim Reaper

 

Kingston Raine and the Grim Reaper

Kingston Raine’s world is turned upside down in just one second as he goes from trying to rescue his girlfriend to waking up in Limbo … utterly dead, and facing a baffled Grim Reaper who tells Kingston that he is completely fictional and didn’t even exist until just a few moments ago.

 

Having never experienced this problem before, the Grim Reaper isn’t sure about what to do with his fictional celebrity. Satan has a few suggestions, but none of them are at all appealing.

 

If that wasn’t bad enough, Limbo is facing an uprising designed to kick the Grim Reaper out of the realm, and news of Kingston’s death is exactly what the uprising needs to topple Limbo’s ancient government.

 

Before the day is even over Kingston finds a way to escape reality, where he nearly loses his head to Macbeth, rescues Little John before Robin Hood can save the day, and does everything he can to get back to his own universe before Limbo’s bounty hunters can catch up to him.

 

 

“Heart-felt, hilarious, and very tongue-in-cheek. I can’t wait to play me in the Broadway adaptation.”
_ _
p>. LUCIFER

 

“KILL HIM!”
_ _
p>. MACBETH

 

“I don’t usually drink that much.”
_ _
p>. LITTLE JOHN

Contents

Chapter I

Chapter II

Chapter III

Chapter IV

Chapter V

Chapter VI

Chapter VII

Chapter VIII

Chapter IX

Chapter X

Chapter XI

Chapter XII

Chapter XIII

Chapter XIV

Chapter XV

Chapter XVI

Chapter XVII

Chapter XVIII

Chapter XIX

Chapter XX

 

Acknowledgements

More in the Series

I

Far beyond the horizon existed a company whose sole purpose was to sort the dead into two unsavoury categories: those who went south, and those who went north. The company was named Death Incorporated, run by Death & Death Associates, and the Chief Executive Officer and principal shareholder was the Grim Reaper himself: Death.

It was the job of those working within Death Inc. to find the nearly departed, retrieve the recently departed, then sort the very departed into those who lived an exemplary life and those who did not. The departed were brought to Limbo for processing, a job which was getting all the more time consuming as the human population rudely grew beyond all reason. Death had once been able to sort everyone himself and still enjoy a few hours of peace and quiet, but now he needed an entire empire just to process the vast number of humans who died everyday.

He was also responsible for tying together the four planes of existence; Life, Limbo, Heaven, and Hell. Lately, though, he had fallen victim to the bureaucratic nightmare of governing eight hundred thousand employees within the realm, most of whom were busy arranging for the dearly departed to have an easy transition into the afterlife. Curiously, very few souls ever expected to end up going south. As far as they were concerned the only destination in store for them was living it up for an eternity on Cloud Nine. The first clue that something had gone horribly wrong was usually when Satan welcomed them among the crags and volcanoes and called it their new home. It didn’t help their confidence when he then burst into laughter and left the terrified new arrivals to figure out their fate for themselves.

Death looked around his office and groaned at the mound of paperwork the lawyers had dumped on his desk. There were stacks of violations sitting on top of deadlines, reports of abuses of power weighing down a mountain of misappropriations, and each summary highlighted that Death was about to lose his own company. The only thing worse than the first two mounds of paperwork was the third, which made it clear that Death was going to lose the upcoming presidential election as well.

“Michelle?!” Death called out.

There was no answer. He buzzed his intercom and tried a more polite approach. “Michelle?”

There was a snippiness in Michelle’s voice. She had told Death time and time again that he was not to shout at her for anything that wasn’t her fault. “Yes, sir?”

“Clear my schedule. I have a headache.”

“Would you like me to rearrange your one o’clock with the Satan office?” Michelle asked, in a tone clear enough for Death to understand that rescheduling was not a good idea.

Still, Death wanted to be left alone and decided that his old friend could wait. “Yes. Reschedule.”

“Sir …”

“Thank you Michelle, that is all.”

Death fell back into his tall leather chair and felt his body ache from head to toe. His bones ached. His eyes ached. His muscles ached. Every part of him ached. He wished he was just a walking skeleton in a black cloak because then he wouldn’t ache so much. Instead, he looked mostly human. He was bald, barrel chested, and had muscular arms hidden beneath a pin stripe suit and dark blue tie. Whenever he went to Life he carried a long and ornate ivory scythe. It was an easy clue for the almost departed that he really was the Grim Reaper and he really would cut them to pieces if they tried to run. These days his subordinates did most of the grunt work of travelling to Life and guiding people back to Limbo. That left Death stuck in his office going over an endless supply of status reports.

_ _
p<>. I need a holiday, he thought. He flipped through his Life calendar and tried to find something the humans liked to do on January 18, some kind of festival or national holiday he could enjoy while incognito. Unfortunately there was nothing. He finally threw his hands up in defeat. “To hell with it, I’m getting out of here.”

Along one side of his office was a library’s worth of books, secret passages, and his scythe. Opposite that was his collection of ancient weaponry he had collected from important generals who had fallen in battle. He ignored it all and went out to see Michelle. She was trying to reschedule the rest of Death’s day and did not look at all happy to see him.

“Michelle? I’m going out for the afternoon.”

“I’ll make a note of it,” she said. She watched as Death left along the main corridor, heard him leave through the grand doors and waited until she was sure he had gone. She was still dealing with one of Satan’s assistants and by the sound of things Satan was in just as foul a mood as Death. She rubbed her eyebrows and quietly counted to ten to calm herself down.

_ _
p<>. I need an espresso, Michelle thought. The problem was she had drunk four doubles already and was well over her limit. When she was done dealing with Asari in Sylath Crei she scratched off the last of Death’s appointments and drummed her fingers on the desk. She stole a look down to her bag and realised that with Death out of the office she might actually have some time to herself.

Michelle got up from behind her desk and hurried over to the main doors near the corridor. She pulled out a sign reading: ‘Out of office’ and fastened it in place. Then, back in her own chair, she kicked off her shoes and curled her feet underneath herself as she fumbled with a six hundred page book from her bag. There was a tatty bookmark poking out at page 348. She had only managed to get her hands on the book last night and had spent most of the evening and early morning reading as much as she could.

The book was Kingston Raine and the Curse of the Shanghai Werewolf, book six in a seven book series, written by Don Keaton. The principal character was Kingston Raine, a heart-throb industrial thief and all round smart arse. In Michelle’s opinion the series was one of the most gut wrenching stories ever penned. She had to put the book down several times last night just to clear the tears from her eyes. Kingston and his girlfriend Joanna York were being hunted by a corrupt corporation working above the law. It looked as though Joanna was about to die and it seemed impossible that Kingston could save her in time.

Michelle held her breath and dove back into the story.

Then she yelped as the outer doors burst open with a bang. She dropped the book and shrieked in horror as the pages buckled over themselves as the whole thing hit the ground at an angle.

Death ran back inside, his eyes wide and his arms stretched out as though he was bracing himself to dive out the window.

“He’s seen me!” Death called out and he ran straight into his office, slamming the doors behind him.

Michelle looked around in a panic and quickly fixed her book. As she looked up she saw a suave and very casual man walk into view.

Satan.

He was dressed in a faded black t-shirt, dark blue jeans, and geek-chic shoes.

Michelle jumped to her feet. “Satan, sir … I contacted your office just a moment ago.”

“Yes, you were most apologetic about your good for nothing boss … can he hear us right now?” Satan asked.

Michelle blinked a couple of times in confusion. “How would I know if he could?”

Satan glanced down to her desk. “Because your intercom is on.”

They heard a distinct grimace and the intercom light flicked off.

Michelle blushed and wasn’t sure what her orders were. “He wasn’t expecting to see anyone today.” She sat down at her desk and tried to regain her composure, which wasn’t easy now that she was barefoot and fighting with her shoes.

Satan watched her carefully.

“Would you like something while you wait?” Michelle asked.

“Do you have any scotch?”

“Eh, no.”

Satan sighed. “Can you contact my office and have them send over a crate of scotch, and not the cheap kind I hand out at Cinco de Mayo. We might as well keep a stash here for emergencies, right?”

Michelle smiled awkwardly. She was wondering what Death was doing in his office and hoped he wasn’t trying to make another quick getaway. Michelle glanced at Satan and wondered if he was reading her mind. He smiled at her again.

The gold and silver inlaid doors opened and Death came into view. His shoulders were stiff and he welcomed Satan inside with an inevitable hesitation. “Luc. Won’t you come in?”

“I’d be delighted,” Satan said. He winked at Michelle, which caused her to blush again.

“How are you, Grim?” Satan asked as his friend closed the doors behind them.

“A little inconvenienced, actually,” mumbled Death.

“That’s too bad. You know, you just sent me a CEO and five bimbos who were electrocuted in a hot tub by the disgruntled wife. I’m told one of the fine ladies is an aspiring actress. She once appeared in a music video.”

“You don’t say,” said Death.

“It’s the one thing on her resume that is actually true. Now she is inconvenienced, you’re just moody.”

Death looked over the several seating options. There was of course the desk, but that was more for business; there was the sofa, which may be a little too casual; then there was the boardroom table in the adjoining room. Death looked Satan up and down and couldn’t get a reading on him, especially while he wore his jeans and t-shirt. “Mid-life crisis?”

Satan feigned a laugh. “No. I had to meet with some lawyer this morning and felt so nauseated I was sure I would never wear a three piece suit again.”

Death waved Satan to the sofa and they sank into the soft velvety-brown cushions.

“There’s nothing quite like lawyers,” Satan said. “They spend their whole career twisting your words around and making you regret even knowing them. Who did you get stuck with today?”

“Representatives from the Placement Workers Union.”

“That alone sounds bad.”

“It is,” said Death.

“There’s no word of a strike, is there?”

“Every single one of them has mentioned it,” said Death. “Without my placement workers no one gets sorted into North or South. We would be stuck with overcrowding the likes I haven’t seen since the Plague.”

Satan nodded. He thought it was amusing his friend still wouldn’t mention ‘Heaven’ in his presence if he could help it.

“I wouldn’t be surprised either way,” said Satan. “From what I’ve heard there’s only one lawyer in charge of rallying the unions together. As soon as you find out who that is you should sort them out of here as fast as you can. I have a few undesirables who can spend the rest of eternity making them suffer. I particularly like plucking each and every hair out one by one. What you need -”

Death threw up his hands to halt his friend. “Everyone’s been telling me what to do, so from now on you can keep your suggestions to yourself.”

Satan shrugged. “Fair enough. Obviously the whole situation is why you’ve turned into such a sourpuss. It’s understandable.”

Death gritted his teeth. “I’m not a sourpuss.”

“You ignore my calls, letters, and visits,” said Satan.

“I’ve been busy.”

“And that has turned you into a sourpuss,” said Satan.

Death rolled his eyes and wished he had a trapdoor.

Satan slapped Death across the shoulder. “Cheer up! You’ve been off your game for a while but you’ll bounce back. There’s always the election to look forward to, right?”

“Not exactly. The polls seem to have it in for me.”

“Really? Excellent. I get to scare the hell out of whoever is trying to usurp you, so once again you might actually run unopposed.”

Death scoffed. “Sure, and the only thing worse than winning is the insufferable gloating you go through after helping me.”

Satan pulled himself back in feigned offence. “How dare you!”

“Knock it off.”

“I am restoring balance, trying to keep an Eternal in the seat of power. Besides, we’re friends. You would do the same for me.”

Death remained silent.

Satan leaned in. “Right?”

Death shrugged it off. “I would lend you all the moral support I could afford.”

Satan rolled his eyes. “Well, in this time of crisis you shouldn’t forget about some of your staff. Michelle in particular looks as though she needs a holiday. She isn’t any good to you if you’re both this burnt out.” He caught a strange look from Death and he scrambled to figure out what it might actually mean. “Why do you look guilty?”

Death groaned and gave in. “She wanted to take the day off to read some fandangled book of hers and I told her no. I know, crazy, isn’t it?”

Satan cocked his head. “I suppose it depends on the book.”

“It’s Kingston Raine and the Curse of the Shanghai Werewolf.”

Satan smiled and looked as though he admired Michelle’s taste in thrillers. “You haven’t read it?”

“No.”

“You should. There’s still one more book in the series. It’s a little clunky here and there but, hey, you might like it. Some wily loners try to bring down an evil organisation.”

Death wasn’t all that impressed. “I run an organisation.”

“I noticed how you didn’t say …”

“And I have some wily loners trying to bring me down,” Death said, talking over the top of his friend.

“Ah,” Satan said, holding up one finger, “the main character, Kingston Raine, tries to bring down evil lawyers. He usually wins. I should send you the series. It might cheer you up.”

“Thanks, but I would rather wait until the series is finished before blundering through six of seven books while waiting impatiently for a finale.”

“Fair enough,” Satan said. “So …”

Death watched Satan lean forward and he didn’t like the change in atmosphere.

“… On to why I’m here,” Satan said. “I’ve seen the way you run this company. I’ve been a shareholder for almost as long as I can remember and I’m puzzled as to why you won’t use some of my agents in a greater capacity.”

Death rolled his eyes and knew this conversation had been building over the last few years.

“I thought we had an understanding,” Satan said. “My agents can speed things up, even go to Life.”

“Yeah, I’ve seen what happens when your agents get a little rowdy,” Death said. “And please remember your people are in this realm as my guests.”

“And I thank you for that,” said Satan. “But you need my support and help with all of the chaos surrounding you. You can’t do this without me.”

A suspicion grew over Death and he knew the words picked out by his old friend were chosen deliberately. All the more troubling was that he was sure Satan had rehearsed the conversation enough times to pass it off as a casual remark. “What exactly have these lawyers of yours been talking about?”

Satan saw that Death was now paying closer attention, which earned him a smile. “Honestly? How I should join their side and no longer work with you.”

“I see,” said Death, as he gripped his hands together.

“You know it’s only a matter of time before they try to take over again and call for a new way to govern. As soon as you lose the election they will change the laws and kick you out of the building. There is only so much I can do if you refuse my help.”

“As soon as I lose the election? As soon as? Not even an ‘if’?”

Satan shrugged and leaned back into the sofa. “I’ve seen the way things are going. I have oracles, mystics, psychics, and shamans. They are all telling that a great chaos is about to erupt in this realm and an unseen newcomer is going to cause you more problems than you have ever had before.”

Death thought it over. “I see. Do these great psychics of yours see anything else? Do they see me win?”

Satan smirked and shook his head. “You know that’s not how it works. And you of all people should know, considering you’ve killed just about all of them.”

“Funny how they never see it coming,” Death said.

“Oh, they see it coming. They just have a sense of humour when they see your ugly face.”

Death glared at Satan.

Satan held up a hand to apologise. “I meant ugly to them. I’ve known you for long enough and I can’t say either of us are particularly unattractive. I’d even go one step further and say that you in that suit are positively debonair. But it is a shame that you are still only the second most attractive person in this room.”

Death rolled his eyes. Still, there was some truth to what Satan said. They could both change their appearance at will to resemble anyone they had ever met. They could change their voice as well. Death usually held off from the changes until some truly evil human deserved to see the face of a dead enemy or a lost loved one, but those occasions were rare. Most of the changes in appearance came from Satan, who held onto his angelic grace and could adopt the form of any human or angel that had fallen to his realm. Regardless, neither of them chose to adopt the form of someone hideously ugly unless there was a very good reason for it.

Death shook his head and wanted to hurry Satan along. “You know, those psychics have been wrong in the past. How about you come back with something useful to tell me?”

“Well that’s just it. They are all telling me the same thing right now and it’s got me a little worried.”

“Oh sure, just an unnamed nobody causing unsaid trouble.”

“Exactly. Fairly crystal clear, if you ask me,” said Satan. “They don’t say who will win or lose, they rarely do, because these things are fluid and open to change. They are a little murky as well because they are trying to see into another realm and that’s never a good idea. I could loan you a few if you like.”

“I’m not going to have this place overrun with your people,” said Death. “I’m the one who has to maintain this world and I can’t have anyone asking for your permission whenever I give them an order. There can not be a conflict of interest. Now, if you don’t mind, I have other things to do today.” Death stood, buttoned his jacket, and moved over to the door.

Satan smiled and remained on the sofa. “I could flex my bureaucratic might to suit my purposes any time. Right now I just want these lawyers off my back. And off yours as well.”

Death grunted. “Thank you, but I will manage. This is not the first uprising I’ve dealt with.”

“No, it certainly isn’t. But this might be the first one where you become isolated from your true allies. A vote of no confidence in the boardroom can only be delayed for so long. You need my help.”

Death pulled his office door open with such force that it almost broke. He glared at Satan and didn’t say a word.

Satan got the message. He rose from the sofa and headed for the door. “I will loan you a couple of psychics, some of the good ones. Maybe they can shake some reason into you.”

“I’d rather an enemy from just one realm than from two,” Death said, and he slammed the door on his old friend. Death wanted nothing more than to tear his office apart, but he knew that Satan wasn’t far enough away. Even though Satan couldn’t see through doors and walls within Limbo, he still had exceptional hearing and attention to detail. All Death could do was remain perfectly still while enraged and wait until Satan had cleared the realm.

_ _
p<>. I was almost out of the building, Death thought. [_I was so close to being gone for the rest of the day and enjoying some sense of freedom. _]He cursed everything in sight, wishing he could leave someone else in charge but he knew he couldn’t. He was the boss whether there was an open war or perpetual peace. He returned to his desk and knew it was time to pull these lawyers apart. He would remind them that they were all guests within his realm and he could silence them in a heartbeat if they displeased him.

Meanwhile, Satan wandered back to Michelle. She quickly put her book away and looked up, trying to gauge the mood.

“How is it so far?” Satan asked, nodding towards the book.

“It’s getting good,” Michelle said.

“I didn’t know you were such a fan.” Satan shot her a friendly smile, which eased Michelle a little. “I’m going to send your boss the series of books. I heard the author is almost done with the seventh.”

Michelle smiled and relaxed her shoulders. “I can’t wait.”

“Honestly? Neither can I. How’s Death’s schedule looking?”

“Pretty busy, actually.”

“Hmm. I might need to come back in a couple of days. I can’t have him cancelling on me every time he sees a lawyer,” Satan said.

“I can hold his appointments,” Michelle said with an air of importance.

“Does he take a lot of afternoons off these days?”

“No.” She caught herself before she added ‘Today would have been the first,’ and she remembered that no one really needed to know that.

“I’m relieved to hear that. So look, you’re the one in charge here,” he watched as Michelle beamed a smile, “and you can control his good mood and bad mood. If you can arrange it so as to avoid any meetings with unions and lawyers on the same day that I come up to see him it would really make my world a little easier.”

“I’ll see what I can do,” Michelle said.

“Thank you. And I’ll send along those books as well, see if we can’t get another Kingston Raine fan out of him.”

“He’s waiting for the seventh book,” Michelle said.

“Aren’t we all?” Satan shot his last smile at her. “Take care Michelle,” he said, and left.

 

 

Don Keaton glanced out of his Melbourne apartment window and groaned. Somewhere among the rabble down below was his agent, coming to hassle him for his long delayed book, the seventh Kingston Raine story and, finally, the last.

_ _
p<>. She won’t be able to weasel another book out of me, Don decided. She had managed to do so before, bumping Don’s three book premise into five, then into seven. Don had now totalled a million and a half words on just one character and it was driving him nuts. Worse still was that he was only a hundred pages into the final book and he was truly sick and tired of the Kingston universe. The remaining five hundred pages were still a mystery. He had tried four different outlines to tie everything together and nothing worked. It would have ended perfectly well with three books, then possibly well with five, but the sixth had sent Don embarrassingly grey, then the seventh … oh, the seventh …
_ _
p<>. I should move to France and not tell anyone, Don thought. I’ll just tell them there is no seventh book and everything ended with the sixth. Who cares if none of it makes sense and the cliff hangers are unresolved?

An electric snap ripped through the air next to Don, causing him to yelp and jump back for cover. There was a burst of bright flames and a rush of smoke. Appearing out of thin air was a man with black hair and a long dark coat. He coughed and spluttered as though he had swallowed a mouthful of soot, then the coughing became so fierce that he dropped to one knee.

Don stepped away in utter surprise, his heart lodged firmly in his throat. He had just seen a man appear from nothing, something that should have been impossible, and yet there he was. The strange man had pointed ears and very long fingers. His skin was pebbled with acne scars, burns, scrapes, and scratches. And, curiously, his eyes were yellow.

The man stood up straight and spoke. “Donovan Keaton?”

Hearing his own name had never caught Don by as much surprise as it did just then. Seeing the stranger burst out of nothing and knowing his name told Don one thing: Time traveller. He didn’t know what to say other than: “Huh?”

The scarred man looked a little worse for wear and gripped his stomach. He breathed out and a little smoke escaped his lungs. “Are you Donovan Keaton, the writer?”

Don looked around nervously. No one pleasant and well meaning would have asked him that. “No,” he said, trying to sound braver than he actually was. “No, I’m not him.”

The scarred man looked around in confusion. “Who are you?”

“I’m … just a guy.”

Don’s guest looked as though he was about to be sick. He also looked as though he didn’t believe Don’s lies. “Right. My master has sent me.”

Don started to edge towards the far wall.

“By the way, if you try to leave I will kill you.”

Don went wide eyed again and stopped altogether.

The scarred man realised his mistake immediately. “Wait, no! I didn’t mean that. Sorry, it’s not every day I get this sort of assignment.” He coughed. There was more smoke trying to escape. “My master. The Devil. You’ve heard of him.”

Don’s knees started to rattle together. The scarred man seemed like a delusional drug addict and that never ended well when one of them was inside a celebrity’s home unannounced. Don was starting to re-think his time traveller hypothesis. “Uh … I’m an atheist.”

“That’s fine,” said the scarred man, waving a hand in the air. “Listen, my master likes your books. He told me to come and tell you to hurry up. There’s a woman, some assistant or other, maybe a secretary, apparently she has some super important connection, I don’t know, I don’t get with the asking of questions with my master, except this time he tells me that I’m supposed to go off script, not let you get into the screaming and the shakes, you know? I don’t know myself, except this woman also likes your books, and she has a boss who is supposed to like you as well. It’s a little unusual, see, because normally I’m here for the scaring of souls and what have you, but now I’m supposed to behave myself.”

Don’s eyes darted from one side of the room to the other. He could see the front door. It was still locked and the keys were on the side table. He didn’t think he would be able to get out before the crazy man attacked him.

Then, just as Don feared it, the scarred man turned and looked at the front door as though he was reading Don’s mind. He didn’t seem to care one way or the other.

“My master needs you to hurry up a little. He can offer his services. Not directly, see, because he leaves something like a paper trail. That’s the layman term for you, the human, see, he doesn’t actually leave a … well, that’s not all that important right now. People can tell where he’s been and they can see his influence, you know? And if you’ve been influenced by the Devil then people seem to see that as something of a bad thing. Me, personally, I don’t mind what you do and who influences you, but my master has a sort of standing in life, so to speak, a reputation, and he needs you to get along with the tinkering at the keyboard.”

“He … huh?” was all Don could manage. His pulse had sky-rocketed and his vision had contracted, knocking out his peripheral awareness. He began picking out minute details of the gentleman in front of him; his unusually long fingers looked scorched and scarred, his eyes were luminescent yellow, unfocused and hollow, and wisps of flame came through with every quick burst of breath.

The scarred man ran a long finger through his hair and scratched his head. “So what I’m supposed to do here, see, is introduce you to your options. We have muses, very good ones, some sexy ones, some less so, you know? Walking inspiration, if you will. Now, my master isn’t usually into providing this kind of service, especially not without a soul in return. But this time it’s different. He just needs some leverage on this woman person, or her boss, I’m not too sure which, the trip here rattled my brain a little. But leverage was the key issue. He needs it. You have it. You’re being very slow. He wants to help. So what do you say?”

Don stared at the scarred man. His pulse was throbbing so loudly in his ears he was sure the scarred man could hear it as well.

“Muses have been used a lot in the past, especially by struggling artists such as yourself,” the scarred man said, stifling a cough. “And it’s nothing unsavoury, I should point out. They’ll come, you talk to them for a little, and then inspiration works itself out. It might even be a drinking buddy. You’ll be too busy to even do anything nefarious. You a fast writer, Don?”

“No,” Don mumbled, feeling his chest expanding and contracting more so with every new breath. His vision was definitely failing him. It felt like he was about to pass out.

“Well, problem solved with a muse, I must say. You’ll get the perfect motivation to continue, the perfect ending, everything will fall together rather neatly, or so I’m told. Personally, I’d like to meet the muse that suggested I take this job, because some days, you know … the commute isn’t exactly pleasant. I kinda wish I had listened to a second opinion, even though it is a lot better being able to travel out of Hell than being stuck on the inside, so I guess the muse knew me well enough after all.” He looked at Don as if everything he was saying was perfectly understandable.

“Now, all you have to do is say ‘yes’ and I can pop back in a little while with someone of your choosing. So, uh …” the scarred man pulled a list out from the inside of his long jacket. As he did a terrible scream and shriek erupted from his pocket, startling Don.

“Uh, ignore that, if you could,” said the scarred man. “So, muses available. This list will help us narrow it down a little. You like lists? I like lists. I like writing them more, not very good at following them. Anyway, do you prefer a human muse, a machine, an object, or an animal?”

Don was wide eyed again, his breathing was still erratic, and a chill spread through his face. “What was that scream?”

The scarred man shifted awkwardly. “Yeah, if we could keep that to ourselves you would be doing me a genuine service. Do you want a muse that can talk back or are you an inanimate kind of thinker? There might even be a rubber ball here, you know, you just throw it around, gives you something to do, then one moment, POW! It lands in your hands and … maybe ‘eureka’ was a better expression. Or how about a toaster? Warm food and a good idea wrapped in one. You’re almost a good writer so I think you could pull it off.”

The scream from the jacket dug at Don’s core and he couldn’t let that sound go. He started to remember everything from his dad’s deathbed, the talk of faded screams, the man with the elongated fingers and ears … Don was sure it had just been a hallucination. Then he saw the scarred man’s tongue and realised it was blue and forked. The more Don looked over the stranger in his apartment, the more he realised he was looking at a devil in a man’s body, not a crazed drug addled fan, not even a time traveller, but a real demon from the beyond.

The scarred man paused. He couldn’t understand why someone would ever refuse free inspiration. “If it helps, I can bring a sample muse in, just to get the ball rolling, so that we can find you a proper … You okay? Don? Mr Keaton?”

Don collapsed and fell into a heap.

“Mr Keaton, sir?” the scarred man said very nervously. He walked over and nudged the writer with his foot, then felt the life slip out of the room.

The scarred man’s whole career flashed before his eyes.

Don Keaton was dead.

II

Death heard a very rare scream burst from his secretary’s desk and he feared the lawyers had returned. He buzzed his secretary. “Is everything okay out there?”

Michelle burst through his door with daggers in her eyes and fire in her soul. “What did you do? Whatdidyoudo?” shrieked Michelle.

Death glanced to his various swords and knives lining his wall and hoped Michelle wasn’t about to use any of them on him. He had never seen her so enraged, which was troubling since she knew a surprising number of his access codes and passwords.

“Did you kill Don Keaton?” roared Michelle. “Did you?”

“What? Who’s Don Keaton?”

“Him!” she shouted, holding Kingston Raine and the Curse of the Shanghai Werewolf in her hands. Death saw Kingston Raine’s name very clearly on the front. Then h wondered who this Don Keaton was.

“The author!” Michelle shouted.

“Oh. No, I had nothing to do with that,” Death said, feeling himself return to normal.

“Did you know he was going to die?”

Death straightened his tie. Not that it was crooked, but more as a reminder that he was the President of Limbo and the CEO of a company responsible for billions of souls coming through its gates. “No. And I don’t remember having to ask your permission.”

“He wasn’t supposed to die just yet!” screamed Michelle. “He was halfway through his new book! You could have at least waited until he was done!”

Death looked Michelle up and down and knew she had just dived head first into crazy land. Death held up his hand to silence her and he turned to his quill and register. “What was this author’s name?”

Michelle seethed. Her bark coloured eyes nearly roared with the flames of a devil as she had been speaking of this series for years. Death must have learned the name by now. “Don … Keaton.”

Death scribbled into his register and found no match. “Is ‘Don’ short for something? Donald, perhaps?”

“Donovan.”

“Donovan … let’s see …” he waited for the Eternal Database to ping with an answer. It recorded everyone who had ever been processed through Limbo. It assigned them a temporary number the moment they set foot in the realm, tying together their full birthday under the Eternal Calendar with the date and time they entered and then an extension number, as it was common for several people born on the same day to enter at the same time, which for some reason happened a lot at tragic birthday parties involving clowns. Don Keaton’s number would have begun with 801,972,2,28, followed by today’s date and time.

Nothing popped up.

“Hmm.” Death tried another search, checking for every writer who was to die that day and he was delighted to see that a dozen tabloid journalists were scheduled to perish in a boating accident off the coast of California in just half an hour. Maybe they could dig up some dirt on those no good lawyers.

Michelle tapped her fingers against her leg and stared at her boss.

“He’s not here,” Death said.

All of Michelle’s fury disappeared in an instant, replaced by the realisation that she had just shouted at her boss. “But … his name came up …”

“There was no Don Keaton today or recently,” said Death.

Michelle shook her head. She definitely saw his name and list of famous activities, including the Kingston Raine series. But if Death himself didn’t know what was going on then clearly there was a mistake. “I saw his name …” she mumbled.

Death shrugged. “Perhaps he had a heart attack and was revived. Either way, he’s no longer dead.”

Michelle’s immediate concern was that Death was right. Her favourite author might have suffered a heart attack, which meant he wasn’t going to finish the seventh book for a very long time. Death peered at her and she was glad he didn’t fire her on the spot for her recent outburst. “Is, uh, he expected to die soon?”

Death ran another search which was usually hit and miss unless someone was terminally ill or prone to great acts of stupidity. “No. He’s not there. Wait, let me try something else.” Death tried to locate Don Keaton in Life. That, at least, would give Michelle some peace of mind, knowing that her favourite author was still alive somewhere, hard at work …

Death stared at the results. That’s … odd.

Michelle recognised that look of concern and felt a tinge of apprehension. “Is everything okay?”

Death searched the Eternal Database for everyone currently alive on Earth. There was no Don Keaton anywhere. Death scratched behind his ear. “Does he write under a pseudonym?”

“No.”

“So that’s his real name?”

“Yes,” Michelle said.

“He doesn’t use any ghost writers, does he?”

“No,” Michelle said, getting annoyed again.

“Huh.” There were only a few possibilities to explain someone’s disappearance like this and those usually involved the upper echelons of North and South. There was no mention of that on the database. Don Keaton had somehow disappeared from all of existence.

Death flexed his fingers. There was one way to get to the bottom of this. “Bring me a scout.”

Michelle nodded, pleased that Death was taking this seriously. Then she felt equally concerned that something catastrophic had happened. “Yes, sir.”

She left the office, flicked through her Rolodex for the Scouting Department and summoned one of the representatives right away. Just outside the doors was a gentle pop and a short little man in a tan trench coat wearing impossibly thick glasses hurried into the outer office. Michelle recognised him and wondered why all of the scout glasses resembled World War One pilot goggles.

“Lord Henry Biggins at your service,” said the short man, bowing low to the ground.

A moment later, both Michelle and Biggins were in Death’s office. “Lord Biggins, I need you to find the last known moment of Donovan Keaton. Is he alive, dead, unconscious? When you’re done report back here as soon as you can.”

Biggins looked just as shocked as Michelle had been a moment ago. “Don Keaton, the writer?”

Death gave a nod. “Michelle has the file if you need it.”

Biggins fidgeted through the distressing news. “Yes, sir.” He looked at Michelle and quietly said, “I’m sorry.”

Biggins looked over the file to get a lock on where to look, then he ran for the outer doors and disappeared with a gentle pop.

Michelle was too concerned to do anything else but wait for his return. It was quicker than she expected. She didn’t even have time to sit back down.

Lord Henry Biggins staggered back in, gasping and coughing, covered in black soot and a rancid smell. Michelle reeled back and was ready to scream about the carpet, then she smelled the air and knew it was sulphur. Her heart plummeted as she realised what must have happened.

“Hell,” gasped Biggins. “One of the agents was there.”

Death roared in anger. The three of them were back in Death’s office and Biggins was relaying what he last saw: Don Keaton had been staring out of his apartment window, then there was a covered darkness with nothing but mumbled whispers and no sight at all. Not even the scout’s glasses could penetrate the cloud of darkness. He was not surprised either, since agents of Hell preferred to keep anyone else from watching or listening in on what they were up to. Biggins had no way of knowing what had happened to Don Keaton, but most puzzling of all was when the dark cloud lifted the apartment was empty.

“Empty?” Death asked. “Keaton was taken? Down to Hell?”

Michelle went wide eyed. First, that kind of thing was illegal. Second, she felt very badly for Don. She looked to Death and found no trace of a good mood in his eyes.

Death pulled at a strip of parchment and wrote a note. ‘Bring Don Keaton to me immediately’ it said. He turned it over and wrote ‘Satan’ on the front, then folded it into the shape of an envelope. He handed it over to Michelle. “Seal this and have it sent immediately.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Lord Biggins, thank you for your time, you may go,” Death said. The little man bowed graciously, then hurried out the door.

Before Michelle could leave she heard Death one more time. “Michelle? Be a good sport and send in a couple of lawyers from each of the unions.”

“Yes, sir. And if I hear back from the addressee?” she asked, holding up the parchment.

“By all means send him in,” Death said, as he walked up to his collection of maces, battle axes, and claymores.

“Yes, sir,” Michelle said, and she strolled back to her desk.

 

 

Don’s last hour had been tumultuous. He had regained consciousness while lying on a maroon sofa with his head propped up by a cushion. Nearby was desperate whispering. He creaked open an eye and saw the scarred man with the forked tongue talking quickly to someone in jeans and a t-shirt. Just as Don focused on the conversation the two men stopped and stared at their hostage.

_ _
p<>. I’ve been kidnapped, Don realised. I’ve been drugged and kidnapped!

The two men knew they were being watched and they quietly left the room. Don sat up and looked around. He was in a lavish circular office with a towering dome ceiling. Several of the walls were pushed back into recesses and were adorned with green marble statues. Don looked across to an imposing desk that was carved out of a single piece of jagged oak, possibly the widest ever grown. Right in front of the desk was a five metre square that had been cut into the floor and on top of it sat two chairs facing the desk. Don thought it looked an awful lot like a trapdoor.

Outside the floor-to-ceiling windows was a spectacular view that unsettled Don’s insides. He stared out at a celestial cloud of gold and crimson, swirling against the impossible, set against a backdrop of revolving suns and stars.

Don’s stomach dropped. Am I on a space station? he wondered, then he felt his mind rattle once more.

There was a flash of light above the desk and an envelope dropped to the surface. The side doors opened and the man in the t-shirt and jeans reappeared.

“Don’t mind me,” the t-shirt man said and he walked calmly to the desk. He read the letter and mumbled something about a damned scout getting the better of him. He then looked up at Don.

“Well …” Satan said. “Aren’t we in the shits now?”

Don blubbered again. “What?”

“Come with me.”

“I’d prefer to know where I am.”

“Nah, you really don’t. Not many former mortals ever set foot in here. Those that do usually leave via there,” Satan said, pointing to the floor in front of his desk. “So come on Keaton, let’s go.”

A moment later, Don felt his insides pull together while his skin shrank tightly over him. He felt an impossible cold blast him in the face, forcing him to gasp when there wasn’t any air to breathe. Don staggered as his feet felt something solid under them and the air gave him a warming hug, though it was not quick enough to stop a burst of uncontrollable shivering.

He was surrounded by a crowd of robed officials guiding nervously sobbing men and women to their destiny. It was the lobby to a huge building with high ceilings and moving statues. Wisps of darkness shot along the ceiling to different destinations, birds chirped and flew in a coordinated fashion as though they had a job to do, and there was a distant sound of waterfalls and cute turtles to calm the masses from erupting into sheer hysteria.

“Come on,” said Satan, and he pulled Don along.

Don felt the strength in his legs disappear again as he was dragged towards the grand doors. On either side were the resting heads of mighty dragons, each head large enough to swallow Don whole and he had visions of them using him as an hors d’oeuvre. Their eyes followed him as he walked by, then Don saw an endless mass of offices, cubicles, and people waiting as string quartets played soothing music. There were screams and sobs, and people from all over the world were barely able to control themselves. Don looked up and saw a towering logo, Death Inc., written in gold. Drifting among the masses were several grim reapers, armed with scythes, dragging some of the recently departed in chains.

Don gulped and he felt his legs lose their strength again. The rest of the journey was blurred by an elevator until they came to the top floor. Two towering and mottled grey statues, both hooded grim reapers, stood guard on either side of the doors leading into the CEO’s office. Don jumped as he saw the statues turn and watch him as he headed towards their boss.

At that point Don was pushed back onto an ivory leather sofa while an attractive woman with brown hair stared at him with deepest sympathy. Don’s guide then went straight into the only office in sight.

“Is there anything I can get you, Mr Keaton?” the woman said.

Don hated not knowing the woman’s name when she clearly knew his. He hoped he sounded a lot braver than he actually was as he dismissed her offer. “No?”

Michelle couldn’t keep her eyes off him and she swivelled back and forth in her seat. She looked as though she was working up the courage to speak to him but Don’s petrified demeanour kept her where she was.

Don saw a stream of weirdos come and go, short people in tan trench coats and thick glasses, medium people with long silver hair, and it only got worse when Don saw the woman had a copy of [_Kingston Raine and the Curse of the Shanghai Werewolf _]sitting on her desk.

“I’m sure we’ll have this all sorted before long,” Michelle said, as she beamed with another smile.

“Of course,” Don mumbled.

“And hopefully you can get back to work. Do you have a title yet for book seven? I’m Michelle, by the way. Personal secretary to … well, the CEO.”

Don shrugged, since there was little else to do. “No, no title yet.”

Michelle smiled again, then she saw him chuckle curiously to himself for a moment.

“I knew a Michelle once,” Don said quietly.

“It wasn’t me,” said Michelle.

“I know.”

“I’ve been here for eight hundred years,” Michelle said, as though it were a great privilege.

Don raised his eyes and most of his suspicions were coming true. “My Michelle is still alive, I think.”

“What is she like?”

“Tall. Brunette. Soulful eyes. Smarter than me. Ran away from home at sixteen to learn French.” Don smiled to himself as he remembered. “She was running away from the Swiss police when I first met her.” Don looked up quickly as he heard a short crash on the desk in front of him.

Michelle looked stricken with surprise. “She’s Joanna York? From your books?”

Don shrugged. “Yeah.”

“And her real name is Michelle?”

“Yeah,” Don said. “I don’t suppose I’m ever going to see her again, am I?”

Michelle looked as though her heart was about to explode in sympathy, like the whole world had decided to give her the greatest gift imaginable. “We have the same name?”

“There’s lots of Michelle’s in the world.”

Michelle nodded, unable to believe what she was hearing. She had met celebrities before, but none had left her feeling as shocked and awed than this writer, which was surprising when she realised how terrified he was.

“Is there a real Kingston Raine?” Michelle asked, hoping that it might have been Keaton himself.

Don shook his head. “No. No one even close.”

She held back on her disappointment, then she hoped she found the answer. “I’m sure he’s everything you wanted to be.”

Don shifted awkwardly. “Not really. I don’t even like travelling. I just want to sit at home eating pizza and watching TV. The whole series was just an excuse to get Michelle to talk to me again. I used my real name and left so many clues in there knowing she would have to find me. Once in a while I got a copy of my book signed by her and sent to me in the mail but I haven’t seen her in ten years. She’s still out there, hiding, I suppose.”

“You wrote the whole series because you were in love with her?” Michelle’s eyes were as wide as ever.

Don shrugged. “It seemed like a good idea at the time. And since then I’ve managed to do a lot of running away instead of fighting for the woman …” He realised what he had said and leaned back in surprise. “Sorry.”

Michelle shook her head. “Why?”

“Never mind.”

Michelle wondered if Don had just become defensive because he had never been that revealing about himself before. Either way, Michelle relished the idea that there was a real Joanna York out there, somewhere. Even better was that Don Keaton was still in love with her and yet was too terrified to see her again.

The office doors opened and out came the t-shirt man and a bald gentleman in a suit. Neither of them looked happy to see Don and both looked furious with each other. There were more shouts and arguments coming from inside the office.

“Is everything okay, sir?” Michelle asked, seeing Don’s panic and hoping to divert as much of Death’s and Satan’s anger away from him as possible.

“It’s going well,” said Death. “Lawyers squabbling over what is rightfully theirs. They’ll kill each other before coming to a compromise. Anyway,” he turned to Don and looked him up and down. “So you’re Don Keaton, writer extraordinaire?”

“Uh … yes?”

Death turned to Satan. “Your agent scared him to death.”

“It was supposed to be half to death and it was an accident.”

“And then your agent tried to cover it up by taking him directly to Hell without coming here first.”

“I’m aware of the legalities,” Satan said.

“He wasn’t supposed to die today.”

“Then by all means take him back.”

“I will,” Death said, as though it was the worst idea imaginable. “This man doesn’t have a death number. He’s here illegally, taken illegally, killed by an outside force not native to his realm.”

“I was trying to get him to hurry up,” Satan said through his teeth. “And he doesn’t need to know this.”

Don sat quietly, clueless as to what was happening. He glanced over to Michelle and she seemed more relieved than ever. Don hoped that was a good thing.

Death looked Don up and down again. “They say there’s nothing worse than finding Death and Satan standing right behind you. How do you find it?”

Don blinked a few times. “Uh …”

Satan grimaced. “Unless you’re naked, then everything’s worse.”

Satan and Death peered at Don, trying to gauge his reaction.

Don looked rather terrified.

Death turned to Satan. “Do you know what they will do to me if they find out I’ve been bending the rules like this?”

“I was only trying to offer him a muse,” Satan said.

“Then you should have a word to Ezekiel about his people skills.”

“I will.”

Death and Satan both looked down on Don, surprising him as though he was expected to say something. Don looked as small and insignificant as he could manage. Death finally sighed. “Good news, Mr Keaton. You’re not actually dead.”

Don cocked his head to one side. “I’m not?”

“No. You were revived in time by one of Satan’s agents.”

Don couldn’t help but mumble in surprise. “One of Satan’s agents saved my life?”

Neither Death nor Satan answered. “Like I was saying,” Death said, “you’re not dead. So aside from countless rules and regulations being broken and ignored …”

“Which you are allowed to do,” Satan reminded him.

“Without rules we are savages,” Death said. “And even you realise the significance and impact of breaking some of the most fundamental … he better not be related to this prophecy you were talking about before.”

“Prophecy?” Keaton asked, his nerves jumping out of control.

“I assure you this was just an accident,” Satan said. “He’s hardly prophecy material.”

“A great chaos is about to erupt in this realm and an unseen newcomer is going to cause more problems than I have ever had before,”[_ _]said Death.

“I’m mentioned in a prophecy?” Keaton asked.

“No,” Satan said coldly.

Death shook his head. “Mr Keaton, I’m bringing you back to Life. And by that I mean Earth.”

“Now?”

“Yes, now. Come on, let’s go,” Death said.

“Wait!” Michelle hurried over with a quill and her book. “Could you, please, it’s just … it would mean so much …”

Don stared at the hulking mass of Satan and Death and had never seen more menacing individuals in his life. He decided to play nice with the secretary and try not to irritate anyone. He took the quill, his first ever, and stared at the tip. “Do I need ink?”

“No, it will work without it,” Michelle said, her face beaming with pride and her body barely able to keep from moving side to side in excitement.

Don scribbled a thank you to Michelle and signed his name. “I didn’t just sign some kind of contract, did I?”

“No,” Death said. “It would be null and void if you did, being a living person in Limbo. Now, unless Satan would like an autograph as well …?”

Satan didn’t look amused. “I’ll manage.”

“Good. Mr Keaton, if you could put this mask on.” Death handed over a black hood.

“Uh …”

“The building is teaming with lawyers trying to bust my balls on violations and you being here violates a hundred of them, so the less people who see you with me the better. Put it on.”

Don did as he was told and felt the soft fabric cover his eyes, nose, and mouth. It was a snug fit and he couldn’t see a thing. “Am I going to remember all of this?”

“Yes, and in surprising detail as well,” Death mumbled. “Just remember that you and I will meet again in the future. If you are compelled to write about today I suggest beginning the whole passage by saying ‘I ate some strange mushrooms and had these crazy visions.’ Understood?”

“Yes,” said Don. He couldn’t see a damn thing and wasn’t even sure where the three people in the office were standing.

“I need my scythe,” Death said and headed back to his office.

“His … scythe?” Don said nervously.

“It’s okay, you’ll be fine,” Michelle said.

“I’ll take this opportunity to have another word with Ezekiel,” Satan said. He walked away.

Death returned a moment later.

“It was really nice meeting you,” Michelle said quickly. She held out her hand and realised that Don couldn’t see her, so she stepped in and gave him a quick hug.

“Uh … thank you?”

“I hope you find your Michelle again one day.”

“As touching as this is,” groaned Death, “you have been here for far too long and it’s time to get you back. Next time you see an emissary of Satan, just tell them to piss off.”

“I don’t think I can,” Don said.

“No? If you did the first time this whole mess might not have happened. Might.”

Death led Don down a series of corridors as Michelle called out her last goodbye. Don felt Death’s hand on his shoulder, guiding him straight, left, then right, and couldn’t help but shudder at the idea of the Grim Reaper actually holding on to him to save his life. They came to a stop in a very quiet room.

“Take a deep breath,” Death said. Once again Don felt his insides pinch together and his skin was pulled tight. Then an unearthly cold froze him and his lungs shrivelled against the lack of air. He was falling to the side, losing consciousness, then a powerful hand pulled him upright.

It was warmer again. Death pulled the mask off Don’s head and he looked around. Don could still smell the sulphur in his apartment.

“Where are we?” Death asked, looking out the window.

“Melbourne,” murmured Don. “I thought you knew where we were going.”

“Of course, I was taking you to your home,” Death said. “You don’t sound Australian.”

Don had heard that before. “What do I sound like?”

Death shrugged. “Anyway, don’t ask me any more questions, you might not like to hear the answers. Plus, I have an infectious sense of humour,” Death said, staring back at Don.

“Okay …”

“That’s the spirit. Remember, if you see anyone unworldly pop out of nowhere, tell them to shove it.”

“Will that work?”

“Of course not, but if you don’t have the balls to tell Satan to piss off when you first see him then you’re just asking for more trouble than it’s worth. Trust me, I know the guy.” Death stared back at Don again. “Do you want a hug?”

Don looked as though he was about to fall over again. “No.”

“Good.” Death swung his scythe around in a big arc and disappeared into nothing. This time there wasn’t even a trace of flame or smoke, something that Don thought about and figured that the smoke and flames were something Hell’s agents would be partial to. Maybe they were unnecessary for everyone else.

Don went to his bathroom and pulled out the air freshener, then he sprayed his apartment and opened the windows, trying to get rid of the smell of Hell as quickly as possible. When he was done he stared at his apartment and couldn’t even fathom how few people in the whole of creation had experienced the day he just endured.

There were several missed calls on his phone and he groaned, knowing they were all from his agent who would have been banging incessantly on his door an hour ago.

 

 

Death gripped onto his scythe and headed for his office. He paused for a moment, thinking of the lawyers tearing at each other like jackals at a feeding frenzy.

“It went well?” Michelle asked.

“Yes, Mr Keaton got back safely.” He stopped at Michelle’s desk. “Are the lawyers still in there?”

“They are.”

Death peered at his door. “They’re very quiet.”

“They might be dead,” Michelle said hopefully.

“They’re already dead.”

“Yeah, how would that work?”

“Awkwardly,” Death said. He gazed through the wall and looked around the boardroom. The lawyers had been jinxed into continuously fighting amongst themselves. No one was able to compromise and if anyone tried to leave they were instantly rejuvenated and ready to argue some more. It was Death’s way of keeping them busy from annoying him any further.

“Do you want me to get rid of them?”

“No, they are free to stay as long as they want.” Death raised an eyebrow at a gift wrapped box sitting on Michelle’s desk. “You have a secret admirer?”

Michelle rolled her eyes. “No. They are for you.”

That caught Death by surprise. He rarely received gifts. He focused on the plain brown wrapping and without touching the box he looked inside.

Michelle was always impressed when he did this and she watched his eyes shift out of focus for a moment.

Death murmured with surprise. “You’re kidding me. Who are they from?”

“Satan, sir.”

“Of course.” Satan had given him the complete collection of the published Kingston Raine books, all bound in leather. “He sure has a sense of humour.”

Michelle was barely able to contain her excitement. “Will you read them?”

“Do I have to?”

“They’re very good.”

“Yeah, well I’ll blame the two of you if I get hooked and can’t wait until the seventh is published. I did say I was going to wait, didn’t I?”

“You did,” said Michelle.

Death looked back at the lawyers in his boardroom, then stared at the books. He drummed his fingers against his leg as he tried to figure out what to do.

Michelle had a twinkle in her eye. “I can show you to a spare office if you like.”

Death sighed. “All right, I do need a few hours off.” He picked up the set of books and Michelle clapped her hands together.

“I really hope you like them,” she said.

“Me too.”

“Are you going to take your time?”

“I guess I should,” Death said. He could read a hundred pages in under a second, or he could just find a disused office and wile away the next few hours as quietly as possible, savouring the freedom of not being hassled by stupid lawyers.

Michelle glanced to her copy of The Curse of the Shanghai Werewolf and knew she wouldn’t be able to continue reading it without flipping to Don’s inscription every five seconds. She then peered at the leather bound version Satan had sent. “Can I do something weird if you promise not to judge me?”

Death cocked his head to one side. “You’re a little late.”

Michelle pulled out the leather version of book six, flipped it open to the page she was up to in her own copy and smelled the book. A wave of delight crossed her face and she was caught in a trance. She breathed in the leather, ink, and pages as though the book was a sense of heavenly perfection.

Death sighed. “Would you like to read that while I’m gone?”

Michelle nodded with glee. “Yes, please.” She took another deep smell of the book and closed her eyes, savouring the moment.

Death scooped up Michelle’s copy and headed to the Inhuman Resources department, full of a thousand offices and only two employees. They would both be very drunk at this hour. He picked out the quietest room to find out just how talented Don Keaton was and whether this Kingston Raine was as smarmy as he feared.

He closed the door and warped the room with his magic to save himself from any interruption. He pulled out the first book, Kingston Raine and the Shanghai Werewolf. _]All of the titles were a play on the same name. [_Kingston Raine and the Return of the Shanghai Werewolf _]… [_the Revenge of the … the Curse of the …

Death looked at the back and read the blurb. [_The secretive and exceptional master thief, Kingston Raine, comes across his greatest opponent in a battle of wits and espionage in the guise of Joanna York. Both are forced into a whirlwind of … _]Death trailed off. It sounded like the crap people bought at the airport and then purposely left on the plane once they had landed.

He turned to the first page and hoped it was better than he feared.

_ _
p<>. Chapter One. An Unexpected Visitor.

Death groaned. He read the first page and paused.

“Huh.”

He read the blurb again and felt his bad mood fade away. He then leaned back in the chair, popped his feet up on the desk, and allowed the world of Don Keaton to draw him in.

Page three: “No way …”

Page five: “Ha!”

Death paused again at the end of the first chapter. This Kingston Raine character was nothing like Don Keaton. Kingston had just talked his way out of being arrested for breaking into the company that had hired him to spy on a rival. He had tricked the boss into revealing himself as an idiot in just one conversation. When the boss demanded that Kingston explain how he had access to his private passwords Kingston admitted the passwords were the least of his problems, as Kingston had just slept with the boss’ mistress. That sort of thing was usually quite difficult to talk your way out of and yet Keaton had made it sound plausible. Death chuckled to himself and could see why Michelle enjoyed the series.

He continued and reached the point where Kingston came across the beautiful Joanna York and it really was passion at first sight. She held her own against him intellectually, and together they uncovered the inner workings of the Bridgeworks Corporation. The Shanghai Werewolf in question was actually a codename of a Bridgeworks covert operation and the story did not feature a werewolf nor did anyone even go to Shanghai.

Death was hooked. He shot through books two and three and had to hold back from reading too quickly. Kingston and Joanna were perfect for each other even if they continued to rip each other apart through one heart break after another. It was obvious that Keaton was in love with Joanna but he had no qualms about putting her through some misery in order to push the story forward. Even the end of book three, the original conclusion to the series, was heart breaking when Kingston and Joanna abandoned each other for what would have been either a tragic finale or one hell of a cliff hanger.

Death picked up Michelle’s copy of book six and read the inscription.

 

Michelle, I hope one day you will find your Kingston as I will find my Joanna.
[_ _]
p<>. – Don Keaton

 

By now it was clear that Don was struggling. Kingston and Joanna were actively sabotaging their own future together, something which ebbed at Death’s sense of honour. Then came the moment of despair. On page 400 Joanna collapsed from being poisoned. The vindictive doctor told her in no uncertain terms that it had caused six months worth of paranoia and delusions.

Death flipped back over the pages and read through it all again. He had missed the clues that Don had dropped throughout the book. Even Joanna wasn’t certain herself about what was happening … but the doctor knew. He knew and he laughed.

Death gripped the book tightly and glared at the doctor. You better die soon.

Joanna was held prisoner by the Bridgeworks CEO, Carl Hamler, and she was used as bait for Kingston to try and rescue her.

_ _
p<>. He better hurry up with the seventh book, Death told himself.

Then, with Joanna in his sights, and surrounded by a dozen mercenaries in the middle of Munich, Kingston … ran.

Death quickly sat forward. “What?” He flipped back through the pages, hoping that he had missed a few key words. But no. In a moment of cowardice Kingston Raine, the hero of the story, decided to save his own ass.

Death read over the section again where he abandoned Joanna. [_“WHAT?” _]In just one page Death fell into hating Kingston as the no good thieving son of a bitch staggered through Munich clutching his ribs and gasping for breath.

“Aaaaggghhh!” Death roared, furious with the pathetic nature of the miserable Kingston Raine character. “What the hell? This was supposed to be relaxing!”

Death threw Michelle’s inscribed book against the wall and grabbed his scythe as though he was about to kill someone. He picked the book off the ground and flipped to the last pages again, just to make sure for a third time that Kingston really did just run out on the greatest thing that had ever happened to him. Death roared again.

“Damn it! The Horses of the Apocalypse wouldn’t hold me back against killing that bastard if I ever met him! How dare he? How dare he?” Death threw Michelle’s book at the door and shouted in anger, cursing Kingston’s name.

The scythe grew hot in his hand and Death felt himself stare into the final page of Kingston Raine and the Curse of the Shanghai Werewolf. It was a curious sensation, one that he hadn’t felt in years. It was someone’s last gasp of breath and now their spirit was on its way to Limbo. The scythe returned to normal and all was calm.

“Uh oh,” mumbled Death. He stared into the final pages of the book. “Did I … just …”

A moment later he heard another scream from his outer office. “What did you do?” roared Michelle, seeing ‘Kingston Raine’ pop up on her scroll of the recently departed. “What did you do?”

Death stood quietly in office 173 of Inhuman Resources, staring at his scythe. He didn’t know how, but he had just managed to kill a fictional character. And what was worse: he now had to hide from his secretary.

III

Kingston Raine opened his eyes to a splitting headache.

_ _
p<>. Uhhhh! What the hell did those guys do to me?

It felt like an instant category ten hangover. He held one hand against the alley wall and braced himself against gravity, then promptly fell over. Slowly his mind whirred into action.

_ _
p<>. Kidnapped. Again. Drugged. Again.

He was sure the Bridgeworks assassins were still chasing him. Except …

… Except this wasn’t Munich anymore. He was in an alley among the shadows but even so he knew the buildings here weren’t German.

_ _
p<>. They’ve dumped you somewhere.

He spun around to see who was sneaking up on him but no one was there. The dizziness got the better of him and he promptly fell over again. He cycled through his recent memory and pulled at his mental calendar.

_ _
p<>. It’s the twenty fifth of October, I should be in Munich, I’ve left a stolen car at Gotelindenstraße and a second one at Dunantstraße. The keys are behind the exhaust pipe.

He padded himself down, looking for a tranquillizer dart or something that would explain what had just happened to him but there was nothing there.

_ _
p<>. Think, damn it! Twenty fifth of October. The rendezvous point is in Sendling. Not only that but half an hour ago you tried to lure all of those assassins away from Joanna while she was being interrogated by one hell of a sadistic doctor.

That one freed up his mind.

_ _
p<>. Okay, work with that. Joanna needs you. Get back on your feet and go get her.

He checked his pockets. The assassins had taken his phone, wallet, and ID. But they hadn’t found his hidden microphone. He pried it out from the lining of his jacket pocket, stopped the recording, and played back the last five minutes of his life. Kingston held it to his ear and heard his own frantic breathing as he ran. He heard the traffic passing him by and the pop from the gun that fired at him. Then he gasped his last breath and fall to the ground.

He heard himself get back to his feet, fall over again, and finally he fumbled with the microphone to listen to the last five minutes of his life. Kingston Raine, industrial thief and con man, turned off the microphone and stared across the alley. The only answer was that he had been teleported, which should have been impossible. He shook his head to force the nonsense away.

_ _
p<>. What the hell happened to me?

He looked around the very clean alley and shot through one theory after the next. He was still wearing his dark grey suit. His watch read the same date and time so that didn’t fit his abduction and amnesia theory. The last thing he heard was something about cursing him to death, though that was in English, not German.

He padded himself down and found no obvious injuries, no sprains, twisted ankles, or broken bones. His knuckles were sore from knocking out that bodyguard and his shoulder stung from when he had to slam himself through a door. That hadn’t gone particularly well as a sofa was propped up against it as a barricade. The door swept his ankles away, tumbling him into the room.

Kingston edged forward and peered out from the alley. Just within reach was a long stretch of grass, trees, and parkland. The trees were a silvery white with gentle blue bulbs the size of berries lighting the area around them. There were a number of large water fountains with jets of water bouncing from one pool to the other to entertain the tourists.

The surrounding buildings looked like art deco golden brown cubes with gentle curved roofs. Something else was puzzling.

_ _
p<>. [There’s no litter. Not a single scrap, _]he thought[._]

There were no loiterers, no street vendors, no posters on the side of the walls, no bins in the alley. Even the sky showed no moon and no stars. Instead, there was a whisper of red gentle swirls and the distinct visuals of the aurora. Kingston stepped back, surprised that he could see something as prominent as the Northern Lights and yet none of the passers-by seemed to care.

Then he saw it. The largest building at the end of the parkland, as though sitting at the head of the table, had a large gold emblem beaming out for the world to see. Death Inc.

Kingston shuddered in surprise. Ohhhkay … that … that’s a problem.

He looked away, needing a moment to process what he just saw, then looked back and found the Death Inc. sign still right in front of him.

He looked away again and knew his mind had to be on the fritz. Come on, work with me here. It’s the anniversary of Agincourt, Henry II became the King of England in 1154, George III became king in 1760, and that building is … ridiculous.

He closed his eyes and focussed on how to get out of there.[_ The fail safe rendezvous point is the apartment in Paris. Failing that, the garage on Strafford Road in London._]

He saw the Death Inc. sign again and backed away as calmly as he could.

_ _
p<>. Screw the rendezvous point. You’re going to get back to Joanna as quickly as possible, get her out of Munich, and run off to Italy.

He kept an eye out for any cameras lurking nearby and stole away into the night.

 

 

Lord Henry Biggins was back in front of Death and Michelle. Death was doing his best to remain stoic and in control while Michelle looked as though she had developed a nasty facial tic that kept one eye blinking in sheer rage.

Biggins looked downright perplexed and confused. He opened his mouth to ask for clarification, then closed it again, hoping that it was clear enough that he didn’t understand a single thing his boss had just told him.

“I would like you to visit Don Keaton and make sure he is still all right,” Death repeated. “And you may ignore all the ramblings from Michelle about a death in the Kingston Raine universe.”

Biggins nodded slowly. “Check on Don Keaton. Right. So, what am I looking for, specifically?”

“See if he’s still alive, still at work, if anything different has happened. Oh, and have a look at his manuscript to book seven. See what he’s been up to recently.”

Biggins had never heard such a baffling request before. It seemed like Death was expecting Biggins to fail, which didn’t do much for his confidence. Biggins nodded, waited a moment for any follow up order, then hurried out the main doors to the outer office. There was a gentle pop and he was gone.

Michelle glared.

“I’m not in the mood to hear any more,” Death said.

Michelle glared again.

“But I will have a coffee while we wait.”

Through gritted teeth Michelle replied. “Milk?”

“No.”

“Sugar?”

“Michelle? Stop playing around and get me a coffee.”

Michelle’s stood with her whole upper body absolutely rigid. She walked off to the grand marble kitchen to the side of the outer office, which was maintained by Death’s personal chef, the delightful Donato della Morte.

Death sat patiently and waited for the scout to return and soon had a coffee in his hand. He was pleased to see Michelle had prepared it with all due professionalism.

Pop.

Biggins hurried back in. “Sir, report from the field.”

“Fire away.”

“Don Keaton is in his apartment. He is cleaning out his fridge. He has not written anything since yesterday afternoon.”

Death nodded, thinking it all over. Michelle glared at him again. Death could no longer ignore it. Among the recently departed in the Eternal Database was the name, clear as day: Kingston Raine. His list of accomplishments included breaking in and out of the Bridgeworks Corporation, stealing many millions of dollars worth of industry secrets, saving the lives of twelve people, blackmailing several lawyers and accountants, lying and impersonation, forgery …

There was little question that it was the same Kingston Raine from the series of books. The niggle in the whole operation was that he didn’t exist in the Eternal Database. He had no real birth date. There was a date when Don Keaton first came up with the story, then a different date when he came up with the main character, then a date for when the character was born within his own universe, and then a date when he was finally given the name Kingston. None of that mattered whatsoever because Kingston was never a human, never born like a human, never even met a human, and he made as much significance to the Eternal Database as what Don Keaton had for lunch three years ago on the first of June.

Death cleared his throat. “Lord Biggins, is it possible for you to go back and see what happened to me over the last fifteen minutes?”

Biggins went wide eyed, which was not a good look as he was wearing his terribly thick glasses. “I’m afraid, sir, that you are one of the exceptions to the rule.”

“Of course. But if I gave you permission?”

Biggins shook his head.

“If I made it the law allowing you to check up on me?”

“I’m sorry sir, but you are one of the few beings in existence that is impossible to spy on by any magical means. Even if I was able to go back I wouldn’t be able to see or hear what was going on and even if that power was lifted I wouldn’t be able to remember it.”

“Ah! What about the room? 173. Can you spy on that and see what happened at the time?”

Biggins looked a little awkward. “Were you in there at the time?”

“I was.”

“Then no, sir.”

Death sighed. He turned to Michelle. “Well? Any ideas? I mean, the guy should turn up somewhere, right?”

Michelle started speaking in a very high and fast paced voice. “And then what? Do you know what kind of trouble this will put us all in? The lawyers will imprison me for knowing this gross violation and not reporting it! After that I’ll be expelled to another realm. You’ll be cast aside and no one will want to rescue me! And then the lawyers will be in charge of killing everyone on Earth.”

Death looked back at Biggins. “I need you to go to room 173 in the Inhuman Resources department.”

Biggins gave a quick shudder.

“I want you to collect the books in there and see if there is anything unusual with them, any traces of magic, any curses, jinxes, or hexes. Then, I want you to examine my scythe to see what the hell happened.”

Biggins cocked his head to one side. “And this involves Kingston Raine, sir?”

“It does.”

“Very well,” Biggins said, lowering his head.

“Quick question before you go, though.”

“Sir?”

“There is a good chance that a random male body, thirty four, good looking and fitting the profile of Kingston Raine is lying dead somewhere in one of the four planes of existence. Do you have any ideas how we might find him?”

Biggins gasped. This was far beyond his depth of knowledge but he did appreciate being trusted so well. “Uh …” his eyes drifted to Michelle, pleading for help, but she had none to offer. “How would you find him if he was in one of his books?”

Death did not look impressed. “I would turn to the first page.”

Michelle grunted.

Biggins gulped. “Where was he when he, uh, died?”

“Munich, Germany.”

“We could look there,” Biggins said.

“Use the bounty hunters,” said Michelle.

Death shook his head. “No, those guys have a way of shouting to the world about what they’re up to. I need something a little more incognito. And aside from a basic description no one knows what he looks like.”

Michelle glared at Death. “Then take your scythe and command it to bring you to him.”

“Absolutely not,” Death said. “This is the first time it has ever backfired. Something is wrong with it. Or with the books. Biggins, check out the books and the scythe, separately please. If the scythe works and there is nothing out of the ordinary with it then I will do my best to use it to find our unexpected visitor, assuming the scythe knows how to find him.”

“Yes, sir,” said Biggins. He gave a quick bow to Death and Michelle and ran out of the office, heading towards room 173 of the Inhuman Resources department.

Death turned and faced his secretary while she glared at him as though trying to pull him apart with her bare eyes. “Those were my favourite books of all time.” Michelle said.

“Just wait until the end of book six and you might think otherwise,” mumbled Death.

_ _
p<>. “What?”

Death realised he had just said too much and he quickly back-peddled. “We’ll get him back.”

“How is Don Keaton ever going to finish writing a story about him if he’s dead?”

Death ignored her. “We need to figure out where Kingston is. Send a sealed letter to him. It’ll pop out of the air and land at his feet. We’ll send one to Life and one to Limbo. If he’s on either plane he’ll get it, probably read it, then we must find a way of getting him to respond.”

Michelle cocked her head to one side, still furious with her boss, but at least he was now doing something about their crisis. “A return letter?” she asked.

“Yeah, but that doesn’t exactly tell us where he is, not that he would know where he is either,” said Death. He gave Michelle a curious look. “Do you know how to ensure a response?”

“Me?”

“He’s your favourite character. What would he like to hear most of all to gain your trust? Especially when that trust comes in the form of a letter appearing out of nowhere?”

Michelle sighed and stared up at the ceiling.

“Michelle, I am trying to do the right thing here,” said Death.

Michelle grimaced, mumbled something under her breath and pulled out a piece of parchment. “Dear Kingston Raine …” she said.

 

 

Kingston kept to himself and moved around without stirring up the slightest amount of suspicion. He did that by holding back a yawn and keeping his attention on the ground just ahead of in front of him. He listened to what language the locals were speaking and heard a couple of people complaining about their job.

_ _
p<>. English, Kingston thought. He couldn’t identify the regional accent. He glanced at an Italian restaurant built into one of the large art deco buildings. The menu was also in English but the prices were in a currency he did not recognise. A large pizza cost 2s, 1c.

Kingston jolted back, surprised as a small flash opened up in front of him. A heavy envelope appeared out of nowhere and fell to the ground. Kingston had never seen that happen before and he was tempted to walk away as quickly as he could, were it not for his full name on the front of the envelope.

He scooped it up and headed straight for the first alley he could find. He held the parchment to the light and gently sniffed it for any clue. The seal was blue and with an emblem he didn’t recognise. He decided not to break the seal but instead tore into the letter and read the note inside.

 

Dear Kingston Raine,
[_ _
_
p<>. You are probably wondering what has just happened and you are probably trying to figure out where you are and how to escape. By now you have realised that you are no longer in Germany. You are, in fact, dead. You are in Limbo. The sky alone should tell you that you are no longer on Earth.

_ _ p<>. You are here by accident and you have my most humble apologies. If you could, please make yourself known to any nearby statue with the following phrase: “I have a meeting with the CEO.” _ _ p<>. The statues are sentient. Someone will come to see you straight away. _ _ p<>. Thanking you for your understanding, _ _ p<>. Death _] p<>. CEO of Death Inc., President of Limbo

 

Kingston couldn’t remember feeling that confused since the last time he saw Joanna rumba in front of a Danish member of parliament. But now that he thought about it, it did make a little more sense when he remembered seeing someone talking to a statue and nodding as though they received an answer.

_ _
p<>. Nope. That’s still impossible. That was just a trick of the light that made you think the statue moved.

He tapped the letter with his fingers and waited, trying to figure out what to do. He was not used to walking blindly into an invitation like that without some research. He had seen too many people fall into a trap by trusting that someone else was telling the truth and he considered himself wiser than that.

Kingston jumped back as another envelope fell in front of him. It was again addressed to him. Inside:

 

Seriously Kingston, talk to one of the statues or the next letter will be accompanied with a book that will scare you half to death.

 

Kingston liked the first letter a lot more than the second. He also didn’t like how they were tracking him. He dumped the letters in the alley and headed into the first open door he could find.

It was a tailors. The store man, obviously a bored employee and not the owner, looked up at the new arrival. “Sorry, this area is for residents of Limbo only. You’ll have to report back to your handler.”

Kingston stared at the man behind the counter and felt rather indignant. The suit Kingston wore was worth several thousand euros and had been put together by the exceptionally gifted Holiver in Milan just two months ago. His shoes were worth eight hundred euros and made from such fine leather that … it didn’t matter, what mattered was the store man didn’t care at all. Kingston saw a small statue on the far bookshelf turn its head. He had some experience with being obviously out of place and knew the best solution was to play it up instead of hiding suspiciously.

“Good evening. I’m a little lost. Can you tell me where I am?”

The store man looked bored. “It’s morning, but whatever.”
_ _
p<>. No it’s not. It’s dark outside and far too many people are out and about for it to be morning.

“You’re on Duat Avenue. Upper Styx is down that way,” said the store man, pointing to his right.

Kingston nodded, taking in all of the information he could. He had no idea what to make of Duat Avenue or Upper Styx, although he had heard of the river Styx, which was how Achilles became nearly invulnerable. It was also the name of the river that separated Earth from the underworld.

“Right,” said Kingston. It was time for Plan B – go with the flow. “Where can I find the nearest statue?” he asked, as though this was the most perfectly obvious question in the world. He had no intention at all of revealing himself to the mysterious CEO, but he now had some knowledge of this world and needed to know more.

The store man sighed again. “Out the door, turn left, in the middle of the walkway about a hundred yards from here is a statue of Galileo. If you can get past the thick accent he will help you. If not, try Darwin farther down.”

Kingston glanced over the store man’s shoulder at the small statue trying to look his way. The store man lazily looked back and shook his head at Kingston. “That’s a bust. Not a statue.”

Kingston stared at it for a moment and almost shook his head at the impossibility. “It’s moving.”

“Yeah.”

There was a quick flash of light and Kingston had to jump out of the way. Something heavy landed with a thunk and almost broke his toes. Even the store man yelped and backed away.

“I’m getting really tired of that,” Kingston said.

The store man leaned over and caught sight of the strangest thing he had seen in years. Lying on the floor was a hulking book, bound in leather, with a letter wedged inside like a bookmark. The stamp on the parchment could only have come from one of two people in the entire realm and the ink was still fresh. It was like hearing of a reclusive prince, locked in his tower, trying to reach out to someone for the first time in years.

“That … the seal …” The store man stared back at Kingston. His demeanour changed from a bored day at work to something closer to reverence as he realised he might have a celebrity in front of him. Or someone who managed to escape the reapers. “That’s from Death’s office.”
_ _
p<>. Kingston paid little attention to the mumblings of the store man. He was too busy fighting the thousands of paranoid what-if’s ricocheting through his skull, all brought on by just one book that landed in front of him. In a quick glance he double checked the exits in the shop, knew he might have to leap over the counter to escape, and decided that the moving bust would make a good enough weapon to throw at anyone who chased him.

The cause of his heart nearly exploding lay at his feet.

 

KINGSTON RAINE

and the

CURSE OF THE SHANGHAI WEREWOLF

 

Don Keaton

THE NEW INTERNATIONAL BESTSELLER

 

Kingston stammered. “The … Shanghai Werewolf … that was years ago.”

The store man looked from Kingston to the book, back to Kingston, then back to the book again. “You gonna pick that up?”

Kingston stared at the finely bound leather. “Definitely not.”

“You want me to do it?” the store man asked. When he didn’t get a response from the strange man in his shop he pinched his trousers, grunted as he knelt down, and picked up the 600 page behemoth. He stood up, fished out the letter, and absent-mindedly handed the book to Kingston.

The weight surprised Kingston. Curiosity got the better of him and he flipped it over to the back. He read over the blurb and his heart plummeted.

_ _
p<>. This is everything from last year, Kingston told himself. Even Joanna is mentioned. He went through the pages without reading any of them but saw right away that it was a work of fiction.

And he was the main character.

His mind spun out of control and his pulse leaped into a full blown crisis.

_ _
p<>. You’re not in Limbo, you’re in Hell. The actual Hell, where you will relive every awful memory …

He snapped himself out of that nonsense and shook his head. “So, I’m an atheist.”

The store man gave Kingston a blank look. “Okay.” Then he turned the envelope over in his hands and stared at it. “It’s addressed to Kingston Raine,” he mumbled, then looked up at the man in front of him, clearly holding a Kingston Raine novel. “You two have the same name?”

Kingston caught sight of a passage where he walked away from his stolen car on Gotelindenstraße and, within the story, reminded himself about the second car on Dunantstraße. He looked back up to the store man and spluttered. “Where the hell am I?”

“Romacki’s,” said the store man. He thumbed at the envelope. “I can’t open this. You’ll have to.”

“I don’t think so,” said Kingston. He continued to flip through the Curse of the Shanghai Werewolf.

“Well, I can’t. Not able to. Only the intended can open it.”

Instead of taking the letter, Kingston stood there in silence, turning each page over as slowly as he could as he became paler by the second.

“Hey, you know, maybe I should get someone to see you.”

Kingston wasn’t listening. He found the moment he abandoned Joanna. He saw exactly what she was thinking and feeling at the time he escaped, leaving her to suffer her own consequences. That was just an hour ago, Kingston thought. He felt his world rip him apart.

The store man nodded to himself. “I’m gonna get someone.” He shuffled over to his bust and started speaking to it.

_ _
p<>. It says she will never forgive me, Kingston thought. He felt the lump in his throat almost burst. He had broken into a cold sweat and he felt his senses spinning out of control.

_ _
p<>. You have to get out of here, he told himself. He snapped the book shut and looked up at the store man. He was too stunned to even say a goodbye. He simply turned and walked out the door.

“Wait! Your letter!”

Kingston hurried out to the street and headed left. He had no idea where he was going but the gut wrenching feeling ripped through his chest and screamed at him for abandoning the woman he loved.

There were two people standing in front of him. One was a short man with a long coat and strange glasses. The other was a tall, bald, and powerful man who looked as though he could stare down the gods themselves.

“I see you got the book,” Death said. “And the expression tells me that it did scare you half to death.”

Kingston’s first instincts were to run, but the power behind Death’s eyes were enough to keep him frozen to the spot.

“Biggins, if you could, run inside and retrieve the letter.”

“Yes, sir.”

The small man darted out of view, leaving Kingston to stare at the most powerful being he had ever seen. He couldn’t even get the words to his mouth but in an instant he knew who we was facing.

_ _
p<>. Impossible, he thought. His instincts -

“Impossible, I know,” said Death.

Kingston stopped breathing and felt himself stuck to the pavement. Then he forced a breath back in as though he had to manually operate his own lungs.

“You are about the most unusual person I have ever met. I can honestly say that I never expected to meet you.”

A flash of Joanna crying in front of Dr Menning bounced back into Kingston’s mind and he shot a resolute look at Death. “I need to get to Munich right away.”

Death shook his head. “You won’t be able to get back to her.”

Kingston peered at Death suspiciously, unsure of how exactly this man knew who he was. “There are people chasing me. As long as I’m alive they won’t dare kill my partner.”

“Your girlfriend?” asked Death, matter of factly.

Kingston felt his confidence betray him. “She’s in trouble. She -”

“Considering you both appear in book seven, she’s going to survive. But rumour has it there’s going to be a bad case of brainwashing when you see her next.”

Biggins ran back with the letter in his hand. He gave it to Death and Death gave it to Kingston.

“You can read this at the office,” Death said, then spoke to Biggins. “Please take him to Michelle and see that she makes him comfortable. I’ll make my own way back.”

“Yes, sir,” nodded Biggins. Before Kingston knew what was happening Biggins had latched onto his arm. Kingston felt a surreal pinch in his insides and a gasping cold gripped him from all around, then a moment later he saw two sentinel dragons and a mass of cubicles laid out in front of him.

Michelle gasped and shrieked when she saw Kingston. “You … you’re real?”

Kingston said nothing. He was still dizzy from the shock of teleporting, which was nothing compared to seeing two dragons stare at him, or even a pair of grim reaper statues eye him up suspiciously.

Biggins nodded. “As real as they come.” He tried to pry the leather bound book from Kingston’s hand. “I can take … that … please.” At last he had the book from Satan and hurried off to finish his research on Death’s scythe and the other books.

Michelle plonked Kingston down in Death’s private dining room. Kingston sat in a quiet numb. He had seen the dragons, grim reapers, moving statues, the letters falling out of thin air, a man talking to a bust as though it was a phone, the night lights, talk of Limbo, being teleported, and seeing a whole year of his life condensed into 600 pages of fiction. And all the while an attractive brunette kept glancing at him. It was as though she had never seen someone with iceberg blue eyes or English brown oak hair.

Michelle made him an espresso with a dash of cinnamon that she remembered him liking and sat down across from him. It was disturbing to see just how far he had fallen. She knew Kingston as the man who could solve every problem he came across and always had an ingenious way of getting out of trouble, usually by talking his way out of anything, but the man seated across from her was almost catatonic with shock.

“I can have our chef whip you up something,” said Michelle.

Kingston shook his head. He hadn’t eaten in six hours but he wasn’t remotely hungry. Then the cries of Joanna came back to haunt him again and Kingston got to his feet. “Listen, I need your help. The woman I’m supposed to marry has been drugged and she’s being held captive.”

Michelle spun around in horror. “Don’t tell me that! I’m only halfway through the story!”

Kingston leaned back in surprise and Michelle realised that she may have missed the point.

“I should stop talking,” she said.

“Please,” said Kingston, as he came forward. “They are trying to kill her.” Michelle hesitated for a moment but she had to say it. “Sweetie, that book was published two years ago. I’ve had that copy sitting on my bookshelf for months until the waiting list for book five finally worked out for me. But … you’re in the afterlife now. You have a better chance of seeing her again if they do kill her.”

Kingston blinked a couple of times, utterly brain locked by what Michelle had just said. She guided him back to his seat and patted him on the shoulder.

“Don’t worry, everything’s going to be all right. Death will figure this out and he might be able to return you. I think.”

“And if he does and they do kill Joanna, and she ends up here and I’m stuck there?”

“Uh … hmm.” Michelle looked away and couldn’t wait for Death to come back to save her from a bad case of foot in mouth.

 

 

Across town, a middle-aged lawyer with her hair in a bun knelt down in the dark alley near Romacki’s and picked up the only litter in the entire realm; two folded sheets of parchment with the blue wax seal still intact. Her lips did not even curl into a smile. She studied the letters carefully.

She knew of Donovan Keaton.

She knew of the secret meetings with Satan.

And now she knew of Kingston Raine, the impossible thief walking through Limbo. She finally had enough proof to convince the union leaders to abandon Death completely.

The Grim Reaper would fall in a matter of days.

IV

Death explained to Kingston how killing a fictional character and bringing him to Limbo was thought to be impossible. Death sped through Kingston’s entire life, every contrivance and deus ex machina, every cliffhanger and lucky break, and how everything was preparing Kingston for the ultimate showdown against a fictional company and a CEO that he would likely never meet again. Kingston thought back to Joanna. He remembered the fire of their romance, how they danced at four in the morning under the moonlight after escaping an assassin, and how nervous she looked when she first had to trust him with her life. Kingston hung his head and couldn’t believe that none of that was real.

“Clearly this has never happened before,” said Death, with wide eyes and a very apologetic demeanour. “I doubt you would be accepted into either Heaven or Hell, given your lack of a soul.”

Michelle perked up.

“I’m stuck in Limbo?” Kingston asked.

“Given your mischievous career, being stuck in Limbo might be better than the alternative. But I will try to figure out how to return you to your world. In the mean time Michelle can keep you company.” Death smiled and left them alone in his dining room.

Michelle put another cup of coffee in front of Kingston. “You know, the inspiration behind Joanna was a real woman named Michelle, like me.”

Kingston wondered if that information would cheer him up. “Is she here?”

“No. She will be, one day. Wow, that’ll be a weird day, huh? Hey, imagine the two of you meeting.”

Kingston stared at his coffee. It was exactly the way he always wanted it made and Michelle had gone to great effort to have it ready for him. That alone was weird.

“I’m surprised you’re not bursting with questions,” said Michelle. “No matter who you are or where you go, everyone is fascinated with death as a concept and Death as a person. Everyone.”

Kingston tried his luck. “Would you happen to have a copy of the other five books?”

Michelle grinned at him and knew what he was up to. He wasn’t going to read them to see what he had been doing or thinking all those years ago, it was to find a way to escape and reunite with Joanna. “I don’t know if that’s going to work,” said Michelle.

“If I was pulled out of a book can’t I be pushed back in?”

“Maybe at the beginning of book seven, I guess. I suppose we could send a message to Don Keaton and let him know what happened. Hey, I could tell him I found my very own Kingston!”

“So the author is still alive?” Kingston asked.

Michelle gave a hesitant: “Yes.”

“Because it sounds a lot like you’ve met him already.”

Michelle went wide eyed.

Kingston peered at her. “How did you manage that?”

Michelle went through a dozen mental answers before coming up with: “Magic.”

Kingston didn’t believe her. “Death said this might be a jinx to make me appear and to cost him his presidency.”

“It’s possible,” said Michelle.

“He mentioned something else today, another catastrophe that had only narrowly been avoided.”

Michelle didn’t like where Kingston was going with this.

Kingston peered at Michelle carefully for any sign of a confession. He was exceptional at reading people and saw her eyes dart to the side in fear, a knowing fear, that Kingston had figured it out. “I see. So I’m not the first unusual thing that has happened today that shouldn’t happen.”

Michelle smiled at him. She looked over his eyes and saw the tremendous amount of intelligence behind them. She liked how he had disarmed her so easily. It was one of his many charms she liked and here he was, the real thing, battling it out right in front of her.

Kingston worked through the rest of the problems he had. “I assume that given the sheer number of languages that have existed you and I are not actually speaking English right now.”

“That’s right. Everyone here speaks just one language.”

“Even though I speak least three more?”

Michelle gave him a knowing smile. He was testing her and that alone was a thrill. “Try saying something in German.”

“Good morning.” Kingston looked puzzled. That should have come out a lot different. “How are … you …”

“Now try Russian.”

“I am unarmed.” Kingston cocked his head to one side. “Well … that is strange.” He thought it over and tried to figure out how all of his language skills had faded because of Limbo. “Is it because there are no secrets from Death?”

Michelle nodded. “Once you get to North or South … sorry, Heaven or Hell, you regain your languages.”

“Why there?”

“Satan finds it amusing shouting at people in languages they don’t understand. Plus, in both places you’re there for quite a while so you might as well learn every language that has ever been spoken. It gives you something to do.”

“I always wanted to speak Swahili,” Kingston said.

“That’s actually very common,” said Michelle, giving Kingston an encouraging nod.

“Really? Damn. What’s very uncommon?”

Michelle leaned forward. “I’m messing with you, Kingston.”

Kingston leaned back and stared at Michelle. “Why would you do that?”

Michelle fired off the slightest of devilish grins. “You know, you were a little careless in life so now you can make up for it.”

Kingston shook his head. “Sure, everyone says that and within a week they’re all complaining about how there’s nothing on TV.”

An hour later, Michelle was back to work. Kingston had sweet talked her into getting him a copy of the six Kingston Raine books and he was already halfway through book one of The Shanghai Werewolf series. He wrote down everything he could about the CEO of Bridgeworks. He could see the inner workings of Carl Hamler’s mind, got the names of the unknown agents sent after him and he recognised their descriptions. He wrote down the access codes and passwords to some of the deepest vaults and he was going to keep his cheat sheet with him at all times. Kingston knew he might never return to that universe but if he did then he was going to return as prepared as possible.

Michelle looked up from her desk. Several non-Limbo people were approaching.

Ezekiel walked in, trying to appear as calm as possible and was joined by three air headed and spaced out individuals with frazzled hair and awful teeth. Two were women, one was a man.

“Greetings,” Ezekiel said. “My master has requested that I bring three of his best psychics to your attention, as per a conversation he had with your master, and I now present to you Alpha, Echo, and November.” He looked at the psychics behind him. “I, uh, can’t remember which one is which.”

“I imagine the guy is Alpha,” Michelle said.

“I certainly hope so,” Ezekiel said. “Can I entrust them into your care?”

Michelle summoned Death and he approached the new arrivals suspiciously. He looked over each of them all in agonising detail, causing Ezekiel to reel back as though he was being smelt and analysed for his trustworthiness. “Michelle? Bring our guest out for a moment, if you will.”

Michelle thought that was an epically bad idea, but she did as Death instructed. She fetched Kingston and brought him to the kitchen doorway.

“Mr Raine, if you will,” Death said, waving Kingston over.

Ezekiel looked curiously at the new arrival.

Kingston was surprised by the four people in front of him, and even more so because Death was showing him off. “Ladies and gentleman,” Death said, “I want you to look at this man here. Now, tell me, what do you see of him?”

They looked through Kingston as though he was invisible.

“What do you see?” Death asked again.

The central psychic spoke. “This man has the fate of no other,” Echo said dreamily.

“Of course,” Death said dismissively. “Is there anything else useful, or are you going to waste my time?”

“We can’t see him,” said November.

That caught Death by surprise.

“But we know he’s there,” said Alpha, again dreamily.

That caught Ezekiel by surprise. All of a sudden he wasn’t sure what to do with his hands. He resorted to fixing his clothes, which only made him look itchy with bed bugs. Worse still, he knew the psychics were failing to be of any use.

“You can’t see him,” Death repeated.

“But we know he’s there,” said Echo.

“And you can’t see anything of his future?” Death asked.

“We can not,” they said in unison.

Death sighed. “You spoke of a prophecy trying to bring me down. Of whom do you speak?”

“We can not see,” said November.

Death groaned. It was obvious that Satan had given him three of the most useless psychics ever. “But you know that an unseen person will cause catastrophic damage to my realm?”

“We see what you speak of,” said Echo.

“Great,” Death said, and he waved a hand in dismissal. He turned and went back to his sofa.

Ezekiel stared at Death, then at Kingston, then at Michelle. “Uh, so you’ll hang onto them, right?”

“I’ll show them to a room,” Michelle said, getting up from behind her desk.

“Can I ask them something?” Kingston asked. Death didn’t seem to care and Michelle appeared to be too nervous to stop him so Kingston asked anyway. “Do you always see the truth?”

The three psychics swayed together. “We see the truth as it unfolds,” said Alpha.

“Do you ever lie to ensure that the truth happens as you see it?”

“We do,” said November.

Death leaned forward, intrigued by Kingston’s line of questioning. He already knew all of this himself but he was interested to see how this fictional mortal was able to work through the logic of it all so quickly.

“So if you three come from Hell and Satan has sent you it is because it favours him to have you three here guiding the events that will lead to your predicted future. So tell me, does Death benefit from you three being here?”

Ezekiel looked terrified at that question, as though he was about to be flayed alive.

The three psychics swayed together, lost in their own minds.

“How will we identify the person or persons your prophecy speaks of?” Kingston asked.

“They will present themselves. They want to be known. They want to be feared.”

“Final question. What is this person’s greatest weakness?”

Michelle smiled. Oh, how she loved Kingston for that question. Even Death looked impressed.

The three psychics swayed. “The thirst for control.”

Kingston nodded. He suspected as much, given the great lengths this mysterious person must have gone through before making their move. Kingston just wanted to see if the psychics were telling the truth or not.

Michelle looked over to Death, who gave a quick nod. “I’ll find somewhere for them to stay,” Michelle said. She led the psychics down the corridor and out of sight.

Ezekiel looked Kingston up and down and knew he had to report this back to his boss. Kingston looked Ezekiel up and down and knew exactly what the scarred man was thinking.

“Thank you for your time,” said Ezekiel and he headed for the door as casually as he could manage.

When Ezekiel was gone Death stood and approached Kingston. “You have a sharp mind.”

“Thank you,” said Kingston, despite already knowing that.

“I met your author,” Death said. “You are nothing like him. He’s slow witted, nervous, probably spent a whole month just thinking up the quickest way to get you through an interrogation.”

Kingston shrugged. “Do you believe the psychics were telling you the truth?”

“Yes,” said Death. “I have my own psychics as well and they say the same thing. This is one of the few prophecies that is likely to come true and whoever I am about to face better realise that I’ve dealt with all sorts of uprisings many times in my existence. They better have something extraordinary up their sleeve if they want to defeat me.”

“They wouldn’t step out into the open unless they were confident of winning,” Kingston said.

“I know. Makes it all the more exciting, doesn’t it?”

“Are psychics usually right?”

“Not really, it’s all open to some vague interpretation without a time limit. Seers, however, are always right.”

That started to confuse Kingston. “Aren’t psychics and seers something of the same?”

“Not at all,” said Death. “Seers see the truth as it unfolds. Psychics see some bizarre reality that might happen. Add the two and you get an interesting prediction of what tomorrow will bring.”

Death looked at the time and knew that he should get two very stiff drinks ready. “You better stay out of sight for a while.”

“Why?”

“Because Ezekiel will be reporting to his boss any second now.”

Death headed into the kitchen and prepared two tall glasses of Devil’s Bane, a cocktail that was two parts vodka, two parts white rum, six parts schnapps, grenadine and a squeeze of lime in a frosted glass. He brought the drinks out and set them on the coffee table in the outer sofa and waited for Satan to arrive.

Satan arrived.

“Ezekiel talks fast, doesn’t he?” Death said.

Satan looked suspicious, then saw the drinks, then became even more suspicious. “You could have told me yourself.”

“I’m about to tell you myself,” said Death.

“I hope both of those for me,” Satan said, as he pointed to the two glasses.

“No. But have a seat.” Death simply smiled at his opponent. “You sent Ezekiel and the psychics here a little too quickly, Luc.”

Satan smirked. “I told you I was going to send them.”

“Yes, but so soon after hearing about the hiccough we had today?”

“I’m sure I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Satan said, taking a large gulp of the drink.

“You used to be better at lying to me,” Death said.

“It is quite the challenge these days.”

“So, you know all about Kingston Raine?”

Satan nodded slowly.

“But Ezekiel didn’t,” said Death. “I thought it was very unusual for you to send him along, considering he should be roasting in a pit for screwing up that thing with Don Keaton. I guess you needed him here to provoke a few answers out of myself and Michelle.”

Satan shrugged it off. “So what if I did? I’m sure you have spies in Hell.”

“I don’t need spies in Hell,” Death said. “You’re the one who needs to know what happens to the souls once they come through my realm. When they are handed over to you they are no longer any of my concern.”

“Then I am merely protecting my own interests. You’ll notice that my involvement has not affected the running of this realm in any way. I am but a silent partner trying to keep you in power.”

“How touching,” said Death. “I suppose you have one of your agents working as a Keeper of the Register? They saw Kingston Raine pop up and alerted you immediately?”

Satan leaned forward. “Grim, what the hell do you think you’re doing with a fictional character?”

“I assure you I didn’t see any of this coming along.”

“Humph,” grunted Satan. He leaned back into the sofa and downed the last of his drink. “No one would have seen this coming. Not even the psychics. How are they, by the way?”

“As useless as always.”

“I’m glad to hear.” Satan looked around and wondered where everyone was. “So … he’s real?”

“Kingston Raine? Yes, he is very real.”

“Where is he?”

“I know how much of a fan you are but I don’t think it would be wise for you to meet him,” said Death.

Satan narrowed his eyes at Death. “I met his author, you know.”

“Yes, you did. But it is likely that you were going to meet him one day regardless of what happened with Ezekiel. Regardless, I don’t think you should meet Kingston just yet. He’s had a trying day.”

“Perhaps he would like to meet me?”

Death arched an eyebrow. “You would be surprised how few people would actually like to meet you.”

Satan shook his head. “That was low.”

“You do have a reputation for mischief,” Death said. “It makes me question our friendship, the way you poke your nose about in my realm.”

Satan couldn’t help but smile. “Grim, I am well aware of the power you have and I know what ticks you off. You would be very lonely without my company and, I must confess, I would be somewhat lonely without you. We are just a few of the Eternals and without each other we would be very bored.”

“Yes, you certainly keep me on my toes,” Death said.

“Then, as a friend, I would like to meet this extraordinary individual of yours, the man who managed to elude every psychic and prophecy ever written.”

Death shook his head. “I’m afraid not.”

“This is the most iconic day in the last thousand years, possibly in the last hundred thousand years, and you’re going to deny me a chance to be a part of it and to see for myself?”

Death gave his friend a single nod. “Nailed it in one.”

Satan glared at him. “Then perhaps I should take this quibble up elsewhere, to another power.”

Death feigned a laugh. “North has never answered your ramblings and they have an ‘ignore at all costs’ policy.”

Satan stood and waved a single steely finger. “Just so that you know, I had nothing to do with his arrival.”

“Unfortunately, that makes me feel a lot worse,” said Death. “If you were somehow responsible then I could find an easy way to reverse it.”

Satan looked around one last time, couldn’t find anything else to keep him there, and left.

Michelle passed Satan and in the hallway and came in as white as ivory. “What just happened?”

“Oh nothing, he just wanted to meet Mr You-Know-Who.”

“I can’t imagine Satan going all giddy trying to meet Kingston.”

“No, he would have been just as eager to meet Paddington Bear, it’s the sheer breaking of reality that has him intrigued.”

“Well, you’ll be happy to know that Kingston was not the least bit eager to meet Satan. But at least he’s keeping himself busy,” said Michelle, taking her seat and looking over more paperwork.

“Yes, I’m sure he’s figuring out how to escape.” Death thought over Satan’s ability to know exactly what was happening in Limbo almost as soon as it happened. “Michelle?”

“Sir?”

Death paused for a moment. “There is a delicate issue I would like you to handle. I need you to meet with the bounty hunters and have them find all of the agents from Hell currently in Limbo.”

Michelle paused as well. “We could send a courier.”

“We could, but I fear we’ve had a breach of security and rounding up Luc’s agents has a habit of irritating him to no end. While I’m delighted about that, it should still be handled with all due care and you have a certain finesse when you talk to people.”

Michelle shook her head. “I’m not a spokesman.”

“I know. But I trust you.”

It was clear that Michelle knew just what kind of political minefield they were stepping into and she winced as she said it. “Are we imprisoning the agents from Hell?”

“For now I would just like to know who they are and what they’re doing. Then I can talk it over with Luc and kick them all out when he fails to explain why he has so many spies in my realm.”

Michelle glanced at the schedule. “You have a meeting later on.”

“More lawyers?”

“I’m afraid so.” Michelle gathered her things. “The bounty hunters are part of a guild.”

“Thank you, I remember.”

“They might not like me.”

Death patted Michelle on the shoulder. “I appreciate this.”

Michelle sighed and stood where she was. “I was thinking about getting my hair done.”

“Cut or coloured?” asked Death.

“Cut to chin length.”

“I like that look.”

“And maybe highlights throughout.”

“So … you’ll look like a tiger?”

Michelle stared back at Death and wondered how he managed to survive this long, surrounded by humans, and still say the wrong thing. “Yes. I want to look just like a tiger.”

“Even though you were born in the year of the monkey?”

Michelle looked away for a moment, dumbfounded, and needed a couple of seconds to regain her sense of reality. “Seriously Grim? That’s what you come out with?” She shuddered and went off to see the bounty hunters.

 

 

Death needed to reclaim his boardroom. The lawyers had been in there for almost twenty four hours and it was wearing thin. Death had magically cursed them all into staying and shouting at each other, preventing them from cooperating while keeping them busy at the same time. Death hoped it would make them hesitant about booking another meeting with him any time soon. He broke the enchantment and dismissed them, kicking them to the curb.

Now that he had his boardroom back, Death decided to keep an eye on Kingston. He figured that Kingston was going to follow his instincts and cause some mischief and mayhem, so Death moved Kingston from the dining room to the boardroom. He didn’t approve of Kingston reading through every copy of the Kingston Raine series, but at least he was looking into his past and not trying to change anything of his future.

After an hour, Death finally brought in a plate of food for Kingston. Kingston stared at it in surprise. “What’s this?”

“You need to eat something,” said Death. “I asked Michelle and she said you liked smoked beef with a blue cheese sauce.”

Kingston glanced at the plate and leaned back in grateful surprise. “I do, yeah. She knew that about me?”

“She’s been talking about you for years,” said Death. “I don’t know how long you’ll be here for but it looks like you’ve been running on nothing but adrenaline for the last day or two. You should eat something.”

“Thank you, this was very generous of you.”

“Well, I did kill you.”

“I wasn’t going to bring that up,” said Kingston. “But, if I may … Michelle said that you’re having problems with unions.”

Death gave Kingston a simple nod. “That’s right.”

“I’ve stirred up lots of trouble in my day. If I was in your position … people in power love to believe that they have the right answer. They hate to lose followers to someone who has a different answer. Maybe it’s time to flood the realm with more unions, only you give these ones ridiculous perks and advantages which should break up the larger ones so that their members can join the more amusing group. You spread out the power and the largest of unions will dwindle and become useless. Plus, those in charge are forced into full damage control to maintain their power and they can no longer focus as intently on bringing you down.”

Death considered it and allowed the slightest hint of a smile to creep over his face. He also liked how Kingston was compelled to talk with his hands. “That sounds like anarchy.”

“You would be pulling the rug out from under their feet,” said Kingston, with a wry smile.

Biggins knocked on Death’s door.

“That’s better advice than I got from Satan,” said Death. He turned to Biggins and waved him in.

Biggins carried the scythe inside. He laid it carefully in its stand next to the bookshelf.

“How is it?” Death asked.

“I was not able to find any hexes on it, sir.”

“Hmm, I thought it would be unlikely,” Death muttered to himself. Such a powerful object as his scythe would be nearly impossible to corrupt.

“I have gone over the books as well, sir, and the first five are harmless, regular books.”

“But not the sixth?”

Biggins shook his head. “The sixth has been charged with so much raw power that it is difficult to get an accurate reading without blowing all of my instruments to pieces.”

Death nodded, trying to put the mystery together. “Does this power have an origin?”

“It does, sir. Power of this magnitude could not have been cast in any other realm but Limbo. It is also a very unstable power, fraught with emotion and anger. It would have been detected on the sensors the moment the book was delivered.”
_ _
p<>. That’s troubling, Death thought. “So before I picked the book up, it was a regular book?”

“Yes, sir.”

“With no jinxes?”

“None of any kind, sir.”

“So … I did it?” Death asked, mostly to himself.

“It would appear so, sir.”

“Hmm, I may owe Luc an apology,” Death said.

“If it’s any help it has been signed by its author who is still technically alive, so maybe you were reacting to that?”

“It’s possible,” said Death.

“I should caution you against using your scythe to teleport any time soon. It had such a blast of unusual power that it will take a while to settle back to normal. I especially recommend not using it while near the Kingston Raine books. Your memory of ripping Kingston out of fiction and landing him in reality may provoke it into action.”

Death thought it over. “There was a quirk earlier, with the author. I had to return him to his home and bend a few rules.”

Biggins thought it over. “That could be a contributing factor.”

“Of course. Is there anything else?”

“No sir.”

“Thank you, Lord Biggins,” Death said.

 

 

Kingston sat in the boardroom with the microphone held close to his ear. Something about Death’s office seemed to hiss too much static to hear anything of what was recorded. He had found Joanna’s last words to him in the sixth book and he had to double check that she had actually said all of that.

It turns out she had. She hated him. She would never forgive him.

_ _
p<>. I will find you and I will rescue you, he promised her. Meanwhile he couldn’t stop spinning his pen through his fingers.

In the other room, Death had his scythe in his hand, priming it with the right incantation to send Kingston back into The Curse of the Shanghai Werewolf. There was a knock on Death’s door. An eloquence of eight lawyers had arrived.

“Mr Death, you are late for our meeting,” said one of the taller lawyers.

Death looked back at them, bored. “I have no interest in lawyers anymore. Get out and don’t let me see your faces again.”

“This meeting was scheduled weeks ago.”

“Yeah, I wasn’t interested in speaking to you then either. Consider all future meetings null and void. Good day.”

The tall lawyer sneered. “You are sabotaging your own presidency, Mr Death. Agreeing to these meetings is the only thing keeping you afloat. We will not be bullied into silence and you can not ignore us.”

“I see,” sighed Death, placing his scythe carefully on his desk. “No matter what I do I’m stuck doing what you want?”

“Whatever is most beneficial for the unions,” said the lawyer.

Death rolled his shoulders back. The bored look from his eye faded and he started to imagine using his collection of antique weapons on each of these men and women in an effort to ease his stress. “Then let’s get things moving along,” said Death, walking towards the lawyers. “There is someone pulling your strings and guiding us towards a revolution. It’s about time this person and I came face to face. After all, if there is going to be a revolution, he should be man enough to look me in the eye as he disposes of me.”

The lawyers tried to maintain their best poker faces but it was no good. Even the slightest contraction of an iris was an open invitation for Death to read their minds, though the usurper was shrouded in mist, something exceptionally rare in Limbo.

Death smiled. “She has power, that much is certain. You know, it’s been so long since anyone has tried to overthrow me, I think this time I might actually do it right.” He cleared his voice and made sure they were all paying attention. “You may tell everyone in the union that in one hour, and one hour exactly, I will expel everyone who holds an election of any kind. That should prevent your lady friend from being voted into power. I will also expel anyone who strikes, since you are all here as my guests. In short, you have one hour to cause a revolution and win, otherwise I will expel you all to Hell. It’s time to flush out this leader of yours and see what she’s capable of.” Death turned and walked away.

“You know,” said the tall lawyer, “you are only ensuring your own defeat. Give someone enough rope …”

“And they will hang themselves,” finished Death. “Yes, I am partial to that phrase, Ivan, so make sure your lady friend is aware of it as well, because that will be her downfall.”

The tall lawyer leaned back with a whisper of fright. “You … know my name?”

Death reeled around and rolled his eyes. “I know everyone’s name. It’s one of the annoying quirks I’m gifted with. And let’s remember there are no secrets from Death.”

Death slammed the door in the lawyer’s face. He headed over to his desk and felt the weight of the scythe in his hands. He knew Kingston was in the other room listening in. Death returned the scythe to its stand and he sat back at his desk, imagining the glorious ways the lawyers will end up hanging themselves.

 

 

The doors to Death’s office almost exploded open as a diminutive seer ran in. She had long white hair and looked very out of breath, which was no surprise considering that she only came up to Death’s waist in height.

“Sir!” she screamed.

“Jacinta?”

The seer gasped. “Sir … She is here! She! Capital ‘S’ She!”

Death cocked his head to one side. He could hear Kingston stirring from the other room. “The unnamed one?”

“Yes! She has revealed herself!”

“Excellent,” Death said, nodding with approval. “Now that she is revealed, what can you tell me about her?”

“I can only say what she wants me to know,” Jacinta said nervously. She feared Death was about to strike her down for her insolence and that only puzzled Death even more.

“And yet you work for me.”

Jacinta’s eyes were wide, pleading with her boss to understand that this wasn’t her fault. “Yes, I do! But I have trouble seeing her, even now. She is cloaked in a great power and she hides herself well.”

Death took a step back. Kingston peered around the corner. Death looked shocked to the core, as though the absolute impossible had just happened. Again.

“An Eternal …” Death mumbled.

Jacinta nodded and nervously tapped her fingers together. “She has been in Limbo for many years and I have never seen her!”

Death hurried to close the doors to the boardroom. Kingston never expected to see Death as petrified as he was now. Death didn’t even say a word, he just closed the doors and hurried into the outer office. Jacinta followed him along.

“This can’t happen,” said Death. “It’s against the law, one Eternal facing off against another.” He looked down at Jacinta. “How long do I have?”

Jacinta’s eyes froze over in silver and quickly returned to normal. “She has passed the Green Fountain.”

“So she’s ten seconds away?”

“Yes, sir.”

Death heard the snick of the grim reaper statues crossing their blades and the commanding voice of a middle-aged woman. “He knows I’m here. Bring him forth.”

Jacinta looked up at her master. She was bouncing on her feet and feared that this was the worst moment her boss had faced in several thousand years.

Death looked down at his head seer. “This will not go well for me, will it?”

“No sir,” Jacinta squeaked.

“Any recommendations?”

“Yes. Run away and fight another day.”

Death shook his head. “I wish it were that simple, but if an Eternal seizes power of Limbo then I have nowhere to hide.” He sighed and straightened up his suit and tie. “How do I look?”

“Revered and graceful, sir,” Jacinta said with a deep bow.

“You could’ve just said ‘fine’, Jacinta. It’s not like I’m wearing my ceremonial robes.”

“In that case you look a little nervous.”

Death grunted. “You better run along.”

Jacinta darted around the corner. Death rolled his shoulders back and walked to the corridor, where he found several lawyers and a short middle-aged woman with glasses. The group were stuck behind the grim reaper statues with their scythes blocking the corridor.

_ _
p<>. No time like the present, Death thought. He started to wish that Michelle was here to give him some moral support. He approached the lawyers and stared at the woman in the lead. “Well?”
_ _
p<>. “‘Well?’” repeated the woman. “It is a shame that a great being such as yourself is so lacking in the most basic of manners. I’m sure you knew a good deal about me before I even stepped foot in the building and yet you treat me the same as the sludge on the bottom of one’s shoe.”

“Are you my usurper?” Death asked.

The woman looked up and offered no sign of warmth. “Far from it. I am here to see that you remain as the president of Limbo and the CEO of Death Incorporated.”

Death did not look remotely interested. “Oh really?”

“Of course. I only serve the people in your employ, to ensure their well being, and to see that everyone is accountable for their actions.”

“Ah, accountable for their actions, of course,” Death said.

“Everyone is accountable,” said the woman. “And the past always catches up.”

“Who are you?”

“Eve, Leader of the Unions. No doubt you have heard of me.” She smiled at Death. “You have threatened the union representatives, threatened imprisonment, decapitation, exile.”

“Naturally,” said Death.

“That is against the law,” said Eve.

“Really? Seems like the sort of thing I would be aware of.”

“You have conspired with another Eternal of the Realms to kill a mortal and revive him back to life, someone by the name of Donovan Keaton. That is also against the law.”

“You don’t say?”

“You have willfully abducted and detained the most serious of offences, Mr Kingston Raine, who I understand is … fictional.”

Death arched an eyebrow. “So you’ve heard?”

“Word travels fast among the disenfranchised,” said Eve.

“I’m sure you have all the necessary paperwork detailing exactly how Kingston Raine being here is against the law. And no doubt you know I played no part in the abduction or revival of Mr Keaton.”

“He was not processed and you decided his fate for yourself,” said Eve. “It is a very grave situation you have committed yourself to. As the president you can be tried on charges of kidnapping, both Messrs Keaton and Raine, plus unlawful detention, among other charges. You and your whole administration could face severe penalties and expulsion, including your secretary Michelle, a scout by the name of Lord Henry Biggins, a tailor’s assistant by the name of Gerald Hathley, and more than eight hundred Keepers of the Register who remained silent to the gross disregard of our laws. I will also add that as the CEO you are certainly accountable to your shareholders: the employees.” She pried off her glasses. “Mr Death, also known as The Grim Reaper, President of Limbo, and Chief Executive Officer of Death Incorporated and Chairman of the Board, you are hereby served with a Notice of Review. You will submit yourself and your office to an audit, effective immediately, in accordance with the unions of realm.”

Death bowed graciously. “As you wish.”

Eve smiled. “Then you will call off your statues.”

Death nodded. The statue grim reapers instantly retracted their scythes and stood to attention.

Eve held a remarkable poker face and gave nothing away, as though her usurping was nothing more than a routine procedure. “There is a list of complaints from several divisions concerning your practices, concerning the welfare of your employees and the mismanagement of business and realm. We will investigate each and every one of them.”

Death smiled at that. “Dating how far back?”

“Oh … eight hundred thousand years. Some of those are still in effect, regardless of any statute of limitation.”

“How thorough of you,” Death said.

“You have two hundred and seventy nine million, six hundred and eighty thousand, four hundred and three individual complaints against you and the company that need to be investigated.”

Death arched an eyebrow. “Two hundred and seventy nine million? That has surprised me.”

Eve beamed a smile from ear to ear. “I’m sure we’ll find something that you’re guilty of.”

“I look forward to it.”

“And the first one we find will place you under probation.” Eve looked back at her army of lawyers. “Search the premises for Kingston Raine. That should qualify quite easily as a substantial violation worthy of an immediate hearing.”

The lawyers shuffled forward. Death simply smiled at Eve. “Who are you working for?”

“I told you, the people of Limbo.”

“I’m one of them,” Death reminded her.

“As am I.”

“And yet you’re an Eternal,” Death said.

Eve gave him no hint of recognition. She merely proceeded forward to see what a fictional character walking among the dead looked like.

 

 

Kingston grabbed the Raine books and darted into Death’s office. If there was a coup or a revolution then he was getting the hell out of there. He ran to the giant bookshelf lining the wall and wished Michelle was around to help him escape.

_ _
p<>. Bridgeworks has lots of secret passages. Lots of ways in and out. Death should have the same. He mentally mapped out the whole floor plan and knew the kitchen and dining room did not line up perfectly behind that bookshelf.

_ _
p<>. There are four metres of unaccounted space behind this wall.

Kingston started pulling on various books to open the secret passage, dropping them all to the ground.

Bang!

Someone unauthorised had just tried to open Death’s office door and had been flung backwards. It stopped Kingston dead in his tracks. An uneasy silence returned to the room, broken only by Kingston’s steady breathing.

_ _
p<>. Snap to it and get out of here!

He pulled at more books until one popped a catch and broke free. The secret passage swung open. The book that opened it was The Complete Works of William Shakespeare.

Kingston stared at the weighty tome. Nice choice, he thought. He glanced at Death’s scythe. That must have been how Death sucked him out of the Curse of the Shanghai Werewolf.

Bang!

Someone else had tried to force their way into Death’s office. It sparked a wry grin from Kingston as a burst of excitement got the better of him.

And now back to Joanna, he thought.

Kingston dumped his books on top of each other to get to the Curse of the Shanghai Werewolf. He scrambled into the passageway and pulled the door closed behind him. At the far end was an elevator. Bridgeworks had something similar, leading to a lavish apartment on the top floor.

Kingston stopped and shuffled the books around so that the Curse of the Shanghai Werewolf was on top. He had no idea how any of this was going to work but if it failed then at least he had a secret passageway to run through. He flipped the book open to an hour before Joanna was kidnapped. He tapped the open page with the scythe. In a blink of an eye the scythe emanated a brilliant glow and his hand tingled. Once again Kingston felt his skin tighten, his insides freeze, and the air rush out of his lungs.

He fell and landed with a heavy thump. He was outdoors, during a faded day with a slight drizzle of rain. It was cold and damp with rolling green hills in the distance and hundreds of corpses strewn out in front of him. Kingston stared in utter surprise.

_ _
p<>. What the hell?

He had fallen into the aftermath of a battle. Hundreds of bodies lay in front of him, all been hacked to pieces. The look on each man’s face was horrific, frozen in agony. Kingston staggered backwards, felt his stomach somersault from the shock of being surrounded by so much death, then he caught sight of their armour.

_ _
p<>. Am I in the middle ages? Kingston asked himself. In the distance were several men going through the dead, loading them up onto rickety carts and drawing them away, no doubt to be given a proper funeral. One of them looked up in surprise when he saw Kingston.

Kingston had no idea what to say or do. The attendant tapped his friend on the shoulder and they both looked around at Kingston, before hurrying off to tell their superior.

Kingston stepped away and was sure that for the second day in a row he had managed to appear out of thin air in a very unique time and place.

_ _
p<>. This looks a lot like northern England, Kingston told himself. [Northern England in the … _]he looked down at his overloaded hands, carrying a scythe, six _Kingston Raine books and one Complete Works of William Shakespeare.

_ _
p<>. Uh oh.

Kingston turned and saw a battle weary nobleman ride up on horseback, observing Kingston carefully. He stopped within shouting distance, obviously cautious of the stranger with the scythe.

“Excuse me!” Kingston called out. “Which way is the nearest town?” Kingston couldn’t help but feel stupid for his feeble attempt to blend in with a knight and hoped like hell the knight spoke modern day English.

The nobleman looked upon Kingston with great disdain and called to one of his attendants. A young lad scurried up and seemed just as surprised to see Kingston as Kingston was to see him.

_ _
p<>. Okay, knights in armour, cold and dreary, somewhere I’m not supposed to be.

The young attendant walked carefully to Kingston. “You come most curiously at this hour, my lord. What name have you?”
_ _
p<>. [_Scottish accent … _]Kingston thought. His stomach started to drop towards his feet.

“I am Raine,” Kingston said with a slight desperate chuckle to himself. “Who might that gentleman be?”

“The worthy thane of Glamis.”

Kingston shook his head. Nope, none of that made any sense.

“Who is your king?” Kingston asked, hoping to narrow it down. Then he realised that since he didn’t know the answer himself it guaranteed that he was not an ally, and since he was that close to the remains of an army he was likely to be one of the enemy.

The look on the young lad said it all. “King Duncan, my lord.”

“Ah, I’m glad to hear,” said Kingston quickly.

The young lad did not seem too impressed. “You will come this way, sir.”

“Of course. Let me meet this worthy thane of Glamis.” Kingston was curious as to what a thane of Glamis was, then he hoped like hell that he was not about to be beheaded for not already knowing the answer. The gentleman in question seemed to ride off at a casual pace, back towards the camp. “He’s leaving?” Kingston asked.

“No sir,” said the lad. “As thane and general he will meet you on his grounds, not among the dead.”

“Oh good,” Kingston said quietly, and hoped that his fast talking would get him out of this mess with his organs still intact. He was thrilled to hear the word ‘general’, hoping that it meant the same thing as he expected. “Your general has a name?”

“Macbeth, sir.”

V

The tall and intimidating man rode into the camp of soldiers, all armed with swords, wearing chain mail and thick leather padding, tending to their wounds and to their friends. They watched Kingston and made no effort to move out of the way, despite the stranger carrying a scythe that was almost too big for him. The general then dismounted and turned to Kingston. “Now, who comes here?” he asked, tired but with the look of a powerful beast stalking its prey. He moved his hand to rest on the hilt of his sword, weary of the overloaded stranger armed with such an ornate weapon.

“My lord, a villain among the Norweyan banners,” said the young attendant.

Kingston grunted. “I am no villain. I am Kingston Raine and I wish to leave.”

The general surveyed Kingston. “Norway himself was assisted by treachery, and you appear almost out of thin air.” It looked as though the general was expecting Kingston to take the lead and defend himself, but Kingston was unaccustomed to this dance of conversation. The general glared at Kingston. “Speak.”

“I don’t know anything about either army, nor even where I am,” said Kingston. “I’m afraid I don’t know who you are, either.”

“I am Macbeth, thane of Glamis.”

“Ah.” Internally, Kingston began a barrage of swearing. It was time to pull out all of the stops and turn Macbeth into an ally. “In that case, allow me to offer you my services. I have knowledge that will make you rich. I know how to make … a printing press. You will be able to make books quickly, cheaply, and when you see them they are of such high quality that all the lords in the realm will demand to have their own copies. Everyone in the whole country will buy these books printed from your own estate. You will control the market. You will be able to sell thousands of copies every year, and no one else has this technology. Only you. It will make you so rich you can retire with more money than even the mightiest of kings. You will be heralded as a hero. I have invented such a machine and I am need of a patron such as yourself. All I require -”

“Silence,” commanded Macbeth, then he glared at Kingston. “What are you?”
_ _
p<>. A fictional character that has really died and now exists within another fictional realm within a cursed play, Kingston quickly thought. He decided to say something else. “I am a Renaissance man. Wait, that doesn’t exist. I make books.”

“Yet your weary eyes speak of daggers and betrayal.” Macbeth looked Kingston over carefully. “Your pains are register’d and you know what you speak. Are you a devil?”

“I am no devil,” said Kingston, feeling the situation getting far worse than he hoped for. “I am still offering my services to you, and a partnership likes ours would last through the years.”

“I am sure of it,” said Macbeth, staring Kingston down.

Kingston stepped back but Macbeth simply shook as head as if saying: [_Don’t even try. _]Kingston went to Plan B: talk his way out of it and stall by any means possible. He looked around the camp site and couldn’t find much in the way of inspiration, except for one of the books in his hand.

“I have a sample of such a machine.” He dug out [_The Works of Shakespeare _]and flashed it open to a random page. “As you can see, this was not written by some child’s hand. It has been finely crafted into a true masterpiece. I can do this with any book and any story. Perhaps you would grant me the honour of chronicling your life and your noble deeds so that the whole country can read about your valour. And as they are reading, they are buying. They will buy your story, from your machine, printed on your estate.”

Macbeth stared back at Kingston. Kingston felt his nerves start to fray and he turned the book over. He ran through the contents and skipped to page 788. Macbeth. He came across the witches opening and decided that was not a good idea to read aloud. Then he realised that he was about to expose himself as someone extraordinarily weird in an era where too much knowledge in areas outside of possibility were met with swift execution.

Still, he found himself reading the words, desperately trying to think on his toes and adjust what was being read aloud, except that his ability to weave Shakespeare’s words was not as flawless as he hoped and he was just trying to make sense of what he was reading instead of making it up as he went.

“What blood man is that … no, maybe not that part …” Kingston skipped ahead. “Of kerns and gallowglasses is supplied … what?”

Kingston glanced up and saw he was trying everyone’s patience and remembered that these men had just slaughtered an army not far from here. No doubt their adrenaline was still running high.

“Ah! The worthy thane of Ross.” He glanced up to the Dramatis Personae and found Ross – nobleman of Scotland. “Whence camest thou, worthy thane? From Fife, great king; where the Norweyan banners flout the sky and fan our people cold.” Kingston felt his chest constricting, realising that all eyes in the camp were boring into him and he was digging himself into a hole with no rescue. Desperation and the ability to keep talking to stall the inevitable had been a trait of his for far too long, so Kingston continued fumbling through the Scottish play with no idea of what he was actually saying.

“Norway himself, with terrible numbers, assisted by that most disloyal traitor the thane of Cawdor, began a dismal conflict,” Kingston started to skip ahead, hoping to end the misery and find something good to talk about that he could understand. “And, to conclude, the victory fell on us. Great happiness! Sweno … the what? … Uh, no more that thane of Cawdor shall deceive our bosom interest: go pronounce his present death, and with his former title greet Mac … beth.”
_ _
p<>. Shit, I think I just prophesied something I shouldn’t have, Kingston thought.

There was a moment of silence as everyone judged him. He had faced off against men holding guns at him, threatened by no less than six men each with a fifteen bullet magazine, so he had faced the possibility of being killed ninety times in just the one room. At least everyone had all been fluent in English, Kingston’s English, and Kingston had a little leverage. Now Kingston faced forty men with swords, almost all of whom were in a bad mood. Kingston had never felt closer to death than now.

He decided to leave. “You know,” said Kingston, as he stepped sideways, “I’m just going to go. I shall leave you gentlemen to your victory and will cause no trouble whatsoever. Good day!”

“Hold,” spoke Macbeth. He asked one of his attendants to summon Banquo. He then stared at Kingston intently, his eyes flicking from the stack of books to the scythe, figuring this man out.

“Thou speakest in strange tongues yet read so clearly as but a mortal man,” said Macbeth.

“Err … thank you?” Kingston answered, then he realised that Macbeth had not complimented him.

A tall man with wavy brown hair appeared. He looked Kingston up and down with a curious humour as though Kingston had just escaped from a circus. “What is this I see before me?”

It was clear to Kingston that Macbeth had little sense of humour, yet Banquo had enough for the two of them.

Macbeth stared back at Kingston. “Read again,” he commanded.

“I’d rather …”

“Read again,” commanded Macbeth.

Since it would spare his life for another thirty seconds, Kingston did as he was told. When he reached the end he glanced up with frayed nerves and a pulse that nearly burst from his chest.

Banquo raised his eyebrows. “A mighty rendition,” Banquo said with a laugh. “Hear me Macbeth, the day is hardly done and yet our deeds appear in folk tales and song. Of what more could we ask?”

Some of the crowd chuckled, relieved that the atmosphere had been lifted with Banquo’s arrival. Macbeth remained unamused. “In what manner do the words the thane of Ross spoke just this day to our king so far away now reside in a book to appear before the very man the words spoke favourably towards?”

Banquo held onto a wry smile. “Ay, I am curious myself.”

Kingston nodded, buying some time for himself, thinking of the fastest way out of there. He was surrounded and there were war horses nearby. Kingston couldn’t even hope to run for his life before being struck down.

“What devil are you?” Macbeth said, raising his voice and stepping forward, his hand still steady on the hilt of his sword.

Kingston eased back as non-threateningly as he could. “Devil? No, I am no devil. I … am … just …” He glanced to Banquo. “Help?”

Banquo roared with laughter. “Come, my lord, no matter what creature this man claims to be, he sure passes the time in an otherwise dull day and we have far to go. Let these men return to their homes and we shall trouble them no more.”

Macbeth nodded. “And what of our friend here?”

Banquo smiled, but it was a smile forcing Kingston to do whatever he wanted. “He speaks highly of you, favours you greatly. Let him journey with us so we may learn more from our … companion.”

“Yeah, I’d rather just make my own way over there,” said Kingston, pointing in a random direction.

Banquo chuckled to himself. “Towards Inverness? Then you may fly to the heavens or travel with us. You are a most amusing creature. I am sure your lord would not mind sparing your presence, since we are victorious this day and you speak of our good deeds. Come, let us depart.”

Macbeth turned to Banquo and had a quiet word with him. Kingston started to feel hopeful, having delayed his execution for long enough. Macbeth, though, was still suspicious and didn’t want a tag along. He and Banquo muttered for a moment, glancing back to Kingston. Finally, Macbeth turned around. “Kingston?”

“Macbeth?”

It looked as though Macbeth was saying this through gritted teeth, furious that his friend had convinced him to agree to Kingston’s company. “You will come with us, speak what you will, and let us depart these lands of death and decay.”

“Of course,” said Kingston, though he was not quite sure if he should be happy or not. He was less than thrilled when he saw Macbeth and Banquo climb onto two horses. Kingston took two steps out of the camp before he slipped and one of the Kingston Raine books tumbled to the ground, landing in the mud. Kingston gasped, wiped the wet dirt away but knew the edges of the book would buckle and smear together. Thankfully Banquo saw this and laughed at the poor devil. He threw a small empty sack to Kingston, allowing Kingston to stuff the seven books inside and not risk them any further. The bag, however, was very rough and felt like a hundred splinters were digging into his fingers. As the camp cleared, Macbeth led on, while Banquo stayed at Kingston’s side.

All Kingston could do was think back to his fictional version of Eton. He strained his memory to figure out just how badly this whole Macbeth situation was headed. He remembered hearing from his teachers that it was the bloodiest play and supposedly cursed in the theatre. Kingston had been in Scotland for less than an hour and was lucky to have survived for even that long.

_ _
p<>. I have to get out of here as fast as I can, he decided. The problem was he didn’t know how he got there in the first place.

Over the next few hours Kingston took every opportunity he could to glance into the sack of books. He ran his fingers over the lines of Macbeth, trying to read on to see what was about to happen. Unfortunately, reading while walking was not a gift of Kingston’s, nor was it easy to concentrate on the thin road while the two generals looked back at Kingston to see whether or not he was still following. Macbeth and Banquo kept to themselves, though Banquo did try to break into Kingston for more laughs, hoping to ease the day’s ride.

Kingston’s legs were starting to ache and his head was fading into a quiet numb. The cold and drizzle were ruining the book and he started drifting away from the thick word play. It was a lot easier understanding what everyone said when they actually said it, instead of seeing it written down in an almost ancient language.

Macbeth, Banquo, and Kingston headed over a heath, a wide expanse of open land with thick dwarf shrubs dotted around. It would have been quite the sight in spring with the mass of flowers, but today the weather was against them and the sky was so grey and misty it was impossible to see any of the surrounding hills.

_ _
p<>. Give me a crowded city any day over this mess, Kingston thought. He always appreciated the suffering artists had to go through to find the nice scenery and paint it, so Kingston could experience the sight for himself from the safety of a dining room while cradling a scotch.

He did his best to walk while reading ahead through Macbeth and The Return of the Shanghai Werewolf. Every time he wanted to write a note to himself he had to instead dog-ear the top of the page so he could come back to it later.

Banquo turned his nose against the wind. “What noble or wretched sound doth this way come?”

Kingston looked up and finally smiled, feeling the rush of seeing something supernatural. “Sounds a lot like three women talking in rhyme.” Kingston looked around. He was excited to see what was about to happen, curious if the ladies would even recognise him as being there, then it came.

“So foul and fair a day I have not seen,” said Macbeth.

“How far is’t call’d to Forres?” Banquo asked. The mist lifted and three hags appeared next to a broken wall. The witches had arrived and appeared to take no notice of the riders passing them. “What are these, so wither’d and so wild in their attire, that look not like the inhabitants o’ the earth, and yet are on’t?”

Macbeth looked back at Kingston and saw the stranger smiling. Macbeth wondered for a moment if he had been led into a trap and kept one hand on his sword.

Banquo, however, was more curious than alarmed at the sight of the witches. He called to them. “Live you? Or are you aught that man may question?”

The witches glanced at Banquo and his companions, then paid them little attention.

“You seem to understand me,” said Banquo.

One of the witches sneered at Banquo.

“This is excellent,” Kingston said quietly and was overheard by Macbeth, who had grown remarkably impatient.

“Speak, if you can: what are you?” Macbeth cried out.

One of the witches stepped forward. “All hail, Macbeth! Hail to thee, thane of Glamis!”

The second witch joined her sister. “All hail, Macbeth! Hail to thee, thane of Cawdor!”

The third witch joined her sistren. “All hail, Macbeth, that shalt be king hereafter!”

Kingston grinned from ear to ear.

Banquo stirred and looked amused by the three women. He turned to his friend. “Good sir, why do you start; and seem to fear things that do sound so fair?” He was distracted when Macbeth stared at Kingston.

“Thane of Cawdor? You foretell a prophecy, and the past, from that book,” said Macbeth, to Kingston.

Kingston’s smile started to slip away. He fumbled through the book and tried to catch up to where the witches were.

Banquo looked back at the witches. “My noble partner you greet with present grace and great prediction of noble having and of royal hope, that he seems rapt withal: to me you speak not.” Banquo cocked his head to one side. “If you can look into the seeds of time, and say which grain will grow and which will not, speak then to me, who neither beg nor fear your favours nor your hate.”

In a burst of voices the witches shouted. “Hail!”

“Hail!”

“Hail!”

“Less than Macbeth, and greater,” said the first witch, pointing a skeletal finger at Banquo.

“Not so happy, yet much happier,” said the second.

“Thou shalt get kings, though thou be none: so all hail, Macbeth and Banquo!”

Banquo looked a little baffled, then when he saw Macbeth he was sure that his friend was more agitated than ever before.

“Stay, you imperfect speakers, tell me more. You know our names, but what of this good sir?” Macbeth pointed at Kingston.

Kingston looked up from his copy of Act One, Scene Three.

“Hail Kingston!”

“Hail!”

“Hail!”

Kingston stared back in utter shock. Oh … shit.

One of the witches sneered at him. “Life and death awaits thee.”

Kingston’s chest contracted as the words fell upon him.

“No matter where you go, you will be wished dead, and death will find you,” said another witch.

“Can you tell me about Joanna York?” Kingston asked.

“Thou speak of figment and misery.”

“Thou cause ruin wherever thou pass.”

“There will be no hope for what becomes of thou.”

Kingston’s jaw dropped open. No hope?

“No hope awaits thee,” said the witch. She glanced over her shoulder, her eyes fading out of focus and for a moment Kingston was sure that she had entered into a trance.

Kingston felt the lump in his throat shift and he was finally able to speak. “What do you mean? How do I find Joanna?”

“The figment questions thee,” one of the sisters said to the other.

“Thou will see more of death than Banquo and Macbeth.” They all turned away from Kingston and walked back to the broken wall. Then, with a hint of fog the three witches vanished.

_ _
p<>. Crap, Kingston thought. That was far worse than he expected. He didn’t even realise the witches would pay him any attention since he wasn’t supposed to be in Macbeth.

Banquo and Macbeth stared at Kingston, as a new suspicion rose. “Were such things here as we do speak about? Or have we eaten on the insane root that takes the reason prisoner?” mumbled Banquo, struggling to make sense of what he had just seen and heard.

Macbeth stared at Kingston, waiting for him to speak.

“Uh …” murmured Kingston.

Macbeth grew restless and looked back at Banquo. “Your children shall be kings.”

Banquo snorted. “You shall be king.” Then Banquo laughed, waved a hand dismissively in the air and decided that none of this wretched day made the slightest bit of sense to him.

But this was the second time that day Macbeth had heard his name and title grow to include the thane of Cawdor as well.

“O my king,” mocked Banquo. “What madness this day brings.”

Macbeth glanced over his shoulder. There was a faint clap of horses as two riders appeared over the hill.

Banquo squinted. “Who’s here?”

“The thane of Ross,” said Macbeth.

_ _
p<>. Another thane, brilliant, Kingston thought. And no witches to distract anyone, just little ol’ me and this pretty scythe.

The two riders, Ross and Angus, arrived. “The king hath happily received, Macbeth, the news of thy success; and when he reads thy personal venture in the rebel’s fight his wonders and his praises do contend which should be thine or his,” said Ross. “Every one did bear thy praises in his kingdom’s defence, and pour’d them down before him.”

Angus then spoke. “We are sent to give thee from our royal master thanks; only to herald thee into his sight, not pay thee.”

“And, for an earnest of a greater honour, he bade me, from him, call thee thane of Cawdor,” said Ross.

Banquo’s jaw dropped open. Macbeth held his eyes squarely on Ross. Kingston felt the awkward pull of being ignored on purpose.

Ross smiled and offered a slight bow to the new thane of Cawdor. “In which addition, hail, most worthy thane! For it is thine.”

Banquo faced Kingston. “What, can the devil speak true?”

“I’m not the devil,” Kingston said quickly.

Banquo could barely believe what was being said. “You shall be king,” he said to Macbeth, then he looked back at Kingston. “And you run from death.”

Kingston felt a familiar thump in his chest and knew he was soon going to have to run for his life. He glanced over the riders and figured that he was only seconds away from being pounced upon.

Now is as good a time as any to leave, he thought.

“My liege,” said Kingston, as he stalled to remember exactly how he managed to disappear from Limbo in the first place. “What an era to live in, am I right? When news travels so quickly that what we just heard can be verified not once by three kooky ladies, but twice by thanes.” He quickly shook his head. “I’m still not entirely sure what thanes are, but they seem like decent fellows and a lot more reliable than three kooks living in a hedge. I say ‘kooks’ only with the greatest of respect. I sincerely hope it’s not a slur in these parts, in this era, because my attention during this particular lesson in school … if this period was ever actually covered … was probably focussed more on Sarah Hawley and less on the droning rambles of my history teacher. Bless his intentions, but man was he burnt out and bored of work.”

Kingston let out a deep sigh. So far during his monologue he thought back to Death’s office and remembered holding the collection of plays in one hand and the scythe in the other. He couldn’t believe he was about to rely on using an actual wish to get him out of trouble.

Macbeth glared at Kingston and dismounted.

_ _
p<>. “As I was saying, thanes are good people. Noble. Calm and level headed.” Kingston stuffed the collection of plays into his bag, glanced at the remaining six Kingston Raine books, and had to choose where to try to jump into.

Macbeth dropped one hand onto the hilt of his sword, sniffed with contempt, and approached Kingston.

“You can trust a thane like you can trust the sun rising in the east and setting in the west.”

It was a quick decision. Before she’s kidnapped and before she starts to hate you.

Macbeth’s feet crunched over the loose pebbles scattered across the worn pathway.

Kingston gripped the book and the scythe tightly in his hands. Okay, I wish to appear right here … I wish to appear right here …
_ _
p<>. Macbeth was getting closer.

I wish to get to page five hundred and forty six in Kingston Raine and the Curse of the Shanghai Werewolf. He was still on that narrow pathway. Take me to this page now!

Macbeth advanced, his eyes livid, taking in the scene before him.

Take me where I need to go!
_ _
p<>. Kingston felt his insides compress and squeeze into each other. The scythe shook violently in his hand and Kingston looked back at the general who was now just a single step away. The last thing Kingston remembered thinking was: Macbeth is going to kill me.
[_ _]
p<>. Pop.

 

 

Don Keaton stared at the infernal computer screen. The curser kept blinking, mocking him. His eyes glanced over the last four hundred words he had written.

_ _
p<>. Dribble, he thought. Pure and utter dribble. He highlighted the whole section and hit the delete button.

His agent had shouted at him. She accused Don of being too much of a perfectionist and that he should at least finish the seventh book regardless of how terrible it was. The problem was he now had enough experience to realise that he had written a literary bowel movement and it was unsalvageable. Sometimes it really was easier just to delete the whole day’s work and start again.

He just couldn’t figure out how Joanna York could ever forgive Kingston. He had created such a a dramatic cliff hanger of love and suspense that only a deus ex machina would help him solve his problem. The readers would never accept it as remotely plausible.

“Gaah!” Don cried, spinning around in his chair.

“Good evening,” said a short woman with glasses, smiling serenely at him.

“Who … wha … how did you …” Don gasped with shock. He was pretty sure he had heard a familiar pop just as this woman arrived.

Eve pulled out her clipboard and triple clicked her pen. “Donovan Keaton. In violation of Order Three, section B, stating that no person or persons shall be permitted to return to Life once dead and ushered into Limbo, I, Eve, hereby inform you that you are under arrest. You will come with me immediately.”

Don blinked and looked around frantically. “Bu … they said …”

Eve waited almost thirty seconds before leaning forward. “Yes? They said what, exactly?”

Don looked from one side of the room to the other before settling back upon the intimidating short woman. “They said I could live.”

Eve thought it over for a second and was a quick judge of his character. “Would you be willing to testify to this matter?”

“Testi … no, I don’t think … what’s going on?”

Eve clicked her pen again. “No matter. I’ll have one of the sorters talk to you, someone with a little more patience. Should you testify against Death that would be most appropriate. It would help you chances in being sorted into Heaven.”

Don felt his heart almost explode. “Heaven? You mean … wait, what do you mean?”

Eve couldn’t believe this man was legendary for having a gift with words when he couldn’t even complete a whole sentence. “You will come with me and be processed, into either into Heaven or Hell. Two options, really. I’m afraid your history does not look good. Not good at all. You spun a cat around by its tail when you were seven.”

“Did I?” blubbered Don.

“And there is a life’s worth of almost constant lying.”

“But … I write fiction …”

“I am not a critic, Mr Keaton, but a very grim fate awaits you. You should give serious consideration to testifying on our behalf.”

Don was still completely lost. “Is this about the muse?”

Eve faltered for a moment. “Muse? What muse?”

“One of them offered me a muse, you know, to help with my work.” Don kept twisting his fingers in his hands, then released them, fearing that it made him look weak. He felt awkward again so he got back to keeping his hands busy.

Eve looked away for a moment. “You were offered a muse. Most interesting. That was not covered in the report.”

“If that offer’s still available, I might like to re-think and take him up on it, if it’s, you know …” Don faded off into silence.

Eve returned to him, smiling. “No, Mr Keaton, that offer is certainly not available to you. You died. You went to Limbo and you went to Hell. I think your fate is certain, don’t you?”

“But I …”

“And in keeping with laws that have existed for many thousands of years your being here, in Life, in this dingy apartment -”

“Bohemian chic.”

“- violates our basic principles. You’re under arrest.”

“But I’m still alive,” mumbled Don.

“Out of your seat please.”

“What about the oven?”

“I don’t care about ovens, Mr Keaton, I care about upholding order against chaos.”

“But my work …” mumbled Don, rising slowly to his feet and wishing that he wasn’t wearing his fluffy blue slippers.

“You will have an eternity to finish your work, Mr Keaton.” She waved Don over and then paused for a moment. “By the way, this Kingston Raine of yours …”

Don looked hopeful for a moment. “I can sign autographs.”

“How talented of you. This Kingston Raine, does he die at the end of the series?”

Don hesitated. He was sick of people asking him that wherever he went but he was too caught up in the fear to lie properly.

Eve smiled a glorious victory. “He does, doesn’t he?” She sighed. “How reassuring.”

“No one’s supposed to know,” said Don.

“Stand beside me, Mr Keaton.”

He did so and felt Eve’s cold hand grip onto his wrist. “But the oven …” Then, in an instant, he was whisked back to Limbo.

VI

Kingston landed with a heavy thump. He opened one eye, afraid of finding himself still within Macbeth. He was still outdoors. He opened his second eye and looked around, baffled as to where he might be.

_ _
p<>. Is this what Munich looked like in the sixteenth century? he wondered.

It felt like the English countryside. There was a great forest in the distance with a dirt road running towards him. Just cresting the hill was one group of riders on horseback, followed by two groups of huddled walkers, followed by another group of riders. Kingston guessed that there were eighteen people walking and eight riding.

The walkers looked like prisoners. They certainly looked like peasants. One of the riders whipped at the rabble and a howl of pain ripped through the air. A young girl cried while the riders laughed.

_ _
p<>. Eight well trained medieval mounted soldiers and just me, Kingston thought. He considered letting them pass, except there was no where for him to hide. Rules that option out. I guess it’s time to fake an abundance of bravery.

The rider whipped the girl again and she howled in pain. Some of the prisoners shouted in response and they too were whipped. One prisoner in particular tried to fight against the chains but it was no good. The riders regained control and led them all forward. Kingston could see that the young girl crying was noticeably pregnant.

Kingston’s blood boiled over and he gripped the scythe tightly.[_ All right, let’s find out why it’s necessary to whip a pregnant girl._]

The riders saw the strange man standing in the middle of the road just up ahead, awaiting their arrival. The chief rider slowed the rabble down to a halt, then took two of his men to meet Kingston.

“You are trespassing,” the chief rider said. He glanced at the scythe and kept his distance.

_ _
p<>. Ah, a cautious arsehole, thought Kingston. Excellent. “I am Kingston Raine. Have you heard of me?”

The chief rider scoffed. “I am Ludwyn. Have you heard of me?”

“Can’t say that I have,” said Kingston. He removed his pen and paper and pretended to scribble. “Ludwyn. Spelt the way I imagine it is?”

Ludwyn sneered at Kingston. “You will leave these lands immediately or I shall arrest you.”

Kingston nodded. “Ludwyn. No doubt spelled with a ‘y’.” Kingston looked at the other two riders. “Your names, please.”

“Arrest him.”

Kingston gripped onto the scythe and felt his guts pinch together. He reappeared twenty metres away. The riders pulled back in shock. Kingston’s little trick had the desired effect.

“What manner of beast are thee?” Ludwyn asked as terror tore through the crowd.

Kingston approached. “Ludwyn. This could be a very bad day for you and an excellent day for me. So why is it important for you to whip a young girl in chains and then laugh about it?”

“The girl is a witch,” Ludwyn said through gritted teeth.

“She looks pregnant,” said Kingston.

“With a demon’s child.”

“Or, maybe, a human child?”

“She fates us all to death,” said Ludwyn.

“Everyone dies,” said Kingston. “It’s hardly prophecy or bad karma. So where am I?”

“Nottingham,” said Ludwyn.

Kingston beamed and looked over the crowd. “Nottingham, you say?” He pointed at the forest. “So that would be Sherwood Forest?”

“Why would it matter if it is?”

“Oh … you are so going to get your arse handed to you six ways ’til Sunday.”

“It’s Thursday,” said Ludwyn.

“Ludwyn, the guy with the scythe is talking. Don’t interrupt,” said Kingston. He tried to pick out the faces in the crowd. One man in particular was taller than the rest, freakishly tall. Kingston wondered if the fabled man in question was him, or at least in amongst the rabble of eighteen. “You work for the Sheriff of Nottingham?” Kingston asked.

“Of course,” said Ludwyn.

“Have you ever heard of Robin Hood?”

“I have not.”

“Splendid.” Kingston shouted to the crowd. “Robin? If you’re in there it’s time to put whatever plan you have into action.”

Ludwyn drew his sword and pointed it at Kingston. “Inciting violence, encouraging prisoners to escape, and trespassing. I don’t care what powers he has, arrest him!”

In a flash the two riders drew their swords.

Time to leave! Kingston thought.

He swung the scythe around and felt the heel clunk against the rider on his right. The rider vanished. A yelp far behind and then a thud told Kingston that the man in question had re-appeared twenty metres behind him and landed heavily on the ground.

The other rider panicked. Kingston seized his new found surprise. “Ah ha!” Kingston shouted. “Robin! Now!”

There was a mighty roar from the giant among the prisoners and all at once the crowd attacked the riders. Ludwyn raised his whip and tried to attack Kingston. Kingston blocked it with the scythe as Ludwyn shouted at his rider to attack Kingston, but the lowly soldier was too afraid to go anywhere near him. Kingston tried again to club the riders out of the way. He whacked Ludwyn’s horse in the jaw by accident. The horse reared back and Ludwyn lost his balance. He started to slide off to the side and struggled to regain himself. Kingston looked over and saw the rabble had managed to tackle two of the riders, but unless Kingston did something quickly he was about to cause several innocent deaths. The tall prisoner clobbered one of the riders in the face, dropping him instantly to the ground.

Kingston whacked Ludwyn with the back of the scythe, clubbing him on the head. He once again felt a weird shudder run through his body and Ludwyn vanished. Ludwyn yelped a second later and a pair of “Oooof!”s hit out as Ludwyn dropped onto his subordinate. Now Kingston faced the timid rider and roared in feigned fury.

“Come on and fight me!” Kingston shouted.

The rider ran off.

Kingston hurried to the rabble. Two of the remaining riders backed away, cautious but still ready to find their moment to strike. Kingston glared back at them. “Who has the keys to these chains?”

The riders said nothing.

“I just defeated three of you on my own, so two of you against the nineteen of us don’t stand much of a chance. If you have the keys, give them to me.”

“Ludwyn has them,” said one of the riders.

Kingston turned to the rabble. “Get the keys.” The first group hurried towards the wandering horses to search them. Kingston faced the two riders again. “You two will take your friends back to Nottingham. I imagine there will be a cancelling of Christmas or some other nonsense, but right now: take your friends and get the hell out of here.”

The fallen riders were struggling among the prisoners.

“Let them go,” said Kingston. “Killing them will only make things worse.”

The riders were released and they hurried away. The first batch of prisoners had the keys from Ludwyn’s horse and were freeing themselves. Ludwyn stood, pushed one of his men off his horse and took command of it. The three riders and five fallen men hurried out of sight.

“Yeah, you better run,” said Kingston, and he sighed with relief. “So, which one of you is Robin?”

The crowd shook their heads. “There’s no Robin here,” said the tall man. Now that Kingston saw him at full height he was surprised by just how tall the giant actually was. Most of the men among the group were only five and a half feet tall and yet the speaker clocked in at seven feet. He had dark red hair and uniquely muscular arms.

“Is he in the forest?” Kingston asked.

“I don’t know any Robin, sir,” said the tall man. “But I thank you for your help. You saved our lives.”

Kingston shrugged. “Well, it’s fiction, so I don’t feel so bad about knocking around a few of Nottingham’s men.” Kingston sighed and felt his nerves return to normal. Now that he had some time to think about it, facing so many trained soldiers had been a ridiculously stupid thing to do, especially since he had no idea how to use the scythe properly. He realised he had survived that day more through luck than by skill. “By the way, Nottingham is a bad guy, isn’t he?” Kingston asked.

“Like scum on the bottom of your boot,” said the tall man.

“Lots of taxes?”

“There would be if we paid them,” said the tall man. He looked Kingston up and down. “Your outfit looks a little worn.”

“It’s Italian.”

“Then we should find you an outfit that is less Italian.”

Kingston smirked in response. “Do you have a name?”

“John Little.”

“I figured as much,” said Kingston. The pregnant girl walked towards him and had a small daisy in her hand, held out for Kingston to take. “Are you okay?” Kingston asked.

“I thank thee, sir, a noble man of heart and soul.” She pushed the daisy into his hand, which was still overloaded with the scythe and sack of books.

Kingston shrugged. “Think nothing of it. I’m Kingston Raine, by the way.”

“A true champion,” said the girl. She looked back at John and smiled, nodding towards Kingston.

John stared back at the pregnant girl. “Is this the man you spoke of, Yurana?”

She smiled and held her hand against Kingston’s chest. “He is trying to rescue his one true love,” she said, surprising Kingston more than he expected. She pulled her hand back and looked at John. “But he will be lost if he tries to do it alone.”

“That wasn’t witchcraft,” Kingston mumbled. The crowd stirred, uneasy about the strange girl. “No spells, no potions or trickery. You see the future, don’t you?”

Yurana nodded. John pulled his shoulders back as though he might have to defend her honour against Kingston’s judgement.

Kingston’s heart started beating faster, realising that he was closer to getting back to Joanna. “You have a remarkable gift,” he said.

Yurana smiled. “Thank you.” Behind her, John eased his shoulders back to normal.

“How do I find her?” Kingston asked.

“She’s in Bavaria.”

“How do I get there?”

“If you go alone you will fail,” Yurana said. She looked at the crowd. “Where’s Bavaria?”

“I have no idea,” said Little John.

“It’s in Germany,” said Kingston.

“Where’s that?” asked Yurana.

_ _
p<>. You know, there’s a good chance Germany doesn’t exist yet, Kingston thought. “You said I will fail if I go alone.”

“John has decided to go with you.”

John stepped back. “What? No I bloody well haven’t.”

Kingston began shaking his head. “No, I’m afraid that’s out of the question.”

“I didn’t ask a question,” said Yurana.

“I know. It’s just a phrase. He should stay here.”

“If you go alone you will fail,” said Yurana. “John is the bravest man in the forest.”

“If someone was going to help me then perhaps they should be a computer hacker or disgruntled CIA agent,” said Kingston.

Even John was shaking his head. “Just yesterday you said an archer would save us against Nottingham.”

Yurana looked across at John. “Something has changed.” She looked back at Kingston. “Without his help you and I would be dead by the falling sun.”

“Wouldn’t the archer have saved you?” Kingston asked.

Yurana smiled back at him and shrugged. “Perhaps he was supposed to, but he didn’t.”

Little John looked around awkwardly. Most of the released prisoners were shuffling towards the forest, frightened that the riders would return. “Yurana, I can’t leave and go to this Bavaria place. You always said I’m supposed to stay here.”

Yurana gave him a doe-eyed smile. “I see both of your hearts and futures and I see you going with him no matter what you say.”

“How is Little John supposed to help me?” Kingston asked.

John arched his head towards Kingston. “Little John?”

“You wanted an alley,” said Yurana. “I felt it.”

Kingston cocked his head to one side. “Do you mean an ally?”

“Yes, that’s the one!” said Yurana. “John is your alley.”

“Ally, Yurana,” said John.

“What does …”

“It means friend,” said John.

“Oh. And the other?”

“A small street,” said Kingston.

“Huh,” said Yurana.

John stepped forward. “Yurana, I can’t leave you alone after meeting a complete stranger.”

Kingston nodded. “And I refuse. He’s just not suitable.”

John glared at Kingston. “What do you mean I’m not suitable? I am damn suitable! You would be grateful to have me as an alley!” John realised what he just said. “I meant ally.”

One of the peasant women came to stand next to John. “I can look after Yurana, John.”

“She will treat me well,” said Yurana.

“Wait, no,” said Kingston. “I’m sorry, I’m going farther than you could imagine and you might not be able to come back.”

John paused at that and looked to Yurana. “Will I return?”

“You will,” she said. “You will return stronger and braver, with stories to tell us over the fire, and we will all be better off for it.”

John’s shoulders fell. “I can still tell when you’re lying, Yurana.”

She smiled back at him. “I see you going with him, regardless of what either of you say.”

Little John sighed. “Kingston Raine? It appears as though I am coming with you, though I am not entirely sure why.”

“What? No! Not to sound rude or anything but you’re going to be something of a liability and I won’t come to rescue you every time you get stuck.”

“I won’t need rescuing,” said John.

“Yes, you will.”

“Yurana …”

“You both will,” she said. She pointed to the south. “You should go that way.”

John leaned in and whispered to the pregnant girl. “Give me one good reason.”

“He saved our lives.”

“… A better reason.”

“I see your future,” she said, dreamily. “And every night you thank me for telling you to go.”

John glanced at Kingston and eyed him suspiciously. “And will I actually come home when this is all over?”

Yurana looked back to Kingston. “Don’t let him forget about us.”

“Woah, I can’t let just anyone come with me,” said Kingston.

“I’ve seen your future and he goes with you,” she said.

John kissed the top of Yurana’s head, stood, and grabbed the sack of books out of Kingston’s hand. “I’ll take this,” he said. He threw it over his shoulder and walked away. Kingston ran after him.

“Now, wait, listen to reason,” said Kingston.

“Hmm, you’re going to make an annoying sidekick,” said John.

“Woah, what the hell? Sidekick? Me? Are you at all familiar with your legend?”

“I am legendary?”

“Not yet,” stammered Kingston. “If anyone’s the sidekick here it’s going to be you! I am the star of the whole Kingston Raine series!”

“Are you a nobleman?”

“No. And that girl said -”

“She’s my niece, so I’d be careful about what you say.”

“Fine. She said I was noble,” said Kingston.

“And you said you aren’t. Which makes us equals, right?”

“That’s not exactly my point.”

“And equals don’t have sidekicks.”

Kingston glanced to the side, then realised that John had just rattled his mind. “Hang on, what?” Then he was surprised at just how quickly John was walking and how awkward it was for Kingston to keep up with him. “You don’t even know where we’re going.”

“Sure I do,” said John, pointing south. “We’re going that way.”

“We could easily be going a different way.”

“Then we would be going that way and not south,” said John. “If you fall behind I’m not carrying you.”

“I think I’m better in charge,” said Kingston.

“You didn’t even know we were in Nottingham.”

“I can take you to Scotland and show you just what’s what.”

“Well, Scotland is hardly south of here, so I’d rethink your plan.”

“Again, that wasn’t my point.”

“You had a point?”

“Yes, a very good one, about you staying here,” said Kingston.

“Funny how I’m still not convinced.” John stopped. They were some distance from Yurana now. John looked over to see her for possibly the last time. She waved at him, then walked into Sherwood Forest and disappeared from view. John sighed, missing his friends and family already.

Kingston looked up at John. “How did you get so tall?”

“My dad hung me from my ankles from a tree and told me to stay there until I could touch the ground.” John turned and started walking south again.

“You’ve seriously never heard of Robin Hood?”

“No. Why, is that your secret name?”

“No. Definitely not.”

“You don’t look like a Robin.”

“I should hope not. I look like a Kingston.”

“You don’t look like a Kingston either.”

“Huh. Shows how much you know. I went to Oxford,” said Kingston, puffing out his chest.

“Is that where we’re going?” Little John asked.

“No.”

“Then why does it matter?”

Kingston sighed.

“Thank you, by the way,” said John.

“For what?”

“For saving my niece’s life and the lives of my friends.”

Kingston shrugged. “It seemed like the right thing to do.”

John fell into silence. He looked over to Kingston and Kingston got the impression that John was looking for some thanks to come his way as well.

“Thank you for coming with me,” said Kingston.

“Well, you heard what Yurana said. You won’t succeed on your own and you’re trying to find someone you love. I know what it’s like to lose someone like that.”

It was Kingston’s turn to fall quiet.

“I was close to losing everyone I’d ever known until you came along,” said John.

“You thought that Yurana was lying to you just so that you would come along.”

“It wasn’t that long ago for me to forget,” said John.

“And yet you came anyway.”

“Well then, if trouble finds me, as I’m sure it will, considering how tall I am, I expect you to come and actually rescue me.” John held out his huge hand and Kingston waited for a moment, then decided to shake it. Kingston was relieved that John didn’t try to crush it in a vice-like grip.

“And likewise I expect you to help me,” Kingston said.

“Then we have an understanding.”

“Good.”

“But I don’t think I need to rescue a man who can disappear into thin air and drop his enemies onto each other at his will,” said John.

Kingston wasn’t about to reveal how he could do that and hoped like hell Little John wasn’t going to figure out it was the scythe doing all of the flashy work. He glanced over his shoulder, now paranoid about more of the Sheriff’s men coming up behind them. “Is there anything about this world I should be cautious about? You know, a certain expression that would get me killed very quickly?”

“Maybe I should do the talking here,” said John.

“By all means,” said Kingston.

They continued walking.

“So who’s this woman we’re looking for?” asked John.

“Joanna York,” said Kingston.

“What’s she like?”

“Tall, slim, brown hair, has a dreamy smile. Smarter than me.”

John glanced at Kingston and smiled in return, so Kingston continued.

“Yeah, and she knows it. She smiles all the time. When she talks to you, no matter who you are, it feels like you’re her best friend and she can’t wait to tell you what’s on her mind, like you’re the only person who’s going to understand how important this is. And you can never get her to sit still when she’s telling a story. Her face lights up, her hands go all over the place, and when she gets nervous she tucks her hair behind her ear. And sometimes, sometimes, she gives you that look …” Kingston fell into a far away daydream, then realised that he may have revealed a little too much to someone he had only just met.

“She sounds all right,” said John.

“Yeah, she’s trouble.”

“So how far away is this Bavaria, anyway?” John asked.

“Honestly? I have no idea. And the way I’ve been travelling lately I have even less of an idea.”

“So how do we get there?”

“Uh …” Kingston trailed off, trying to think of an answer. It took longer than he expected.

 

 

With a gentle pop Michelle was back from meeting with the bounty hunters. She looked up along the main boulevard and knew immediately that something was wrong. All of the statues were looking down with their eyes closed, completely immobile, as though they had been shamed into silence. There were robed officials on duty at the entrance to every building checking everyone’s ID. It sent a shudder down Michelle’s back.

_ _
p<>. There’s been a coup, she thought.

The heightened security certainly explained why she was having problems locating the visitor’s entrance or any other teleport circle. They were simply blocked off and this was the closest Michelle could get after travelling from the Lower West quarter. She was stopped in front of the main building and an apologetic grim reaper asked to see her ID.

Michelle felt the tension run through the building the moment she stepped inside. The wisps of darkness overhead were gone. Only some of the workers wore a smile on their faces, most of the others looked perturbed, but it was the statues that were most out of place. Not a single one was active. Michelle passed the green fountain and saw the two grim reaper statues, normally guarding Death’s inner most sanctum, now looking down and their scythes missing.

Michelle could hear a lot of activity and talking coming from the outer office and before she got to the corner she saw several lawyers carrying boxes of records to and fro. The tall lawyer by the name of Ivan was at Michelle’s desk. He looked up in disgust.

“Your shift is not supposed to finish for another two hours and you have not clocked in today. Where were you?”

Michelle had a quick mental image of slapping Ivan for his rudeness. She counted twenty lawyers, all busy tearing the place apart. She ignored them all and headed to Death’s office door.

“You are not allowed in there,” said Ivan.

Michelle tried the door handle and was relieved when it opened, much to Ivan’s annoyance.

Ivan shouted out: “The door’s open!”

Michelle slipped inside. Death was behind his desk. “Please come in and close the door.”

Michelle did so before Ivan could catch up to her. She looked at Death, who appeared calmer than she expected. “There’s an asshole at my desk.”

Death nodded. “Ivan.”

“So … is it safe to talk in here?”

“It is for now,” said Death. “Did you find the bounty hunters?”

“Yes. They were hiding as usual. They took the job. Apparently one of Satan’s guys owes our chief bounty hunter some money.”

“Excellent,” Death said. He stood and walked around his desk.

Michelle noticed that his bookshelves were swung open, very disorganised, and several great stacks of books were lying on top of each other on the ground. “Is everything okay?”

“I would love to say that everything is fine, but the truth is rather strange at the moment,” said Death.

Michelle nodded. “I just hired mostly unemployed people and came back to find the statues are a bit shy, so that’s a little curious.”

“Ah yes, the statues.”

“What’s wrong with them?”

“They’ve been suspended from operation,” said Death.

Michelle recoiled in surprise. “They can do that?”

“The statues are under probation,” said Death.

“That’s a thing?”

Death shrugged. “They were involved in a few violations of communication and other legal nonsense. Some resisted stepping down and were summoned to a hearing. Some were blindfolded.”

“But … they’re just statues …” said Michelle, trying to make sense of the whole thing.

“They are a symbol of a corrupt government,” Death said. “Apparently. Eve, the lawyer in charge, has made it clear that the workers come first in this realm, whether they belong to her union or not. The bloated excess of government will not be tolerated. Most of the statues are here for my benefit, not for theirs, and could come to my defence at any time, so naturally they were one of the first problems to be tackled. She is also introducing a uniform for everyone, including you. Solid grey.”

Michelle felt a pinch in her stomach realising just how much Death had relinquished to this lawyer. “And … Kingston?”

“Gone,” Death said with a peculiar smile.

“Gone? Gone! You mean … ‘dead’, gone? ‘Returned’ gone?”

“Neither. He took my scythe and jumped into a book.”

“He … Which book?”

“I don’t know.” Death waved his hand across the room. “I’ve been trying to remember what went where. There was no particular order to any of this. I imagine that since he was fictional he could have easily gone to any of these. Unfortunately he also has my scythe and I really hope that one of the most powerful tools in existence has not just become a work of fiction.”

Michelle’s jaw dropped and hung open in utter disbelief. “You mean you’re stuck in Limbo?”

“Oh, please,” said Death. “Limbo isn’t that bad. I’m sure the apothecaries have something that can get me to Life.”

“But not …”

“The options are limited to Life and Limbo, for the time being,” said Death.

Michelle nearly snorted in surprise. Whether he knew it or not, Kingston Raine now had one of the most powerful tools ever created, allowing him to move almost anywhere he wanted, if he could figure out how to do so.

“So things are not as pleasant around here as they usually are,” said Death.

“You’re not … powerless … are you?”

Death rolled his head, leaving Michelle feeling rather stupid.

“I meant, for the people in Life …”

“They will still die,” said Death. “Just not at my personal hand.”

Michelle felt something behind her and looked around. “What was that?”

“Ivan has been banging incessantly on the door since you walked in,” said Death. “He just yelped in pain as his knuckles hit a little harder than he was expecting.”

“And what about this coup?”

“Right now it’s not a coup. It’s a liberation. Eve is bringing herself to the forefront as the people’s saviour. There are still several groups, parties, and unions at odds against each other, some looking to raise taxes and spread the wealth, some looking to cut a lot of benefits to keep taxes low. They each have their own catchy slogans. Eve, though, is one of the few that can actually get things done.”

“That Ivan guy looked very comfortable at my desk,” said Michelle. She hoped he had just broken his hand on Death’s door.

“Well, he has been appointed the special representative in regards to Don Keaton and Kingston Raine, so he’s trying to uncover the paper trail that started at your desk.” Death looked over Michelle’s shoulder. “Eve is coming back. You better introduce yourself.” Death turned his back and returned to his desk.

Michelle hurried out the door and was faced with a very short middle-aged woman with a nasty scowl. Next to her, the very tall Ivan nursed his hand. Both were mere inches away from Michelle and did not back off.

“Michelle, I assume?” Eve asked.

“Eve. How lovely to meet you.”

Eve backed off and returned to her emotionless mood. “Miss Michelle, I must apologise for the handling of Death Incorporated concerning your employment. I know that it is no fault of your own, you were simply following orders given to you by an imposing and intimidating Eternal who wields his power with complete abandon, so please know that I do not hold you personally responsible for any actions you have performed while under Death’s orders.”

Michelle gave her a bored look.

“I also regret the manner in which your position has been handled and the lack of training you have been provided with.”

Michelle was smart enough not to get involved or feed any of the lawyers more than what was necessary, so she kept her mouth shut.

“Tell me, when was your last performance review?” asked Eve.

Michelle feigned a smile. “February.”

Eve nodded and checked her notes. “The most recent record we have of a review was five hundred and twenty years ago.”

“Yes. In February,” said Michelle.

“Oh that is no good, it is necessary to be reviewed every six months at the very least,” said Eve. “I accept that this is merely laziness on the part of your employer. Ivan? Schedule Michelle for a review in the next couple of days.”

“Yes ma’am,” said Ivan. He walked off and sat back down at Michelle’s desk.

Eve glanced to Michelle with a look of mild contempt in her eyes. “No need to look concerned, as long as you are honest with us your employment with the company looks positive.”

“I wasn’t concerned,” said Michelle, echoing the look of contempt.

“In the mean time I must ask you for your assistance. There are dreadful rumours of a vote of no confidence in Death’s leadership as CEO. These must be stopped and Death must be seen as a giver to the people, since they are the primary shareholders in the company. Their support is vital to him staying on board in his current role. Things have fallen out of hand but I am here to bring them back to order and to show the people that Death is capable of adhering to his own laws and to the common sensibilities of the people whose lives, so to speak, are in his hands.”

Michelle was drifting off, furious when Ivan started rummaging through her drawers to find another quill and a piece of parchment. The last thing Michelle remembered thinking was that she didn’t believe that Eve expected Death to succeed at these changes and he would be quickly voted out after Eve had brainwashed the masses into believing that progress was possible in only a few days.

Eve continued. “Your job, therefore, is to send a copy of all orders and all paperwork issued to you to my office. We will be taking over a few of the offices in the Human Resources department during this time of transition.”

“We don’t have a Human Resources department,” said Michelle.

“Oh, we do now,” said Eve. “It’s just around the corner. Your location has been temporarily reassigned. You’ll be sharing with one of the union accountants. She’s quiet and I trust you won’t take up too much space in her office.”

Michelle glared and gritted her teeth.

Ivan returned. “The schedule, ma’am.”

Eve looked it over. “Ah, excellent. Michelle, your review is in four days time. Please be prepared.”

“Prepared for what?”

“Your review, Michelle, we’ve been talking about it for some time now.” Eve looked Michelle up and down and seemed to mock Michelle’s choice in fashion. “Oh dear.”

Michelle glared back at Eve. “Ivan?”

Ivan looked confused that Michelle was now giving him something that sounded like an order.

“I will be calling upon you as a witness,” said Michelle.

“A witness?” Ivan asked.

“Yes. Eve just looked me up and down and it made me feel very uncomfortable. I will be filling a sexual harassment report against her. You were here, you witnessed it.”

Ivan went wide eyed. Eve smiled, finally finding a worthy opponent. The look made her eyes snarl like a devil’s.

“I’d be careful with those wide eyes Ivan,” said Michelle, “because if you linger on me for a little too long you’ll get a report yourself. And I expect all of your union people to maintain eye contact and only eye contact with me. Those who won’t might be ignoring me in the workplace, a form of bullying. I’m sure you agree.”

Eve went stone faced to avoid another moment of smiling, lest it be a sign of flirtation. “Ivan, you may fetch the necessary paperwork for Michelle. I’m happy to have all complaints reviewed by an impartial member of the hierarchy.”

Michelle went to find out just how awful it would be to share an office with a union accountant.

 

 

Satan stomped around his office and caught himself staring out into the celestial scene behind his desk. There were two other people in his office, Ezekiel and Indigo. Ezekiel was terrified and felt his stomach would drop out from him at any second, given that he was standing over Satan’s giant trapdoor. He kept glancing around to the psychic Indigo for some support and warning of when that might happen. Indigo seemed more interested in looking for dust on the ceiling. Ezekiel had no idea where the switch for the trapdoor was located. Whenever Satan moved around and stopped it made him nervous. The wait was killing him.

“Kingston Raine has … disappeared?” Satan said.

“Yes, my lord.” Indigo was just as loopy as Alpha, Echo, and November.

“And does this affect the prophecy involving the downfall of Death and Limbo?”

“It does, my lord,” said Indigo, looking dreamily at the ceiling.

“I see.” Satan tapped his fingers together. “Death has hidden him somehow. How very clever.”

Ezekiel wished he could leave right away, through the front doors preferably. The dread of the inevitable drop rattled him to his bones.

“What else of Kingston Raine?” Satan asked.

“There is talk of Kingston Raine.”

“I know, I just said his name,” spat Satan.

“There are others looking for him.”

“I imagine the bounty hunters are at it,” said Satan. “Does it affect Hell directly?”

“It affects my lord and master, my lord.”

“Naturally,” said Satan with a shrug.

“And it affects Lucifer the Devil.”

The world seemed to pause at that moment. Ezekiel went wide eyed and refused to look at the spaced out Indigo. Satan spun slowly on the spot and stared at the psychic.

“Indigo?”

“My lord?”

It looked as though Satan was having a hard time forming the words in his mouth. “Who is your lord and master?”

“My lord and master is an unnamed one,” Indigo said dreamily.

Ezekiel started to wheeze. This was it, he was finally about to drop through the trapdoor and for once that seemed like the better alternative, because he knew of Satan’s legendary temper and Ezekiel wanted to get out of that office as quickly as possible.

Satan moved slowly to Indigo, stopping just an inch in front of the psychic. “Am I your lord and master?”

“No, my lord.”

Satan penetrated the psychic’s mind to see who Indigo’s lord and master was, but it was blocked off, sealed within a white fog and cryptic haze. “You have another master?”

“Yes, my lord.”

“And why won’t I kill you for your betrayal?”

“It intrigues you to keep me alive,” said the psychic, speaking as though unaware of what was being said.

Satan glared at Indigo. “Is Kingston going to be involved in the overthrow of Death?”

“Yes, my lord,” said Indigo.

Satan rounded onto Ezekiel, terrifying the devil. “Find out what the hell is going on in Limbo.”

“Yes my lord,” Ezekiel said, sighing in such relief that Satan glared at him. Ezekiel hurried out of the office and heard the distinctive shriek of Indigo dropping through the trapdoor. He cleared the palace and teleported to a quiet part of Limbo where no one would notice his arrival. What he didn’t count on was being immediately tackled by two bounty hunters.

 

 

Satan decided to find out from Death exactly what was going on. The moment he stepped into Death Inc. he felt the chill in the whole building. Two grim reapers stopped him. “ID,” they said.

“I’m Satan,” Satan said.

“You still need ID and clearance to come in.”

Satan cocked his head to one side. “On who’s authority?”

“You need ID and clearance to come in,” the reaper said again.

Satan pushed the two hooded guys aside and stepped into the doorway. In an instant he was flung backwards, landing in the middle of the visitor’s entrance. “What the hell was that?” Satan said, getting quickly to his feet. “A barricade? Against me?” Guards were approaching quickly, ready to place him under arrest. Satan bellowed in his Eternal voice. “Death! What’s the meaning of this?”

“My lord?” came a nervous voice.

Satan looked around and saw Ezekiel there, in handcuffs, being led away.

“My lord! Help me! Please!”

That was troubling, even for Satan. Death must have been unusually angry to try and imprison agents from Hell. Even the statues turned their eyes away, frozen still. Then he realised they weren’t moving at all.

_ _
p<>. [_Martial law, _]Satan thought. The guards approached him wearily. He flexed his aura and in an instant they knew who they were dealing with. They paused but still held their ground.

“Release that man,” Satan commanded, pointing to Ezekiel.

“Thank you, my lord,” said Ezekiel. Much to his surprise he was pushed through a doorway and the barrier came down.

“Lord Satan,” said one of the lawyers rising from behind a desk. “You are hereby instructed to return whence you came and to enter Limbo no more.”

Satan sneered. “I will do what I bloody well please, Perkins.”

“My name is not Perkins.”

“It will be once you’re in Hell,” said Satan.

“If you do not leave immediately you will be expelled,” said the man not called Perkins.

“I would like to see you try.”

Not Perkins nodded and pushed a button. A green flame surrounded Satan and before he could get another word out he was sucked away, back to Hell. He landed in his own visitor’s entrance and shook off the nausea.

He stood in front of a very nervous Edmonds holding a letter.

“My lord …”

“Just how important is it, Edmonds?”

“Your stock in Death Inc. has been declared null and void. It is being redistributed among the Greater Workers Union of Limbo.”

Satan looked Edmonds up and down carefully. “So … Limbo is severing all ties with me?”

“It looks that way, sire,” said Edmonds, more nervous than he had ever been before.

“Huh.” Satan didn’t quite know what to say. “Very well. Leave the letter with me.”

Edmonds backed away as quietly as possible, leaving Satan to return to his office and stare out into the starry sky, trying to figure out what to do next.

VII

Little John looked over at Kingston Raine. “What are you doing?”

Kingston was walking and thumbing through The Complete Works of William Shakespeare again. “I’m trying to find a short cut to Munich.”

John rolled his eyes. “You mean like flying on the back of a dragon or something stupid like that?”

Kingston didn’t take his eyes off the book. “No. See, I ended up in Scotland because of Macbeth. And I teleported, somehow, to Sherwood Forest, despite there being several hundred miles between Inverness and Sherwood. So, I’m looking for a play set in Germany or as close to Germany as possible.”

John looked over at his friend. “You are a very strange man.”

“I get that a lot.”

“And I didn’t understand half of what you just said.”

Kingston kept on looking. “I imagine the Merry Wives of Windsor is set in Windsor, which is handy because I used to go to school a stone’s throw from the castle. That would shave a few days of walking. The Merchant of Venice … okay, that’s a possibility, as is The Two Gentleman of Verona. I wonder if we’re going with Shakespeare’s geography or real life, because there’s a story where they sail from Milan, which is a landlocked city. Hmm … a lot of Henry’s, no doubt still in England, Romeo and Juliet, another Verona story. [_Julius Caesar _]… no, I’ve heard of what happens to eccentric weirdos in that era.”

“What happens to eccentric weirdos in that era?”

“Lots of lions and arenas. It wouldn’t end well for either of us. Hamlet is in Denmark, Othello is another Venice story. He sure likes Italy, doesn’t he?”

“Is that book really going to help us get to Bavaria?” John asked.

“I honestly don’t know.”

“Is it a magic book?”

Kingston shrugged. “No idea. I took it from Death’s library.”

John stopped walking and Kingston didn’t notice for a while. When he did, Kingston turned and looked around. “What?”

John edged closer with a look of great suspicion. “You took that book from Death’s library?”

Kingston looked up at his giant companion. “Yes, I can see how that sounds strange.”

“Are you a demon or a practitioner of the black arts?”

Kingston held back a laugh. “No. I have no magical ability whatsoever.”

“Yet you appear out of nowhere, cause men on horses to vanish and unvanish elsewhere, you walk with a giant scythe and you have a book from Death himself that brought you from Scotland to here.”

Kingston nodded. “That’s about right.”

John stared at Kingston and started muttering to himself. “I should have stayed in the forest.” He looked at Kingston and the ferocity in his eyes made Kingston appreciate that there was at least five metres separating them. “So, sir, kindly explain yourself, using words I am likely to understand.”

Kingston felt the urge to run away. He knew he owed John a good explanation and knew just how ludicrous this whole situation was. He feared what John would do when he found out he was fictional. Kingston decided that if he was going to tell the truth then it should be the whole truth and allow the shock to sink in all at once. “Can you read?”

“Yes. I can.”

“Good, then if you will, open the sack and get a book at random.”

John looked suspicious, as though he was about to put his hand into a trap and lose half an arm. “I asked for you to explain yourself, not for me to do your bidding.”

“I understand,” said Kingston. “This will help.”

John did as instructed and found Kingston Raine and the Dungeon of the Shanghai Werewolf, book five. John glanced at the title. “Your name.”

“Yes,” said Kingston.

“Did you write this?”

“No. I am the main character.”

“And you consort with a werewolf?”

“Actually, no. No werewolves. The Shanghai Werewolf was a code used in the first book, a secret branch of a company I am fighting against, far worse than the Sheriff of Nottingham. But there I was, in agony in the end of book six, when I died.”

“You died,” said Little John, not liking where this was going.

“I died. I met Death, the living walking Death. He has a library. I picked up this book here and all of a sudden I found myself inside one of the stories. I left that one, found you, and now I am trying to get back to one of my books to save the woman I love.”

John thought it over as he tried to work through the kinks in Kingston’s tale. “You come from a story?”

“Yes.”

“Is Sherwood Forest not real?”

“No, it is. But you, the Sheriff, and unfortunately everyone you know are just stories.”

John paused for a moment. He studied Kingston carefully and finally shook his head. “I don’t believe you.”

“About us both being fictional?” asked Kingston.

“Yes. That.”

“Right. But you know your niece is psychic?”

“Of course,” said John.

“And you’ve seen me drop two men out of and then into existence.”

“That was quite impressive,” said John.

“And it should also be impossible.”

“Should be, yes.”

“But to believe that at least one of us is fictional is going one step too far?” asked Kingston.

“More than just one step, I’m afraid.”

“Right. So no matter what I say you’re not going to believe that you are just part of a story made up for someone else’s entertainment?”

John cocked his head to one side and looked at Kingston as though the man in the Italian suit had completely lost his mind. “I have yet to see any evidence disproving my own existence.”

“What about my existence?” Kingston tapped the book.

“I believe you are real as well.”

“Even though I’m trying to tell you that I’m not?”

John sighed and stared off to the horizon. He started to realise that was what his niece was talking about, that John may never see any of them again, not because he would die, but because if he followed Kingston to the ends of the Earth then there was a good chance that he would never find a way back to Sherwood. He cursed himself for accepting Yurana’s advice to go with this odd stranger.

Kingston saw John’s heart almost break as the truth sank in. “I will help you get back,” Kingston said quietly.

John looked away.

Kingston wasn’t sure what to say, so he said the first thing that came to mind and hoped that it would work. “Your niece recommended that you come along. She knew how dangerous and unlikely it was, even impossible, but she still thought it would be good for the both of us. And, frankly, your company has been something of a relief. But if you wish to return to Sherwood then I won’t blame you. In fact, you are free to leave whenever you wish. Just let me know that you’re going and I won’t stop you.”

John mulled it over. None of what Kingston said was making any sense. “There’s a Shanghai Werewolf that is not actually a werewolf, you borrowed a book from Death, and now you want my help to get to Bavaria.”

Kingston nodded. “How many of your friends can say that?”

John was not quick to answer. He looked over his shoulder and considered the distance they had travelled. “You did save my life.”

Now that John said it, Kingston realised that he hadn’t saved many people’s lives in the past. He certainly remembered the feeling of debt when others had saved his. “You looked like nice people.”

John was clearly wrestling with the decision to come with Kingston or to head back, away from the weirdness of it all. “That book you’re holding provides a short cut?”

“If I can use it correctly, then yes.” Kingston didn’t want to tell John the truth about the scythe, as he was desperate to keep some advantage to himself.

“As soon as we’re done, you will take me back to my friends in Sherwood Forest?”

“I will,” said Kingston. He walked over to seal the deal with John. Kingston extended his hand. John was reluctant but he finally shook it in return.

“Then I will uphold my word and help you find this woman you speak highly of.”

“I’m glad to hear it,” said Kingston.

John still looked suspicious. “How does that book work?”

“I don’t know. I’ve been thinking about it, though, and either Death has a copy of Robin Hood next to where his copy of William Shakespeare should reside on his bookshelf and I am merely working my way through his collection, which is possible but not all that likely, or else we are floating through a universe where, if we get to London, for example, we might just meet every character that has been in London, like a shared universe. If so, maybe one of them can help us get to Munich.”

John didn’t look so sure. “Can’t you just ask that book to take you directly to Munich?”

Kingston looked up at his seven foot friend. “Ask the book to …” he groaned and face palmed himself. “Yeah, that does seem to be the easiest way to do it,” he said, though he wasn’t thinking of the book specifically, but of using the scythe. After all, it had transported him to a location he didn’t expect and it wasn’t a part of any story he had with him.

_ _
p<>. [_Unless Macbeth had a copy of Robin Hood in his library, _]Kingston thought, but that didn’t make much sense.

Kingston stepped next to John and held onto his wrist. “Okay, I’m not sure how this really works but let’s try.”

“I never thought I would wake up today and start dabbling in the black arts,” muttered Little John.

“You and me both,” said Kingston. He concentrated as best he could on Munich, the sights, the sounds, and in particular on his car parked at Dunantstraße. He concentrated and felt a familiar tingle in his hand as the scythe shook.

 

 

Death could not avoid Eve for any longer and finally met with her and another lawyer, Mr Wong. Death sat at his desk with a look of utter boredom strewn across his face while Mr Wong rambled incessantly. Eve didn’t dare smile or reveal the slightest hint of emotion. Instead, she locked her eyes onto Death and wasn’t going to let him leave until all of the notes Mr Wong had to read were heard and understood.

Mr Wong droned on for an hour, chronicling all of the abuses of power in the most recent administration. Not all were done by Death alone but were just the start of the catastrophic downfall of the government, with at least one thousand government members likely to face trial. Eve made it clear that Death could spare the public the unfortunate exposure of his greed and incompetencies if he was to plead guilty.

“Am I not to resign as well?” Death had asked.

“Oh no, my lord Death,” said Eve. “The people need a strong leader and that has to be you.”

Mr Wong continued talking.

“You know, I can read exceptionally quickly,” interrupted Death. Mr Wong looked up as though Death had just insulted his mother. Mr Wong hated being interrupted.

Eve, meanwhile, simply shook her head. “I’m afraid that won’t do. We need to know that you have heard our preliminary findings and we can not trust that you will read them at your leisure.”

Mr Wong had lost his place and was desperately trying to find it. Just as he got back to the most recent infringement Death interrupted again.

“Just how much more is there?”

“Not much,” said Eve.

Mr Wong looked flustered but Death pressed on. “Mr Wong? How much more?”

Mr Wong grimaced and flipped to the last page. “There are eighty four pages. We are on page sixty two.”

“Ah. I see,” said Death. He twiddled his quill between his fingers. When he saw Mr Wong’s head look down at the paperwork he said: “Do carry on.”

Mr Wong looked up again, now very annoyed. “I was just about to ‘carry on.’”

“Wonderful,” said Death and waited a moment. “But if you could speak up this time.”

Mr Wong shook with anger, then he remembered that he was a lawyer and had a job to do. He carried on reading and Death simply looked away, scanning his bookshelf almost absent-mindedly.

At long last Mr Wong finished. He had read out one thousand and sixty violations and abuses of power from the last ten years. Death initialled the final page to indicate that he had listened to it all and he kept a copy for his own records.

“Is that everything?” Death asked.

“Not quite,” said Eve. She pulled off her glasses, cleaned them, and put them back on again, allowing everyone to wait in silence until she was ready. “There are some issues with a few new unions.”

“Isn’t that your area of expertise?” Death asked.

“I have many areas of expertise, my lord Death. In the last few days there have been an increasing number of registered unions that were not registered before. By all accounts did not exist before.”

“Oh?”

“Yes. ‘Oh’ indeed. You are no doubt familiar with some of these unions, as you have met with them behind my back and given in to their requests and demands, no matter how absurd they are.”

Death nodded. “I decided to heed to what you were saying when you first arrived and I started to listen to the people and to some of their requests. It only seemed fair.”

“Yet you wantonly ignore the more established unions, even going so far as to block their requests to be heard.”

“Nonsense,” said Death. “They can see me as soon as they can book an appointment.”

“They have.”

“A short appointment. Some of the smaller unions have less demands and require just a couple of minutes. The larger unions seem to think their time is more valuable than mine and expect a two hour meeting just to brace me for some of their requests. I don’t have a two hour window open to meet them, considering I’m the president and CEO and do not have that kind of time to spare. They really should get their act together and find a replacement for their ineffective upper management,” said Death.

Eve reached into her briefcase and removed a few pages. “In regards to these new unions. You have given special freedoms to a number of small and local organisations and still refuse to consider the issues of the larger unions. Forgive me for saying, but it sounds a lot like you have initiated a few of these unions yourself and are simply expanding your power, giving them certain powers that you are denying to the rest.”

“The people are free to join whatever union best pleases them,” said Death. “And perhaps if finding an appointment is so difficult you should speak to the psychics to find out when I am free.”

Eve stifled a shudder. “No, that will not be necessary.”

Death smiled. Eve had just given away some interesting details about herself that she wasn’t aware of. “You don’t trust psychics?”

Eve held back a glare. “Anyone can tell you what might happen in the future. No one can guarantee what will happen. Moving on …” She looked down at her paperwork. “You gave the People’s Agreement of Upper West Limbo the right to travel to work by a carriage driven by a giraffe.”

“Not just one carriage,” said Death.

“You have also ordered a dozen giraffes even though only seven members are registered within the union,” said Eve.

“It was the least I could do,” said Death.

“You have allowed casual Thursdays to remain for all members of the Lower East Limbo Order. They can hold their birthdays as ‘work optional’. There are three members. The Chancellor of the Garter has six members and have jumped the queue on Housing and Relocation, allowing them the first right of refusal on any new accommodation that comes up while they exist as a union. The Executor’s Union of Many Peoples allows any member the right to exist in any number of unions simultaneously, as well as giving them completely equal voting rights with the external unions. Yesterday there was just one member. Now there are twelve, each related to twelve different unions which must now recognise a change in the voting system, assuming that voting is legal. There are so many contradictions and loopholes and back doors to this system that it will collapse on itself.”

Death shrugged. “You and Mr Wong are free to join an organisation to fulfil your desire to cast your vote if it is so important to you,” said Death.

Eve glanced over her glasses to see what Death was doing and it looked as though his ceiling was much more interesting than what she had to say. “The Workplace Enrichment Guild offers a program of variety to the workplace, where you can immediately transfer to any other job of your desire and receive training, regardless of how impractical that might be.”

Death smiled. “I’ve been pestered about that one for a while.”

“And even further, the Union of Free Rights specifically prohibits any member from being drafted into forced service by the government.”

“Yes, I am familiar with all of these,” said Death, and he waved his hand in the air.

“Is there a military draft being considered?”

“Not by my government,” said Death. “But I will let you know if one is initiated.”

“The list continues,” said Eve. “You have reactivated the Civil Court, allowing federal rulings to be overturned on a successful appeal. Now, in regards to the Union of Free Rights, is jury duty to be considered a forced service by the government?”

“That’s for the union to decide,” said Death.

Eve sneered. “All of these unions are now under the jurisdiction of the Civil Court, allowing members to vote to see if they will adopt new laws and regulations by the government. If they agree to the federal plan then they are allowed to be compensated for any trouble they receive. And the Civil Court is not within the jurisdiction of the Federal Court, even though you abolished the Civil Court many years ago.”

“It was time to bring it back,” smiled Death.

Eve dug into her briefcase again. “You have made the whole process impossibly confusing. You have corrupted this government into petty squabbles that will paralyse itself into oblivion.”

“But my dear, you have presented yourself as the fixer to all of the people’s problems,” said Death. “Surely you will make heads of it before the people get tired of you.”

Eve pulled out a newspaper. “And what is this?”

Death let out an over-emphasised snort. “My dear Eve, I am sure that you know perfectly well what a newspaper is, so don’t belittle yourself by pretending to be so clueless.”

Eve threw the paper onto the desk, reached into her briefcase, and dumped three more in front of Death. “There were two newspapers last week. Now there are four, all competing against each other.”

Death nodded. “You were quick to give an interview to one of them and I thought there should be a little balance from a newspaper outside of your control. Is it no surprise that you allowed Glenda Morgan to profile you?” Death glanced at the newspaper. “Apparently I’ve been conspiring with celebrities to bring them back to Life.”

“Preferential treatment is unacceptable,” said Eve.

“What did you do, bribe the editor in chief? Promise his union problems would go away?”

Eve stifled a glare and ignored Death’s question.

Death pointed to the second last page. “Did you happen to catch my approval ratings? Fifty seven percent. Seems like the majority still like me.”

“I’ve seen other polls which suggest differently,” said Eve, through gritted teeth.

“Well, you can’t believe everything you read.”

“Can you explain to me the meaning of the Order of Honesty?” Eve asked.

“That’s quite simple,” said Death, acting more coy than ever. “The author of an article is allowed to receive two complaints of misrepresenting journalism for a single article. A third complaint triggers an investigation into the truth. The journalist is legally bound to answer all questions concerning their story and if the journalist appears to have misled the public on purpose then the article in question will be rectified to speak the truth. The journalist must apologise and report the exact truth regarding that specific article, regardless of how uninteresting or unfortunate the truth is. If the journalist is a repeat offender, then they must print a byline under the enactment of the Order of Honesty saying, in my own words of course, that what the reader is about to read is likely to be a work of fiction. If more than fifty percent of the journalists are repeat offenders, then the whole publication must continually admit that what they are reporting on is not the truth whatsoever. It makes the whole newspaper system accountable for what they publish.”

Eve held her eyes steady on Death’s. “I never knew you were so swept up in journalistic integrity.”

“It is a matter very close to my heart,” said Death.

“And you think this will be adopted by the newspapers?”

“Of course,” said Death. “It will protect them from liability action should an article look unfavourably at an individual or organisation. That person can sue but the newspaper and journalist can be protected if their work is regarded as fiction. I am sure the newspapers are just as happy at providing the complete truth while maintaining honesty.”

Eve did not take her eyes off Death and for a moment it looked as though she truly hated him. Then, she regained her composure. “Unfortunately, the multiple newspapers are not in accordance with the union’s wishes. One newspaper will be sufficient for the people to get their news. We are in Limbo to do a very specific job, not to report on it,” said Eve.

“I agree, but reporters die all the time and often they wish to continue their murky work in the afterlife. The same with lawyers, aren’t I right, Mr Wong?”

Mr Wong didn’t say a word.

“So it is only natural to make allowances for the peace of mind of the public,” said Death. “There is a lot of tension these days with rumours of a coup and the public need to be reminded that no one would dare stage such a barbaric attempt.”

Eve nodded. “Nevertheless, the Order of Honesty is not compulsory, is it?”

“It is not.”

“And I believe the internal memos will be enough for the people to receive their news. There is no need to distract the masses with idle gossip and tales of the unimportant which, with four newspapers, would only snowball from one rumour to another.” Eve rose out of her seat and Mr Wong did the same. “I will speak to the editors in chief of these publications and let them know that it is best working under a single banner. After all, four official voices for one government is too much,” said Eve. “I will also be most happy to ease any fears of a coup. We simply want what’s best for our people.”

“Of course you do,” said Death. “If there are plans of a coup in the works, it is treason and punishable by the most severe of laws.”

Eve smiled. “Which is why no one has any intention of replacing you, my lord Death.”

“I am willing to listen and move this government towards a democracy, if the people so desire.”

“How wise of you,” said Eve, now wondering if she rose from her seat too early.

“I should be clear, though, that it would be a true democracy. Every vote counts. Everyone objecting will have to be heard and answered, regardless of the situation.”

Eve faltered for a moment. “That is not so wise.”

“Oh? You have a problem with people having an equal vote?”

“True democracy on this scale would grind everything to a halt, every single person would have to be appeased and nothing would ever be accomplished.”

Death nodded. “I am glad you finally see some reason. It would be rather awkward if I was exited from power just as a true democracy began. With all of these unions clamouring for attention with their own demands and assurances it would make it almost impossible for a usurper to get any work done or to enjoy their victory. They would spend the rest of their career putting out fires of passion and bureaucracy.”

Eve looked calm and secure, no doubt trying to find a loophole to work in her favour. She nodded at Death and bid him a good afternoon. She and Mr Wong left.

VIII

John dropped to his knees, hit the pavement, and spluttered. Kingston held onto his balance then started jumping with joy. “We did it! We … wait … this is London,” Kingston said, realising with some heartache that he still did not know how to use the scythe properly. He sighed and looked down at Little John. “Are you okay?”

“What the bloody hell was that?” gasped John.

“I know, it takes a while to get used to it.”

“Ugh, feels like my insides have been bludgeoned together.”

Kingston held out a hand to help John up to his feet, which wasn’t that easy since John weighed a lot more than he did. John gasped and shuddered. “Never again. Oh, never again. That was the absolute worst.”

“Well, at least we’re alive,” said Kingston.

John dusted himself off. “Is that really the best we can hope for? That we’re still alive? You might as well ask for rain and hail to brighten your day, you miserable sod.”

Kingston looked around at the misty night time street and hoped that it really was London. They were certainly in a different era. If Kingston had to guess it was the late 1800s. There was a man and a woman, obviously a couple, across the street looking at Kingston and John, and by the shocked look on their faces it was clear that they had seen the pair appear out of nowhere. Kingston tried his best to smile, though his body was still getting used to the punishment of teleporting. “Hello there! Could you tell me what city this is?”

The pair across the street hurried away, refusing to answer Kingston’s question.

“You scared them away,” said John.

“Yeah, that probably did sound a bit strange,” said Kingston. He started walking down the street and John hobbled after him. Kingston looked around for any clues as to why the scythe had brought them there and rattled his mind for any link between London in the 1800s and Munich.

There was a poster on one wall just outside a newspaper outlet. It was the front page of a newspaper, though it was nothing like what Kingston expected. Instead of large pictures and a lot of open space, it was crammed full of tiny writing.

“London, April twelve, 1897. Huh, I was right.” Kingston stared down both ends of the street. “Okay, the last time I asked to be taken where I needed to go I found you and your friends. Now, we are here, and … maybe we should have followed those two people who ran away from us.”

“It’s a bit late for that,” said John. By now the couple had disappeared. “1897 you say?” He was intrigued by the sights and sounds. “And this is London six hundred years after my time?”

“Yeah, I suppose it is. You, Little John, have just travelled into the future.”

John sniffed the air and pulled a face. “Smells a lot like horse shit.”

“Yeah, it does.” Kingston skimmed over the newspaper for any clues. “I don’t see anything of use here. I don’t know any of these names, places, or events.”

“We’re in another story, right?” John asked.

“I think so. I imagine time travelling is still difficult in real life.”

“Then it doesn’t really matter where we are, right? Just that we can keep on moving towards this Munich place.”

“Exactly,” said Kingston. He was glad that John was talking sense and not freaking out, considering they had just done something that qualified as impossible. “So, obviously not Shakespeare and not Robin Hood.”

“Who is this Robin Hood anyway?” John asked.

“An archer. Robs from the rich and gives to the poor. You’re his sidekick.”

“Huh, I am no man’s sidekick,” said John.

They headed along the narrow street. Somewhere in the distance was the clopping of a horse and carriage, but the mist made it impossible to see down to the far end of the street. Kingston looked up, felt the claustrophobic buildings lean in against him, and it caused him to shiver. “I’m guessing we’re in a Gothic story,” Kingston said. “The darkness, the mist, the creepy atmosphere.”

“I’ve heard of the Goths. Terrible bunch,” said John.

“I don’t think we’re talking about the same thing,” said Kingston.

“Well, if this is their idea of an entertaining location, then they are still a terrible bunch,” said John.

Kingston agreed. All he could think of was that he and John had stumbled into a story about Jack the Ripper, though that was a real event and not fiction. It certainly felt like the right atmosphere for it, though Kingston had yet to see any prostitutes loitering about. Besides, he had more pressing issues to deal with, especially with a giant white scythe that glistened in the light and was hard to cover up. He also guessed the police in 1897 were the sort to shoot first, beat second, arrest third, get to the truth fourth.

Kingston finally gasped.

“What?” John asked.

“I think I know where we are. Is this Baker Street?”

“How would I know?”

“If we are we are in luck,” said Kingston, feeling a wave of excitement creep over him. “It makes sense. London in this era, the police … I read almost every Sherlock Holmes story there was.”

John, however, was lost with the sheer scale of some of the buildings surrounding them. The clatter of horses and carriages driving by was deafening and people walked quickly along the side of the road. He smiled at the sheer madness of it all and marvelled that so many people could live like this.

“I think we’re near King’s Cross,” said Kingston. “Everything looks a little different, though. More than a hundred years have passed since my time so I’m hardly surprised. So, if King’s Cross is that way, then Baker Street would be over there,” Kingston said, pointing westwards. He looked over at John and he remembered himself feeling the first grasp of awe.

“This is incredible,” said John, watching people go in and out of doors and looking at him from the window of some tall building. John waved at them and saw them snap the curtain back into place. “Well, that wasn’t polite,” John mumbled.

Kingston led them west. “You know, I spent most of my early life in boarding schools and universities so I never really got to see much of London until I was twenty. A few friends and I decided to do the Monopoly walking tour by ourselves, walk around to every street on the board. Took three days and we were drunk for most of it but it’s a great way to see a lot of London, I can tell you.”

John realised they were starting to attract some attention, given John’s clothes were six hundred years out of date and Kingston carried a great big weapon.

“We’ll just say we’re actors,” said Kingston. “Performing Macbeth, or something like that. As long as you say it with confidence you can get away with anything.”

“Uh huh. What’s Monopoly?”

“It’s a game where you buy lots of property on a map.”

“Oh. So where are your friends now?”

Kingston drew in a breath, ready to answer, then he realised he hadn’t seen any of them in over ten years. “I guess they’re off living their own lives.”

“That must be nice.”

“Yeah,” said Kingston. He tried not to think about it.

“You said you came here when you were twenty?”

“Yeah. Why?”

John shrugged.

Kingston stared at his looming friend. “How old are you?”

“Twenty.”

Kingston glanced over. “Really?”

“Yeah. How old are you?”

“Thirty four.”

John raised his eyebrows in surprise. “And you left your wife to be abducted?”

“We’re not married, and … yeah, I kinda did, which is why I’m trying to rescue her right now. It’s complicated.”

John rolled his eyes. “How old is she?”

“Twenty nine,” said Kingston.

John staggered backwards in shock. “And she’s not yet married?”

“No.”

John thought it through, then leaned forward. “Is she a widow?”

“She’s never been married.”

It was clear that none of that made any sense to John, unless … He looked away quickly and smiled back at Kingston. “Then we should find her very quickly.”

Kingston squinted at John. “What’s that look?”

“It’s my usual look,” said John. He pointed down the street. “Shall we go this way?”

Kingston spied John as carefully as he could, as though he was trying to read his mind. “What do you think of my girlfriend?”

John raised his hands in defence. “I know it’s not my place to judge. I’m sure she’s a lovely person.”

“She is,” glared Kingston.

“But, you know, she is twenty nine.”

Kingston had to shake his head to clear the nonsense away. Then he looked back at John and burst out laughing.

“What?”

“You think she’s ugly!”

“I’m not judging,” said John.

“Oh man, are you in for a surprise.”

“Of course. We’re just chasing down a fictional woman that you are not married to.”

Kingston’s smile didn’t go away. “Are you starting to believe me about this whole fictional thing?”

“Not in the slightest,” said John.

“Well, brace yourself,” said Kingston. He shrugged it off and followed his instincts around Victorian London. “Now, there is a chance that this isn’t really Sherlock Holmes,” Kingston said, thinking it over. “I read all of his stories. While I do remember him going abroad once or twice, and certainly speaking German, I’m starting to think that we could be in any story written in this time.”

“Is this Sherlock Holmes the author?”

“No. He’s the main character. He might be able to help us.”

“But he doesn’t know us,” said John.

“I know. We could ask for his help. He’s unusually gifted.”

“Gifted, huh? Like some kind of wizard?”

Kingston smiled. “No. He’s a detective.”

“Is that good?”

Kingston almost stumbled on the street. “I suppose. It’s someone who can find things out, like who murdered who, who stole what, that sort of thing.”

“Ah! A torturer! Yes, I’ve heard all about them. Bloody bastards.”

Kingston tried to hide his smile.

“Why would we want to see him?” John asked.

“Just because it might be fun? Hey, we could also be in The Importance of Being Earnest.” Kingston laughed. “Wouldn’t that be stupid? Stuck with the snobs of the British upper class? I suppose I could easily fit in, given my time at Eton and Oxford. Huh, Sherlock Holmes and Oscar Wilde together, that would be something. Throw in Winston Churchill and there’s an epic battle of wits.”

“Kingston? I have no idea what you’re talking about,” said John.

“All right, if it makes you feel better I will take you to the Oscar Wilde Pub in Berlin, get you drunk and tell you all about it.”

“That sounds reasonable,” said John.

Kingston started thinking to himself. “Now that’s an idea. Maybe that’s how we can get to Berlin, then head south to Munich. I wonder if Oscar was in prison during this time. It’s possible. I bet his missus was quite surprised, or do you think she always knew? You know who she ended up marrying?”

Kingston stopped walking.

John turned around. “Something the matter?”

Kingston had turned a ghostly white and shivered. “I’ve seen all of this in a movie with Bela Lugosi. I think I know where we are.”

“London?”

Dracula.”

“Which part of London is that?”

“Dracula is a vampire.”

John stared at his friend with piercing intent. “I’ve heard of those.” He smacked his lips, pulled his shoulders back, and looked up and down the street. “So … a vampire. Is there anything about this world I should be cautious about?”

“We’ll be okay,” said Kingston. Then an idea hit him. “Of course! Aaargh, I’m an idiot! Those two people we first met on the street, the man and woman. She looked to be no more than twenty, right? And he was just a little older?”

“Yeah?”

“They were probably Mina and Jonathon Harker! At the start of the book Harker travels from London to Transylvania and I bet you anything he passes through Munich. He would have brought us right there!” He became acutely aware that his stomach was growling with hunger.

John looked at Kingston suspiciously. “Couldn’t that book have just transported us directly to this Munich place?”

“Evidently not. It seems to work for Death but he’s had practice. No matter, we can still get to Munich. We just have to leave London immediately.”

“More short cuts?” asked John.

“More short cuts!” cried Kingston. “I’m afraid it will have to be more short cuts because we don’t have any money.”

“That’s too bad, because your suit still looks Italian.”

Kingston took a moment to figure out what John was trying to say and was lost. “We should find a change of clothes and a better bag to carry those books in.”

They continued walking. “You’re sure we’re in Dracula?”

“Not completely, but it feels right. But it would be Stoker’s version of London, not necessarily the real London but how he imagined it.”

“Are we still going to Baker Street?” John asked.

“Might as well.”

It was not far to travel, almost a mile and a half, but in the darkness and mist with the disorientating clap of traffic passing it took longer than Kingston and John expected. Kingston looked over his wrecked suit as he past a tailor’s that had closed for the evening.

“There is one solution to our problem,” Kingston said.

“Am I going to like where this is going?”

“Well, it really depends on how much of ‘rob from the rich and give to the poor’ was your idea.”

“You said it first,” said John.

“I’m aware of that.”

“Are you saying we are poor?”

“Even a beggar on the street has more money than we do,” said Kingston. “Now, considering we have the means to teleport out of here instantly, we probably won’t be arrested.”

“Uh huh?”

“And, since several fictional characters have tried to kill me, how would you feel about punching someone from a different story?”

“I’d probably feel okay about that,” said John.

“Excellent,” said Kingston.

“But only if they deserved it.”

Kingston fell quiet and knew that John’s sense of virtue was about to be demonstrated. Some of it was going to contradict Kingston’s desire to eat something, which would be a welcome change after having nothing to eat in what felt like a whole day.

John puffed out his chest. “Say a corrupt soldier or guard is hassling me, although probably not me because I am remarkably tall, but say they are hassling someone who can’t properly defend themselves. Well, then I would have no problem at all about punching him square in the jaw,” said John.

“And what about a tailor just doing his job?”

“I don’t think I can feel good doing that,” said John.

Kingston shrugged and knew his friend was right. “How about I break into one of these places and get us something decent to wear?”

John stopped walking and looked at Kingston. “No punching?”

“No punching.”

“Just taking things that aren’t ours?”

“That’s the height of it.”

“And this is only because we are poor?” John asked.

“If we were rich we wouldn’t have to rob, we could simply buy what we need.”

John looked around the street to see if anyone was watching them. They were. “What about dinner?”

Kingston shrugged. “We don’t have the money for that.”

“I think food is more important than nice clothes.”

“Yeah, me too.” Kingston looked around, trying to find the inspiration of a good idea to fall to him. It wasn’t working. “Okay, what about our skills? I am pretty good at playing cards. I can read people. Maybe I can win us some money.”

“I’m good at fighting. I could challenge someone.”

“Hmm. The people who like to be challenged aren’t the sort who have lots of money,” said Kingston. “What else are you good at?”

“I can sing.”

Kingston stared at John. “Really?”

John nodded. “When you grow up in a forest there isn’t much else to do.”

“I guess not,” said Kingston. “I still have a lot of those books to read and we’re getting nowhere.”

“Not true. We made it from Nottingham to London pretty quickly,” said John.

Kingston wasn’t paying much attention. Instead, he was looking at everyone passing him on the street. “I can pickpocket. But I don’t know where people in 1897 keep their wallets.”

All of a sudden, Kingston started to laugh. “I just thought of something ridiculous.”

“What’s that?”

“Jonathon Harker is a lawyer.”

“So?”

“He practically gets fed to a vampire.”

John looked interested. “Are we supposed to save him? Does he have money for a reward?”

“No,” said Kingston, shaking his head. “I was just thinking that it was an appropriate use of a lawyer.”

John didn’t quite understand. “I’ve never met a lawyer.”

“Just as well.” Kingston looked down the street and saw a policeman strolling about. Then he reminded himself that John had an aversion to law enforcers. Kingston smiled as an idea finally settled into place. “Okay, let’s try this: I’ll hold this sack open as though we’re begging. You sing something nice and people might give us some change.”

John shrugged and did what Kingston wanted. He was halfway through Oh Ho Poor Pauper Roy when they were stopped by a policeman.

“Oy! Keep it down you two, there are people trying to sleep.”

Kingston took his chance. “Terribly sorry, do you happen to know Sherlock Holmes?”

“Eh? What are you talking about? Clear off before I have you both brought in for vagrancy or you’ll spend the night answering to the detectives.”

John turned to look at Kingston. “Vagrancy?”

“It’s when we stay in one location for too long. The law men hate it,” whispered Kingston.

“Ah,” said John. He raised one of his mighty fists and clobbered the policeman on the top of the head, crumpling him to the ground. Some of the pedestrians gasped.

Kingston stared at the policeman. “John?”

“I don’t like being called a vagrancy.”

Considering Kingston had just seen his friend take down a whole policeman in one hit he wasn’t going to correct John on his grammar. “Is it okay if I check his pockets?” Kingston asked.

“Yeah. Hurry. People are watching.”

Kingston crouched down and searched the police officer.

“He was going to send us to the detectives,” said John.

“A detective is not a torturer.”

“Well … he should have made that clear.”

Kingston found some money but not a lot, and he didn’t even know the value of it. It could be enough to buy them some dinner but Kingston wasn’t sure. He stood up and smiled at John. “How do you feel?”

John looked at the policeman. “You’re telling me he’s fictional?”

“Yeah. He’s not even in the story.”

John shrugged. “I feel pretty good.”

“Of course, he might be a minor character in another story.”

“You’re not helping.”

Kingston Raine and Little John walked off to double check Baker Street and were disappointed to find that they were stuck in Stoker’s version of London. Worse still was their disorientation. They had left the southern side of Nottingham just after lunch time with no food and now it was late into the night, yet barely an hour had passed. John told Kingston that they should plot their route to Munich a little more carefully than the randomness Kingston had put them through. Kingston agreed. They passed a museum, then a library, and decided to stop by in the morning to search for anything that could take them directly to Munich. For now they had to get something to eat.

 

 

Eve walked back to her office, with her head stiff and her shoulders back, feeling the desperate urge to squeeze something until it popped. Mr Wong followed her. Michelle passed them both in the corridor and no one even glanced at or acknowledged each other. It was only after Michelle was gone that Eve sneered. She turned into her office.

“Mr Wong?”

“Yes ma’am?”

“Come in and close the door.” Mr Wong did so and Eve sat down behind her desk. “I would like Michelle’s review delayed by an hour.”

“Yes ma’am.”

“And how are we doing with that fictional character debacle?”

“I have not had any updates, ma’am.”

Eve did not look happy about that. “What about the author?”

Mr Wong squirmed where he stood. “That’s not my department, ma’am.”

The look Eve shot Mr Wong was one of barely controlled fury. “I told every member of my staff to keep me up to date with the author and character and I return to my desk and there are no updates. The author should be processed by now and out of Limbo. The character should have been found and accounted for. So tell me, Mr Wong, what is your department?”

“Deputy head of the violation review board.”

“The author is violation number two and the character is violation number one. This falls well within your department. Go and find out what is happening with those two and report back to me within five minutes, along with members of the bounty hunter’s guild capable of retrieving this character from wherever he is and capable of rectifying this violation. Do I make myself understood?”

For a brief moment, Mr Wong reminded himself that he used to be a senior partner for a prestigious law firm, the number two law firm in the country, and that taking orders like an errand boy did not suit his character. Nevertheless, he gave her a nod. “Yes ma’am.”

Mr Wong left and Eve glanced at her updated itinerary. Ivan had scheduled an interview with each of the four newspapers. That would have to stop. There had to be only one source of information and it would come from the official union newsletter, free from opinion polls and approval ratings. In the meantime, Eve had to handle that transition carefully before shutting down the media rivals.

 

 

Emina Redgrave looked up at Don Keaton and had to steady her nerves. Don was flustered, kept fidgeting in her office, looking around at the blank walls and trying to observe what was in Emina’s office. Emina, however, was short on feeling overwhelmed with the renowned author and looked over his file. It was pathetic. She usually got the tweed jacket wearing types, the librarians and the bookish mob, the sort of people who filtered into Limbo and were forgotten about in Life six months after dying. Emina desperately wanted a transfer to the billionaire playboy office. She kept thinking about the new union which might be able to help her out with that.

She sighed, fearing that Don was going to be one of the most boring celebrities in Hell. Eventually his idiosyncrasies got the better of her and Emina slapped the folder on the desk. “Would you please stop doing that?”

Don looked up, petrified. “Doing what?”

“Wheezing like that through your nose.”

Don took a moment to realise what he was doing and started breathing through his mouth, though because of his nerves his breathing grew more pronounced, causing Emina to roll her eyes. She gasped as an envelope dropped out of thin air and landed right on her desk.

Don gasped as well. He had seen enough strange things in the last few days that something as simple as an envelope appearing out of nowhere should be of no surprise.

Emina opened it and sighed. “How they expect me to work with the constant need for updates …” she muttered. There was a knock at the door. “What now?”

A good looking middle aged man by the name of Gavin stuck his head inside. “Emina, do you have a minute?”

Emina glanced at the letter in her hand from Mr Wong, then at Don Keaton, and decided that Gavin was a better use of her time. She got up and left her office.

Don sighed and kept his eye on the door. Then, ever so quietly, he edged across his seat and peered at his file, which was covered by the letter from Mr Wong. Next to his file was a newsletter featuring an exclusive interview with the new leader of the unions, Eve. Don ignored that and tried his best to read his file while it was upside down and he did not feel easy when he saw his name printed in bold. The letter seemed urgent. Don felt himself break out into a sweat as he realised that someone was hurrying him out of Limbo and into Hell. He thought he was about to pass out. The office door opened again and Emina returned, now almost bouncing with joy. Gavin was by her side.

“Mr Keaton, it’s a pleasure to meet you,” said Gavin, extending his hand.

Don shook it. “Uh … you’re welcome?”

“Would you come with me? We need to find you a new assessor.”

“Oh, sure.”

Emina quickly gathered up the file and the letter from Mr Wong and handed them over to Gavin.

“Again, congratulations,” whispered Gavin to Emina.

“Thank you.”

Gavin took Don’s file. Only when the door was securely closed behind them did they hear Emina shout with joy.

It caught Don off guard. “Is she okay?”

“She’s just been promoted,” said Gavin. “She signed up to a new union and there was an opening in one of the other departments, effective immediately.”

“Oh,” said Don, thinking that this was all very weird. Then he stumbled into Michelle and was startled when she started walking with them.

“No problems?” Michelle asked.

“None at all,” said Gavin.

“Good.” Michelle pulled out a grim reaper cloak and hood and pushed it into Don’s hands. “Put this on.”

“What’s going on?” Don asked.

“In case you haven’t figured it out by now, we’re busting you out of here.”

“Oh. Why?”

“Because you are not dead. And also you and Kingston Raine are instrumental to a revolution currently under way.”

“Oh.” That last bit confused Don a little. “Kingston Raine?”

“He’s escaped, lost in some other book. It’s a confusing situation and I honestly don’t know what has happened. The leader of the current troubles is desperate to find him. She is also desperate to be seen as effective, so that’s why you were being carted off to Hell as quickly as possible. As best as I can put it, whatever problems you’ve gone through in the last few days with your travels to Hell, here, Life, here again, are nothing compared to the weirdness that Kingston has gone through, but I’m sure he can handle himself wherever he is. Do you understand what I am saying?”

Don wasn’t sure how to answer that so he responded with a nervous, “Yes?”

“Then why haven’t you put the cloak on like I asked you to thirty seconds ago?”

Don hurried himself into the cloak. “I can’t see.”

“Don’t be stupid, of course you can see. Thank you Gavin, your help has been most appreciated,” said Michelle.

“My pleasure,” Gavin said. He walked off to spread the joy of the new and expanding unions.

“Is Death going to bring me back to Melbourne?” Don asked.

“Not exactly,” said Michelle. “He’s busy causing all sorts of hell for the unions.” She gripped Don by the hand and led him through the main entrance. Michelle smiled at the guards checking everyone’s ID as they entered the building and was delighted that they were not checking anyone’s as they exited. As soon as they were clear Michelle led Don away to a safer location.

IX

Kingston counted up the pennies he and John now had to share and tried to remember what his fictional grandparents had told him about pounds, shillings, and pence. As far as he remembered, there were twelve pennies in a shilling and twenty shillings in a pound, so one pound was worth two hundred and forty pence. But to make matters worse, pounds were written with an l, shillings were written with an s, and pennies were written with a d, which made no sense at all.

John, it turned out, was utterly useless with money. He kept looking at every window asking if they could buy that, or this, or maybe that over there. Kingston kept telling him ‘no’ while trying to figure out the cost of things. A newspaper cost a penny. A new suit was worth between five and twenty shillings. They eventually came to a small restaurant with a menu outside advertising the prices. An average meal was going to cost them eight pence each and two pence for every drink. Kingston checked the money in his hand.

“We don’t have enough,” Kingston said.

“What do we have?”

“Nine pence.”

“I bet I can find another law man,” said John. “We might get lucky if he calls me a vagrancy like the last one.”

“Yes, that is possible,” said Kingston. He knew that policemen were hard to come by when you really needed one.

“How much do law men make anyway?” John asked.

“I have no idea. I don’t think it would be a lot,” said Kingston. “We might have some luck at a theatre.”

“We’re going to see a show?” John asked, confused and scratching his head.

“No, but we can work a few people in the crowd.”

“Uh, I kinda stand out in a crowd,” said John.

Kingston thought it over and adapted John to his plan. “That’s perfect. You distract them just by being you and I’ll pick their pockets. Don’t worry, they’re fictional and not even mentioned in the book, as far as I remember. They won’t matter.”

“That’s kinda sad,” said John.

“Yeah. Right now there could be half a billion people in the world within this story and yet it focusses on, what, just ten people? Kinda sucks to be one of the miscellaneous, right?”

“I suppose.”

Kingston did his best to straighten his muddied and rumpled suit but it wasn’t going to be easy. He also realised that it had been several days since he had had a shower. For once he was grateful that everything around him smelled like manure so that he didn’t have to put up with his own stink.

There were several theatres in the West End and they weren’t all that far from Baker Street, though Kingston was sad to see that The Globe Theatre was missing and was surprised to see Madam Tussaud’s was advertised nearby. Kingston and John managed to get to Regent Street just as one crowd was leaving the theatre. Several of the patrons gasped at the unkempt sight of Little John, towering and dishevelled and armed with a scythe and bag of books, while Kingston lifted six wallets from six unsuspecting gentlemen. He headed over to John and they walked away.

Kingston counted the money and tried to ignore his growling stomach. “Five shillings and forty pence, which I guess makes it eight shillings and four pence.”

“What can that buy us?” John asked.

“A large meal each, some beer, and maybe a room in a hotel,” said Kingston, smiling at last.

“And all of that is safe with a vampire in London?” John asked.

“I’m hoping that Dracula is still in his castle in Transylvania. As long as we stay away from lawyers and psychiatrists we shouldn’t have any trouble with the undead.”

Just around the corner Kingston and John found a restaurant catering to the late crowd of theatre goers. A waiter took one look at what Kingston and John were wearing and did his best to remain as stoic as possible. “We’re actors,” said Kingston. “And we would like a table for two.”

The waiter was not quick to respond. He instead did his best impersonation of an unamused Frenchman. “Certainly gentlemen.” He showed them to a table and gasped at the smell of his new customers. He looked away and then his eyes fell upon the giant scythe that Kingston was lowering to the ground. “Is it necessary to bring props with you?”

Kingston dropped into a deeper baritone and commanding voice. “An actor should never be far from the tools of his trade. Besides, what would Oscar Wilde think if I let him down?”

“Oscar Wilde is a buffoon and not as smart as he thinks,” said the waiter before hurrying away.

Kingston smiled. “That’s quite amusing.”

“What is?” John asked.

“One of Oscar Wilde’s ex-girlfriends ended up marrying Bram Stoker, the author of Dracula. It’s funny that even his characters are as dismissive as a jealous husband, despite supposedly being friends.”

John looked around. There were a few other patrons at the restaurant staring at them and trying to look away before being caught. John sniffed and looked at the surroundings. For the first time in his life, Little John was fine dining. The same could not be said for Kingston, though, as he was about to dine on the slush from an era without health and safety and reasonable standards of hygiene.

The waiter returned with two menus. “Would you gentlemen care for something to drink?”

Kingston looked over at John and decided that they should celebrate their new friendship. “Yes. Let us have some beer.”

“Certainly, sir,” said the waiter.

“I’ll have some mead,” said John.

The waiter did his French impersonation again. “Mead, sir?”

John nodded. “In a big mug.” He measured it out a few times with his hands and smiled at the waiter.

The waiter did not quite know what to say. “This is a restaurant, not a country tavern.”

John nodded again. “And what does that mean?”

“It means we don’t supply mead, sir.”

John blinked at the waiter, disbelieving the words he heard. He leaned over to Kingston. “He said they don’t have mead.”

“Yes, I heard,” said Kingston. “Perhaps I should order for the both of us.”

John scratched his head and couldn’t believe that such a place as this wouldn’t have something as common as mead. “What a disastrous future this is.”

Kingston turned to the waiter. “How many different types of beer do you have?”

“We have four in stock. Murphy’s, Beamish, Kilkenny, and Guinness.”

“Excellent. We would like a pint of each.”

The waiter blinked and paused. “At the same time?”

“I wouldn’t have it any other way,” said Kingston.

The waiter nodded and left. John glared at the short spiny man and became flustered. “I should’ve known he would not be trustworthy. You can never trust a blonde,” John said, nodding as though he was the authority on the topic.

Kingston arched an eyebrow at his friend. “Never trust a blonde?”

“Very untrustworthy,” said John. “You can tell a lot about a man by his hair.”

Kingston nodded. “Actually I have noticed that. Men with long hair, short hair, emo hair, styled hair, curls, shaved, men with hats.”

“Ah! Don’t get me started with men in hats,” said John, shaking his fist.

“You’re not a hat person?”

“It doubles the deceit. People can hide under a hat and go places they shouldn’t be allowed in.”

“Have you ever worn a hat?” Kingston asked.

“Of course. How else would I know?”

Kingston laughed. “So what’s wrong with our waiter?”

John leaned forward and kept his voice down. “Well, little blonde men often cry a lot. And he has unusually straight blonde hair which means that he spends too much time fussing over his appearance. Such fuss means that he is soon going to cry if anything goes wrong. He likes order and the mirage of being better than the people he serves, which is why he thinks he can boss around good patrons such as ourselves.”

Kingston was surprised that John had thought it out to such detail. “Are you going to try and make him cry?”

“Oh he won’t cry in front of us, no. People like that hate to show weakness. He’ll save it for when he’s alone. And untrustworthy people are often alone, so he’ll have more to cry about.”

“You know, there are at least six hundred years between your observations and the world we live in now,” said Kingston.

John shrugged. “People don’t change all that much. Besides, I’m taller, I see more than most men.”

The waiter returned with four pints of beer. “Your drinks, gentlemen.” He placed them on the table, took another look at what Kingston and John were wearing, and shuddered. That, of course, was nothing compared to when he saw the mud covering Kingston’s shoes and trousers.

John nodded cheekily at Kingston, then he glanced around the restaurant. “So, eh, what’s your name?”

“Me, sir?” asked the waiter.

“Yes. You.”

“Franklin,” said the waiter.

“Fran … kling? Fra … forget it, too difficult. My friend and I have money. How much is a wench?”

Kingston leaned forward as quickly as he could. “Ha ha, my friend is only joking, Franklin. John, I think it’s time for us to celebrate with some beer.”

“Huh, looks like someone pissed in it,” said John, as he peered into his mug.

Franklin was beside himself with horror. “I assure you sir, no one has tampered with your beer.”

“Perhaps you would like a sample,” said John.

“No thank you. I am not a beer person.”

“Huh. Figures. Blonde hair and all,” said John. He glanced back to Kingston and shot off a wry smile.

Franklin shuddered.

Kingston looked at the menu as quickly as he could. “Can we have two plates of lamb chops with potato and peas? Thanks. Wait, John, you’re not a vegetarian are you?”

John sipped his beer. “What’s that?”

“Good,” said Kingston. He looked to Franklin. “Lamb chops.”

Franklin glared at his two customers.

“And as quick as you can,” said Kingston.

“That, and the beer, will be two shillings.”

Even to Kingston that seemed strange, needing to pay before eating. He guessed that his and John’s appearance were of ample reason to suspect that these two did not have the money to pay for their meal. Kingston counted off some money and handed it across, much to the annoyance of Franklin. Kingston thought that their waiter would have liked nothing more than to throw them out into the street and hurl abuse at them well into the night.

John picked one of the coins off the table. “What the hell is this?”

“A penny,” said Kingston.

Franklin held his hand out towards John, awaiting the money that was owed.

“Is this how much you get paid?” John asked.

Franklin scoffed and held his nose high. “Such matters are none of your concern.”

“I was only asking.”

“I make a comfortable living, sir,” said Franklin.

“I’ve just never talked to anyone who earned money before,” said John. “You’re not embarrassed, are you? I mean, I don’t make anything, and you make more than me, so I was just wondering how many of these pennies you earn.”

Franklin said nothing. He took the money and the menus and walked off, his shoulders high and his walk awkward.

Kingston rolled one of the larger coins across his knuckles and pocketed it with the rest. He then took a sip of beer and thought it was passable. “This is your first time in a restaurant, isn’t it,” he said.

“I was only asking a simple question,” said John. “Besides, he was very snotty to me. I will make him cry before the end of the evening.”

“Is that really necessary?”

“I used to know someone just like him,” said John, now with a commanding sense of authority. “How much do you earn?”

“I work with a couple of different currencies. From investments around the world I earn one hundred and ten thousand pounds a year, eighty thousand euros, seventy five thousand US dollars, and forty five thousand Australian dollars. I would have had more but I lost every penny a couple of years ago and had to start over. In fact, there was a time when I was worth about twenty million pounds.”

John went wide eyed, trying to wrap all of those numbers into a coherent picture for him to understand. “So … is that a lot?”

“Yeah, it is.”

John nodded, but still couldn’t figure it out. “How many meals like this could you buy?”

“You and I could stuff our faces on pork chops and beer at least ten times a day for the rest of our lives.”

John spluttered. “And … what about wenches?”

“We could have all of them, all the time. But I don’t use wenches,” said Kingston.

“Oh. Can we get one tonight?” mumbled John.

“No. We don’t have the money.”

“But you earn enough for ten pork chops a day!” said John.

“Not here I don’t. Here we have to knock a policeman out before we can even afford a beer,” said Kingston.

“Can we go to an inn or a … what did you call this place?”

“Restaurant.”

“Right. Can we go to a place that has women? It’s been a while, you know, and fooling around on the ground of a forest is not as comfortable as you might think. I’ve heard that some places have these things called beds. I’ve always wanted to try one of them with a woman.” John’s eyes beamed with hope.

Kingston chose his words carefully, especially when he saw John guzzle a whole pint without pausing to breathe. “I’m afraid that in this era wenches in restaurants are not all that common. They are better found on the street.”

“Oh yeah?” John went for another beer.

“You might want to slow down,” said Kingston.

“Are we going to run out of money?”

“Eventually, yes,” said Kingston. “So, blonde men are untrustworthy, right?”

“Very much so.”

“What about red heads?” Kingston asked, looking at John’s thick mess of hair.

“We speak our mind.”

“Yes, I have noticed that as well,” said Kingston. “Though yours is quite dark for a red head.”

“You should have seen my mother. She had hair you wouldn’t believe. Some say she was blessed by a fairy.”

“So what about people with brown hair?”

John raised a finger as though he was giving a well thought out lecture. “Dark brown haired people act before thinking and have the arrogance to believe they can get themselves out of trouble. While that is true it’s often because they have help from others.”

“Like red heads?” Kingston asked.

“Exactly like red heads,” said John. “But the dark brown haired people hate calling upon red heads for help, because the reds speak their mind about what the dark brown haired people are doing.”

“Makes sense,” said Kingston.

“Light brown hair means that you have all of the faults of the blondes and browns and none of the benefits of the reds. It’s very unfortunate, really.”

“I see.”

“And people with black hair are always in a bad mood, which is no fault of their own, really, it’s because their big black eyebrows make them look sinister, like they are angry.” John did his best to demonstrate a growly face, something that Kingston thought he did exceptionally well. “So because it’s very difficult to see their eyes, especially if they have a thick beard and lots of hair, people can’t tell if the black haired people are in a good mood, and because you only want to talk to people if you know they are in a good mood everyone will prefer to talk to someone else, even a blonde, ignoring the black haired people, which in turn puts them in a bad mood because no one will speak to them. Unfortunate, really.”

Kingston smiled. “You’re a very strange man, John.”

John shrugged. “It’s all very well known.”

“Well known by who?” Kingston asked.

“By everyone,” said John.

“Well known by everyone you grew up with?”

“Yes.”

“I’m afraid your people are forest dwellers and city life is quite different,” said Kingston.

John snorted in contempt. “Then perhaps you can explain why everyone lives in a deafening city full of narrow streets, fog, and horse crap, where the law men hassle you for singing a song taught to you by your father.”

Kingston paused and then gave up. “You’re right, living in the city does have its drawbacks.”

John finished his third beer. “How do people drink this stuff?”

“Usually they drink it cold, not at room temperature.”

“Eh? Cold? No wonder you future people are crazy. Cold.” John shuddered and looked for the waiter. “Frankling!” he boomed.

Kingston shuddered and just wanted to keep a low profile. “If you could not shout, I would appreciate that.”

“Why? He’s gone somewhere. Isn’t he supposed to stay and make sure we have enough drinks?” John asked.

Franklin reappeared. “It is not necessary to shout, gentlemen.”

“More beer,” boomed John.

Franklin looked at the three empty pints sitting in front of John. He also saw John hold himself up with his elbows on the table. “It is not necessary to have your elbows on the table, sir,” said Franklin.

John dug one finger into his ear and pulled it out. He stared at the contents of his finger and Franklin finally saw how dirty John’s hands and fingernails were. Franklin left as quickly as he could.

John smiled. “Doesn’t take much to shut a blonde up, does it?”

“How much do you normally drink?” Kingston asked.

“All of it,” said John.

The drinks came and a short while later Franklin brought out the pork chops. “Your elbows please, gentlemen,” he said. He reluctantly placed the food down in front of John.

John dusted himself clean and dug into his food with one free hand while the other held a knife.

Kingston stared in surprise.

Franklin stared in disgust. “Would you care for a fork, sir?”

John looked up at Franklin, startled with what the waiter had said. “A what?”

“A fork to help you with your food.”

Kingston held up a fork. “One of these.”

A bit of gravy dribbled out of John’s mouth. He glanced around the restaurant and saw how everyone else was eating with a knife and fork, being very careful and as delicate as possible while they ate. John looked down at the cutlery and cautiously picked up the fork.

Kingston took his napkin and laid it across his lap, indicating for John to do the same. John did his best but he didn’t understand what to do, so after brushing his legs he dropped the napkin to the floor.

“It stays on your lap, sir,” said Franklin.

“Oh,” said John, sheepishly, and he quickly picked the napkin off the ground and folded it across his lap.

Franklin shuddered.

Kingston held his head in spite of John’s woeful table manners and had a feeling John was not going to improve during their meal.

Franklin turned to leave.

“Wait!” John called. He quickly guzzled one of the new beers and handed the mug back to Franklin. “Ta.”

“Ta indeed,” said Franklin, and he quickly left.

Kingston stared at his friend and wondered if he had just adopted his own Eliza Doolittle.

“What?” burped John. He then looked over to where Franklin had left. “See, now that he has my mug he doesn’t need to come back and bother us.”

“Unfortunately he will still come back to check up on us,” said Kingston. “It’s his job to make sure we have all the food and drinks we want so he has to keep checking up on us.”

John tried to understand. “I thought at these places you go up to a bar and order so that you can sit in peace.”

“In some places, yes. In other places it’s a lot like this.”

“Ah.” John tried his best to eat with a fork, but he ended up stabbing his pork chop and lifting it whole to his mouth, tearing off a bite and placing it back on his plate. “Cracking food, though.”

Kingston did his best to eat quietly and skim over one of the Kingston Raine books, hoping to learn as much as he could about Bridgeworks and ignore John, who was getting drunker by the minute and calling for more beer.

John peered over at what Kingston was reading. “So what’s that thing about?”

“Me, mostly,” said Kingston.

“Is it any good?”

“I’m not exactly reading it for the plot,” said Kingston. He twirled the pen through his fingers and made another note on the sheet of paper.

“So why are you reading it?”

“I’m cheating,” he said. “I’ve spent eight years trying to bring these people down and now I have every last secret of theirs right in front of me. The moment I get back to Munich I can bring their whole empire crashing to the ground.”

John nodded drunkenly, but still looked a little lost. “How?”

“There are passwords in here, secret meetings, names of people I met but didn’t know who they were at the time. I know the names of the assassins and who gave the order to have so and so killed. I have their whole conversation as well. I know where bodies were buried, where secrets were discussed, what happened to lost or hidden files and documents … I have their entire world right in front of me and I’m going to milk it for all it’s worth.”

John glanced back at Kingston. “Are you sure that’s a good idea?”

Kingston looked up from his notes and held the book closed with his finger resting at the right page. “An opportunity like this doesn’t come along all that often. Never, in fact.”

“Exactly,” said John. “This book is full of secrets. Not just about these people you’re trying to crash to the ground, but also about you and Joanna.”

“And?”

John shrugged. “And sometimes there are things you’re better off not knowing about.”

“I’m better off knowing all of this, trust me.”

John sighed and leaned back in his chair.

“I know what I’m doing,” said Kingston.

“I know you are very clever, but this is a mistake.”

Kingston dropped his shoulders, glanced back to his book, and decided to put it away for a moment. “Why?”

“There are times when not knowing something is better.”

Kingston kept his attention fixed on John, until eventually John got fed up and leaned forward.

“Okay, around about five years ago I heard my mum talking about me to her friends when she didn’t know that I could hear her. She’d had some mead, her tongue was freer than usual, and I heard her honest opinion about me and my dad.”

“What did she say?”

John grimaced, held his eyes closed, and shook his head. “I’m starting to blame the beer for this one.”

“What did your mum say?” Kingston asked again.

John looked back, wrestled with his conscience, and finally gave in. “I’ve only ever told Yurana this, mostly because she already knew. This stays between us, right?”

“Of course,” said Kingston.

“And if you ever find Joanna again you won’t tell her what I’m about to tell you?”

“You have my word.”

John grimaced again, until he realised there was no way this story would ever get back to Sherwood. Telling Kingston was like telling a stranger his deepest secrets, knowing that they would never meet again. “Fine. When I had just started to walk I was always walking or running, and no one could really ever catch me. People were always out looking for me because I would just wander off. My older sister, Yurana’s mother, was watching me one day and off I went. My mum shouted at her for letting me go and everyone went out to hunt me down. Someone found me and brought me back. Eventually everyone else returned … except for my sister. We never found her. She was out there looking for me and just didn’t come back home. My first memory is of that night, I think, with my mum crying and shouting at my dad. He was supposed to watch me that day, not my sister, and he put her in charge. So after all those years my mum resented me and she hated my dad. They still had more children but none of them survived long enough to even learn how to walk. I was the one who should’ve died and didn’t.”

John did his best to shrug it off, but even Kingston could see it was a struggle. “That is something I wish I had never known. From what you are telling me that book you are reading is full of the same kind of information mixed in with an overwhelming amount of secrets that will stop you from sleeping well for the rest of your life. What if you find something about Joanna that ruins everything?”

Kingston sighed and looked back at John. “I already know about most of it.”

“And would you want her reading that book?”

Kingston knew that his first reaction was the truth, and it was a resounding no. But he had spent eight years dreaming of a miracle like this falling into his lap and he couldn’t let an opportunity like that pass him by.

John scratched his stomach and looked over his shoulder. “I think I need more food.”

“We don’t have a lot of money to spend and most of it went on beer. It might be a good idea to keep some for an emergency,” said Kingston, while holding his thumb next to the paragraph where he was interrupted.

“Oh, right, the wenches,” said John, nodding with approval.

“I don’t think we’re getting wenches this evening,” said Kingston.

“Why not? It’s been a while, you know.”

“I don’t think I can use that as a good reason for when I next see Joanna,” Kingston said. He dug into book three. By this stage he was falling in love with her all over again and felt awkward that the intimate moments they shared were available for the world to read about. He then wondered if there was a movie version, with some actor playing himself and some buxom brunette playing Joanna. How much of the sex scene would the director allow?
_ _
p<>. Who should play me? Kingston wondered. His thoughts were interrupted with a trumpeting sneeze.

“Sorry,” said John, using the napkin to clean his face and then placing it back on his lap. John scraped his finger along his plate and swallowed the last of the gravy, then looked over at what Kingston was reading. “Anything in there about me?”

“No. You’re not in this story.”

“Ah,” mumbled John. “You know, if you’re reading a story about yourself, can I read one about me?”

“I suppose you can.”

John paused for a moment. “So what happens to me?”

“I don’t know.”

“Do I get married?” John asked.

“There are a lot of stories about you and I haven’t read them all.”

“What about the ones you did read?” John asked.

“I haven’t read any. I’ve seen you in a movie, though.”

“I don’t think so. You saw me in Nottingham and you saw me in London, in a restaurant even.”

“Right, yes, I forgot,” said Kingston, deciding not to explain the concept of movies to John and hoping to get back to his book.

“Is the story any good?” John asked.

“It’s not bad. Whoever this Don Keaton guy is, he sure likes the trivialities of life.”

“I’ve had a few beers so you may have to say that again,” stammered John.

“Life is full of trivial details. It’s not so much the greatest hits of life that make a man interesting, it’s the little things, the amusing tales and so forth,” said Kingston. He hoped to never be in another restaurant with John again, not that it was his fault. Kingston went back to his book.

John looked around the emptying restaurant and sighed. He drummed his large fingers on the table. “Hey, look, I uh … I’ve never been in a restaurant place before, and I need to … well, I’ve had a few of those pints, and there is only so much the human body can hold, if you know what I’m saying …”

“The toilet,” said Kingston.

“Is that what they call it?”

“Sometimes they call it the bathroom.”

“I don’t need a bath, just one of those toilet whatsits. Or a bucket.”

“They might also call it a lavatory, I’m not too familiar with the lingo in this era.”

“A lava what?”

“Maybe a water closet.”

“I don’t need more water.”

“The facilities.”

“Huh?”

“The can.”

“You’re making this up.”

“The John.”

“It’s Little John. There’s no ‘the’ in there,” said John. Then he thought over what Kingston said. “Hey! You can’t call me that!”

“Let’s ask Franklin. He should know.” Kingston turned around. “Excuse me? Franklin?”

“Hey! Frangkling!” slurred John.

Kingston heard an obvious groan and saw Franklin come out from a doorway. He didn’t say a word. Instead he cleared away the plates, much to the bewilderment of John, who had no idea what was going on. Kingston, however, knew that Franklin was trying to kick them out. “Your elbows, please.”

John pulled his elbows off the table and was having a problem focussing on the waiter. “Hey, Frangkling, I need the …” John turned to Kingston. “What was it?”

“My friend needs to use the toilet,” said Kingston.

“I’m afraid we’re closing up gentlemen. I hope you have enjoyed your meal,” said Franklin.

Kingston smirked. Franklin had deliberately not heard them. “The toilet, Franklin, or I think neither of us will be surprised if my friend takes care of himself in front of you and the other customers.”

Franklin stopped and looked as though he had just thrown up a little and swallowed it back down.

“Better hurry as well,” said John, now pulling an awkward face as though his insides were about to burst.

Franklin put the plates back on table. “The toilet is right this way,” Franklin said. John hurried out of his seat, dropping his napkin on the ground, and he followed Franklin to the rear door. A loud burp shuttled through the restaurant and Kingston felt the stares of everyone in sight wishing him a quick death.

Kingston hoped that Franklin was actually showing John where the toilet was, and not an exit into an alley. The last thing Kingston needed was to lose John in the middle of London with a vampire on the way. Then another horrified thought crossed Kingston’s mind.

_ _
p<>. John has never used a toilet before and doesn’t even know what one looks like. Kingston got up, stuffed his book into the sack and grabbed the scythe. He ran to the back of the restaurant and was faced with two obvious possibilities. The door on the left opened into a long corridor with no one inside. Kingston tried the right, and this was another corridor leading in a different direction, again with no one in sight.

The third option came to light when Franklin reappeared, though he was caught off guard and appeared guilty when he saw Kingston standing there. Kingston stared him down. “I should use the toilet as well,” said Kingston. He was now deeply suspicious of their waiter.

Franklin glanced at the scythe in Kingston’s hand and pushed the door open, leading into the corridor. “Just on your right, sir.

Kingston walked down and felt Franklin following him. Kingston tried the door and was not surprised to see that it led to the rear alley. John was facing one wall relieving himself and Kingston looked back to menace Franklin. “You and I both know that this is not the toilet,” said Kingston.

“I’m glad you enjoyed your meal,” said Franklin, before finally pushing Kingston out the door and slamming it behind him.

John looked over, still mid-stream. “Hey. Found it.”

“Yeah,” said Kingston. He didn’t have the energy to go and give Franklin a piece of his mind, and honestly he was not surprised by his actions. “You done yet?”

“Almost.”

Kingston sighed. He figured that they should try and find somewhere to rest for the night and hoped they had enough money for a room and somewhere they could wash themselves.

 

 

Kingston and John were able to find a room to stay in for the evening on Cork Street, though it was small, cramped, dingy, and reeked of Gothic atmosphere. John was thrilled to finally see a bed. Kingston was less thrilled to find that they could only afford one bed and had used up the last of their money on bed sheets. John was amused by the window and the staircases. Their room was on the third floor and John had never been that high up in a building before. He looked out through the window and marvelled at the street below.

John chatted up a storm with one of the girls and promised to pay her two pence if she washed their clothes and another shilling if she joined him for a bath. An hour later Kingston and John were thrown out in their wet underwear while holding onto the rest of their soaking clothes because they couldn’t pay for the service and John did not have the most diplomatic way with words towards the owner of the establishment and his brood of daughters. Even though John and Kingston were now a lot cleaner than they were earlier that evening, they had to wear their wet and dripping clothes which were only half washed and still not clean enough.

Kingston shivered himself to sleep in an alley while John snored.

The next morning their clothes were still not dry and Kingston was desperate to be a little more presentable. He just hoped that John was a morning person.

He was.

Annoyingly so.

John started the day by singing to himself and getting his low end baritone voice working and roaring for the city to hear. Kingston blinked against the early sun and was pretty sure that a marching band was still keeping time inside his skull.

“Well, good morning Mr Raine! The day can finally start.”

Kingston’s voice was raspy and desperate. “Why are you singing?”

John’s eyes flicked from one side to the other. “Why wouldn’t I sing in the morning? It’s the perfect time for it.”

Kingston rubbed his head and looked out onto the street. “I’d kill for a coffee right about now.”

“Me too,” said John. He then glanced at Kingston with a hopeful expression written across his face.

“It’s a hot drink that wakes you up,” said Kingston.

“Ah,” said John. “So, er, are we ready to see this museum or the library place? You know, to find a short cut to Munich?”

“Yeah. But they won’t let us in dressed like this.”

One of the daughters from the previous night stumbled into the alley and looked shocked to see Kingston and John there. “That was you singing?”

John beamed a smile. “That was me, my lovely.”

The girl shot a finger at him. “You will talk to me like a proper lady and not address me as ‘my lovely’. I know about you two. You fellas are wanted.”

Kingston looked around. “Wanted?”

The daughter nodded. “A man was here in the middle of the night, woke us up asking if we had seen you.”

Kingston felt a shudder of nerves strike all of a sudden and he sprang into damage control. “Both of us?”

She shook her head. “You’re Kingston Raine, right?”

Kingston felt his confidence plummet and knew that no one should even know his name there. “Yeah.”

“Just you. Father told him that you two were kicked out just before he got there and he should try the street.”

Kingston was a little more nervous now and wanted to leave Dracula’s London as quickly as he could. “What did he look like?”

“Tall. Ugly. Had a couple of scars and tattoos. My father doesn’t take cheek from anyone, you two should know that. He was scared of this fella with one look at him. He asked for you by name and knew you had that scythe.”

Kingston’s fear erupted. Someone from Limbo had followed him into Dracula. No one else would have known his name. “What happened to him?” Kingston asked.

“He went away,” said the daughter.

John looked over Kingston and knew that look of danger. He kept an eye out for anyone matching the description given by the daughter and he flexed his fingers into a fist.

“Now you two clear off. We don’t need anyone loitering about, you hear?”

Half an hour later Kingston and John were in a tailors, dripping sudded water all over Mr Hastings’ floor. Mr Hastings looked suspicious at the two men dressed ever so peculiarly, armed with a scythe and a sack of books. “You have the money to pay for this, don’t you?” Mr Hastings asked.

“Of course,” said Kingston, though his bravura started to waver as he shivered. “We are actors, you see.”

“Oh? Been in anything I’ve seen?” asked Mr Hastings.

“Quite possibly. We are in rehearsal right now. More pressing than that we need something a little more stylish than what we have been blessed with this morning.”

Mr Hastings looked the men up and down. “Isn’t that the truth,” he said. “Very well, what kind of price range are you looking at?”

Kingston smiled. He was certainly within his element here and knew how to play to a shop owner’s great delight – the promise of a good sale. “Only the best. Let us start with upwards of twenty shillings,” said Kingston. He had already spotted the most expensive rack in the store and headed over to it, trying to commandeer the situation as best he could. John, meanwhile, looked lost at the row of pants, shirts, waist coats, and jackets. He had never seen so much spare clothing before and began to touch everything in sight, feeling the texture against his rough fingers.

Mr Hastings followed Kingston over to the expensive line and flinched when Kingston’s wet clothes got near his fine wool. “It looks like your current suit is a little worse for wear,” said Mr Hastings.

“It’s supposed to be like that, for the theatre. The sacrifices we must go through for art,” said Kingston.

“Is it supposed to be wet?”

“No. A terrible accident befell us this morning,” said Kingston. “What can you tell me about this suit?”

Mr Hastings looked suspicious. He was sure that these two men did not have the money to pay. He turned to see what John was up to. “What plays have you been in?”

John looked flustered. “Uh … all of them.”

That did not allay his suspicion. “You’ve been in all of the plays?”

Kingston stepped in to help. “Certainly feels like it. May I try this suit on?”

“You are soaking wet,” said Mr Hastings. “I take great pride in maintaining my suits to the highest standard.”

“Perhaps you have a towel,” said Kingston.

“I’m afraid I do not have any towels for sale,” said Mr Hastings, trying to keep Kingston and John both in sight at all times, which was not easy.

John looked Kingston up and down. “Your suit does look a little Italian, I’m afraid.”

Mr Hastings looked around incredulously. “I beg your pardon?”

John shrugged. “I was only saying. If he took better care of his suit, it wouldn’t look as Italian as it does.”

Mr Hastings looked at Kingston for an explanation.

“He thinks ‘Italian’ means ‘worn’,” said Kingston.

“Hey, if a suit like this costs two pounds, how much do you earn?” John asked.

Kingston grimaced again.

“I beg your pardon?” Mr Hastings said, taking great offence at the question.

“How much do you earn? About the same as a waiter? Or a law man?” John asked.

Mr Hastings stiffened and turned to Kingston.

Kingston smiled apologetically. “My friend doesn’t mean that.”

“Sure I do,” said John. “Do you earn enough for ten pork chops a day?”

“Enough of this!” cried Mr Hastings. He straightened up and walked around to his counter. “I’m afraid you gentlemen will have to try elsewhere for your clothing needs. Good day.”

John looked out the window. “Looks a bit overcast, really. Hardly what you would call ‘good.’” He tapped the window. “I’ve seen some nice church windows. Nothing as big or clear as this. Is it expensive?”

Mr Hastings wasn’t amused. “I wish you both to leave.”

John tapped the window again. “Hey, this guy’s looking at us.”

Kingston glanced over his shoulder and saw an unnerving sight. Through the window was an average height man staring at him, covered in scars, tattoos, thick black hair, wearing blue jeans, a black shirt, and a black leather jacket. At once Kingston knew that this guy wasn’t from Dracula and that he was about to make Kingston’s life miserable. From the way he stood Kingston guessed that he carryied a long weapon under his jacket. A sword, or more likely: a shotgun.

Kingston’s heart dropped into his stomach and he wondered if this was the twentieth time in his life when something nasty appeared in front of him. He looked away and lowered his head. It was time to make something up and then get out of there as fast as possible. John was standing by the door, unintentionally blocking it.

_ _
p<>. Bullshit Mr Hastings, Kingston thought. He looked towards John. “Shall we go, Your Highness? I’m afraid Mr Hastings is not as generous with his time as we’ve been led to believe.”

John stared at Kingston with no idea what was going on. So he stayed perfectly still.

Mr Hastings, equally confused, looked from Kingston to John and back again. His mouth started to hang a little.

Kingston looked back at Hastings. “You don’t recognise him?”

“Should I?” asked Mr Hastings.

“He’s Prince George,” said Kingston, matter-of-factly. “George Frederick Ernest Albert, grandson of the Queen and second in line to the throne.”

John stayed as perfectly still as he could and was terribly confused.

Mr Hastings looked John up and down carefully, trying to recall some of the portraits he had seen and rattled his brains to figure out how old Prince George was. “Are you sure?” asked Mr Hastings.

“Don’t question me on the royal family line. I went to Eton,” said Kingston.

“Oh, did you?”

“Yes, and His Highness here has heard of your great and noble deeds and thought to come in disguise to pay you a visit. Obviously a tragedy has caused us to become soaking wet in the middle of London. When asked for something as simple as a towel to dry ourselves off with, you, Mr Hastings of all people, refused to attend to the future King of England. What will the people say about that?” muttered Kingston as he shook his head. “The shame of it all. Not even a towel.”

John started to nod as his confidence grew. “Yes. Yes! The shame.” He looked over to Kingston for direction and saw Kingston try to bring his enthusiasm back down. “Right.”

“Well, I’m terribly sorry,” said Mr Hastings. “Of course, if you gentlemen … eh, did you say you were actors?”

Kingston arched an eyebrow. “One likes to travel incognito when one is such a high profile figure as His Highness here.”

Mr Hastings nodded. “Of course. Eh, and the scythe?”

“Protection.”

“It’s hardly incognito,” said Mr Hastings.

“Which is why I am carrying it and not the prince,” said Kingston.

Mr Hastings looked as confused as ever.

“A towel, please,” said Kingston.

“Of course. Er, excuse me, Your Highness.” Mr Hastings gave a slight bow to John and then he looked at Kingston. “And er, excuse me.” He gave a slight bow to Kingston and hurried into the back of the shop.

Kingston glanced over to the ugly scarred man and saw him approaching while reaching into his pocket. He had a familiar look of murder about him.

John tip-toed to Kingston as quickly as he could. “Prince who?”

“It doesn’t matter,” said Kingston. “Open the bag and keep the door closed.”

Mr Hastings called out from the back room. “I must say it is a pleasure and an honour having someone of your, eh, calibre come in. I was just talking to Mildred the other day about how these things do happen but you never expect them to.”

“Will that fit me?” John asked, as Kingston began stuffing two suits into the bag.

“It’s the biggest one they have, so we’ll do our best. Now, shoes might be a problem.” Kingston looked around and grabbed two of the biggest pairs and dumped them into the bag as well, then he looked around for shirts, waist coats, and ties.

The scarred man banged at the door and from under his jacket he removed a bolt action rifle. Kingston’s heart dropped out from under him.

_ _
p<>. A Winchester Model 70. Reliable and has an effective range of 1,800 feet. Great.

“Mildred will be ever so happy. Poor thing is feeling a little under the weather today,” said Mr Hastings, just as he reappeared. His eyes fell upon Kingston and John and saw them stuffing clothes into the sack and immediately realised what was happening. “Oh dear.”

Mr Hastings quickly slipped back into the rear and began frantically rummaging through the drawers and cupboards.

“That’s never a good sign,” said Kingston. He grabbed the works of Shakespeare and turned to The Two Gentlemen of Verona.

“Should we go?” asked John.

“Yes. And quickly. He might have a gun.”

“What’s a gun?”

“A lot worse than a crossbow. Ah, here we go. Verona.” John stepped away from the door and the bounty hunter entered, raising his rifle at Kingston. Kingston grabbed onto John’s arm and felt the tug of the scythe once again. They were gone before Mr Hastings was able to return to explain himself to a furious twenty first century bounty hunter.

They landed in a hot and dry location, outdoors with gentle rolling hills around them. There was no sign of civilisation in sight.

John gasped as his insides realigned themselves again. “Verona, I take it?”

“I hope so,” said Kingston. He read over the first page of the play, hoping to see Valentine and Proteus approaching. His nerves started to betray him. The sight of that rifle, and of that man from Limbo, was so out of place that it rattled his mind.

“How far away are we?”

“From London? About seven hundred miles. From Munich, about two hundred and fifty.”

“Oh. I was starting to feel hopeful for a moment.”

“Me too,” said Kingston.

“Who was that man?”

Kingston racked his brains, trying to remember. “He would be a bounty hunter from Limbo, I’m guessing.”

“How did he get to London?” John asked.

“I don’t know.” Kingston shook his head. “I really don’t know.” He started pulling off his wet clothes and rummaged about the sack, pulling out one of the nice dry suits to climb into. He remained quiet, mentally sweating it over.

John didn’t like seeing Kingston this nervous. “Is he the only one after you?”

Kingston looked up, frustrated that John wasn’t getting changed as well. He had been scared of being in Dracula, but that was nothing compared to learning of an enemy who had pinpointed him to one store out of millions of books and billions of possibilities.

“How many are after you?” John asked.

“Maybe all of them,” Kingston muttered, then stopped to think about it. “Anywhere from one bounty hunter to a hundred.”

“Oh.” John stood his ground for a moment and looked over his shoulder. “Are you sure we’re in Verona?”

“Not really.”

“The weather’s nice.”

“Yeah.”

John looked for something to make Kingston laugh. “And look, your suit is less Italian now!”

Kingston stopped and smiled. He realised that having Little John come with him made him less of the brooding and heartbroken man he was in book six compared to now, but Kingston had been an idiot for bringing John along. John was far out of his depth, with no idea about the dangers of firearms and explosives and all of the tactics they might face going up against Bridgeworks to rescue Joanna, someone John hadn’t even met. Kingston knew that John would dive into battle against the bounty hunter without thinking, all because Kingston’s life was in danger, and the bounty hunter would surely kill him without hesitation. Kingston wasn’t sure if he could live with that, even if John was only fictional.

_ _
p<>. Joanna’s fictional and you wouldn’t risk losing her.

John nodded to the book on the ground. “Is it possible that, instead of being on the first page of The Two Gentlemen of Verona, that we might be on the last page of the previous play?”

Kingston paused and dreaded what John had said. “It could be.” He flipped through the book and realised, with a snort, that John might be right. “Love’s Labours Lost.”

John shook his head. “What does that mean?”

Kingston flipped through the play to find a location. “It means we might be in Spain,” said Kingston.

John’s eyes beamed with pride. “I’ve heard of that.”

“Yeah. The Spanish during the 1600s were not at all happy with the English. They have an inquisition.”

John looked across the horizon. “Is that the inquisition there?”

Kingston looked over. Two people were riding towards them.

X

Death was sitting along the middle of his boardroom table opposite Eve. Eve had a dozen lawyers with her. Death had just a scribe taking the minutes. He should have been armed with his own lawyers and yet he was thumbing his nose at Eve’s need for authority.

Eve took several minutes to check over her final notes before looking up and found Death was twirling a straw boater hat as though he was about to join a barbershop quartet. He also wore a floral necklace over his suit, making him look like he was about to go to Hawaii for a holiday.

“Mr Death,” said Eve.

“Please, just call me ‘My lord Death,’ as you were so keen to do when we first met.”

Eve glared at him.

“After all, you’re still my subordinate, and a guest within my realm,” said Death.

“Mr Death,” continued Eve. “After careful consideration we are placing you on probation in your capacity as Chief Executive Officer of Death Incorporated, as well as your capacity as President of Limbo. Under the terms of probation you will pass all correspondence through the office of the probationary committee for review before it becomes official policy and to ensure that there are no further breaches of security and abuses of power. The probationary committee has the authority to amend all declarations from your office and to monitor your progress and daily work. Do you understand me so far?”

Death smiled. “Of course.”

Eve continued with her prepared speech. “The committee has found ample reason to go ahead with a trial. The paperwork will be delivered to you by the end of the working day where you yourself face eight thousand and three charges. Your actions will be heard at trial and I must tell you, Mr Death, that these charges are very serious and are no laughing matter.”

“I understand.”

“Should there be any further breach of security or abuse of power the committee will be forced to act in the best interests of the realm and company, which may include a recommendation that you be detained until the end of the trial. This recommendation will be judged by the council of elected peers until the verdict is declared. Do you understand?”

“Perfectly,” said Death.

“Once the charges have officially been brought to your attention there will be an arraignment later in the week to decide when the trial will commence.”

“I do understand how these things work,” said Death.

“I am just being thorough,” said Eve.

Death nodded. “I would expect nothing less than perfection.”

“It is customary to commence the trial no earlier than ten days from the arraignment and no greater than one day per charge.”

Death arched an eyebrow. “So we’re looking at anywhere from ten days to twenty two years before the trial actually begins.” Death shrugged. “That seems reasonable. I imagine I’ll be on probation the whole time?”

Eve nodded. “Until the trial is concluded.”

“And that might take a further twenty two years?”

“Oh, I think we can be done within half that time,” said Eve.

“That is a comfort.”

“You are free to issue a delay if you or your legal team choose,” said Eve.

“As are you.”

“Yes. Our team will do their best to ensure that the trial starts no later than eight thousand and thirteen days after the arraignment concludes.”

“Naturally,” said Death, beaming with another smile.

“This is no funny matter,” said Eve.

“I completely agree,” said Death, grinning from ear to ear.

“And I regret to inform you that, should this proceed as expected, you will be unable to stand for re-election during the trial. This includes your position as Chief Executive Officer of Death Incorporated as well as President of Limbo. If you are cleared of all charges then naturally you may run again.”

“All charges?”

“Yes,” said Eve. “I imagine in the coming years it will be difficult to run for either position again with a conviction hanging over you. Have you understood everything we have discussed?”

“I should hope so,” said Death. “It would be rather unfortunate if I didn’t.”

“Good. There is just one matter I further wish to discuss with you. The author, Don Keaton.”

“Oh yes?” Death noticed that Eve’s fingers were wrapped around her pen so tightly that her knuckles had turned white, though she maintained a very pleasant appearance otherwise.

“It seems as though he has become lost in the system and can not be found in any realm.”

“Oh that is a tragedy,” said Death. “A grave, grave tragedy. I was under the impression that he was your symbol of success and authority to the people, that you could get things done when no one else could,” said Death, shaking his head.

“Where is he?” Eve asked.

“My dear Eve, I would be somewhat outraged if I thought you couldn’t do your job. Such a simple task as processing someone and losing the paperwork is the work of an amateur. I would hope that you personally had nothing to do with it.”

Eve glared at Death. “I struggle to believe that you had no part in his disappearance, and the disappearance of Kingston Raine. You were in the same room moments before Mr Raine left.”

“I assure you I am as just a loss as to Mr Raine’s disappearance as you. Now, concerning Mr Keaton, I’m afraid I’ve been rather busy meeting with these lawyers, so his whereabouts are another one of life’s little mysteries,” said Death.

“Then someone in your employ has misplaced the author on purpose.”

Death shrugged. “It is possible. I do have more than eight hundred thousand members of staff, so who knows if one of them was having an off day. Surely the probationary committee has the power to find him?”

“We’ve tried,” said Eve.

“Tried? I’m afraid you will have to do a lot better than just ‘try’. You would have to get the statues back to work, for example. With them at full power it would have been very difficult to misplace an author and they would have been able to locate him immediately.”

“We will find him. We also have people looking for Mr Raine.”

“That should be interesting,” said Death.

“They will both be found and dealt with accordingly,” said Eve. “And if you have any ideas on how to speed up that process then this is the time. It shall be noted within our records and it may go some way towards helping you shake off some of these charges.”

Death shook his head. “I’m afraid locating and apprehending escapees is not my job. You have my full moral support, though. I presume that you will be looking for the credit of their capture?”

“I take credit where credit is due accordingly. I do not take anyone else’s if it is not mine,” said Eve.

“Then what’s this nonsense about trying to ban quills and using pens instead?”

Eve peered over her glasses. “Quills are outdated and a symbol of the old regime. Times have changed and the realm must adapt.”

“Oh please,” said Death, allowing himself a slight chuckle. “The people are not so stupid as to think that changing from a quill to a pen signifies an end to an ancient and elegant way of life.”

“Nevertheless, every step forward is a step towards progress.”

“Then, in an effort to move towards progress, may I recommended re-establishing good communications with the Satan office? Good relations between the realms is vital or else it bites you on the ass,” said Death.

“Satan is not in a position of influence here,” said Eve with a sneer. “And along with the quills, there is to be no unauthorised transport between this realm and the others. People are no longer able to come and go freely as though they are on holiday, possibly to Hawaii, perhaps. We must clamp down on these breaches of authority, security, and hold ourselves to the highest standard.”

Death nodded, amused at Eve’s sinister plans.

She scowled at him. “Satan would not be wise to try to extend his influence into this realm any further. From now on when he is here I will meet with him, not you.”

“If you insist,” said Death.

“I’m afraid I do.”

“Then it is settled.”

“Yes it is.”

“I will let him know,” said Death.

“I’m afraid I can’t allow any unauthorised communications between the realms and you conversing with the President of Hell is not prudent at this time. There are qualified diplomats working here who are paid to do that work. Not you.”

“Hmm. I really should let him know.”

“I’m afraid you can’t.”

Death smiled. “I’m afraid you can’t block Satan from roaming about in Limbo. As an Eternal it’s one of his rights.”

Eve finally smiled, removed her glasses, and leaned forward. “I assure you, I can stop Satan from roaming about in Limbo.”

 

 

Michelle paced back and forth in the first-aid supply room of the water department while Don Keaton stood staring at one of the resuscitation dolls wondering just how many people needed to be revived within Limbo. Michelle was not the least bit happy. Satan was late. He should have arrived twenty minutes ago to help her out with Don. She knew that Satan could bring Don back to Life and block him from Limbo’s perceptions, but Don would have to go undercover for the rest of his natural life and live in disguise. Don was still trying to think that over and started counting all of his friends that he would have to cut out completely.

“You said I was key to a revolution?” Don asked.

“Yeah,” said Michelle, checking the time and hoping that there wasn’t another first-aid supply room in the water department where Satan might be waiting for her.

“How so?” Don asked. “I mean, I don’t really do anything … I’m not a political writer or … or someone of controversy, right? I can think of a few writers better suited than me, so maybe you have the wrong person?”

“Don, I’m a great fan of your work, but please shut up.” Michelle drummed her fingers against her thighs, hoping it would speed up Satan’s arrival.

There was a flicker of light and an envelope fell out of the air. Michelle looked at it nervously and knew it was out of place. It was addressed to her and not to Don, which was some relief. She picked it up but didn’t recognise the handwriting. Inside the envelope was the official newsletter of the unions. Michelle wasn’t prepared to read it now and was about to put it away when she noticed that the envelope wasn’t sealed. A small slip of paper fell out and headed for the ground. Michelle saw someone else’s name on the loose page and she gasped when she realised that it was about to be sent directly to a bounty hunter. They were finding a way to invite themselves to Michelle’s location.

Michelle shouted “No!” She reached down as quickly as possible to grab the falling paper, but the moment it hit the ground it vanished. Michelle lunged forward, took a hold of Don and pulled him out into the corridor. A violent [_pop _]erupted from the first-aid room and they both heard a deep male voice almost shouting “Where’d she go?”

Michelle and Don ran, hoping to find Satan in the next few seconds. They heard the door behind them swing open and saw one of the members of the Diplomatic Retrievals Union burst into the corridor. “She has him! She has the author!”

Michelle heard another series of pops echo through the corridor and saw six bounty hunters close in on them. “Close them off!” shouted one of the bounty hunters, trying to prevent anyone from teleporting in or out of the building.

Don gasped and wheezed as he ran. Michelle latched onto him, closed her eyes and felt her body shift on the spot. She did the only thing she could think of and teleported them to the only safe place in the entire realm – the wilderness. She was dooming herself and Don to an eternity of misery unless someone was able to rescue them.

 

 

John looked nervously at the two riders approaching. “Okay, really, are we in Spain or Verona?”

Kingston shook his head. “I don’t know. This is getting ridiculous. I vote we just keep jumping through one story to another until we get close enough to not worry about who is coming for us.”

“Fair enough,” said John.

Kingston dumped The Works of William Shakespeare into the sack and carefully put his Bridgeworks cheat sheet into his jacket pocket. He then tried his luck, which, he had to admit, had not lived up to his expectations in the last few days. It was time for something good to come his way. “Ready?”

John straightened up his first ever suit. “Ready.”
_ _
p<>. Pop.

Kingston and John dropped three metres into the sea, caught in a ferocious storm with waves swelling above them and crashing down. A ship was nearby, leaning disastrously over to one side as the mast ripped itself off clean and cries of the men on board ricocheted through the sky. The surprise of landing in the water caused Kingston to inhale almost a lungful of water, causing him to gasp and splutter.

John struggled against the shock and he soon sank under the waves. Kingston released his grip on the sack of books and he pulled John’s head out of the water. Then, as he tried to catch the books with his ankles, Kingston’s luck ran out. With another pop, he and John landed back on dry land.

John chucked up a lungful of sea water and Kingston gasped to get his breath back. He knew that John was still alive and had taken quite a beating from shock, but they would live. Kingston looked around for the books but they were gone.

Joanna was gone. It started to dawn on Kingston that he would never see her again, he would never get to Munich, and the world was against him. He dropped the scythe in despair and heard it clunk against the ground. Kingston stared into the distance as every last thought faded into oblivion. Beside him, John spluttered, and he finally lifted himself off the ground.

“Thank you,” said John.

Kingston didn’t even hear him. He felt the sun beating down on him and he always had a suspicion that he would die in a desert. Perhaps it would be today.

John regained his strength and looked around, more weary than before. “I think, from now on, we should walk to Munich.”

Kingston didn’t have much to say and thought it would be easier to get to Munich within eighty days of travelling across the land than with their rotten luck of teleporting to random locations. He started thinking of Jules Verne.

_ _
p<>. [Of course, if we ended up in the wrong chapter in _]From The Earth To The Moon[ we would be dead,_] Kingston thought.

John sat up. “Where’re the books?”

“Gone,” said Kingston.

John took a moment to think that over. “So … how are we going to get back to your story if we don’t have them?”

“I don’t know,” said Kingston. Given his tone, John was wise not to ask any more questions.

John stood up and looked over his brand new and soaking suit. He realised that being with Kingston had its hazards.

Two riders were approaching. One was an old man on a horse, the other was a short fat man on a donkey.

Kingston looked down to the scythe and knew there had to be another way to get back to Joanna. With enough time he would think of something. For now, though, he focussed on the riders, trying to figure out if they would cause him a problem or not. He leaned down, picked up the scythe, and held it tightly. The last thing he wanted to do was provoke a fight. The old man and his friend continued towards them, puzzled at the sight of two soaking men on such a hot day. The old man on his horse stopped and peered over his moustache. The short fat man on his donkey stopped and looked equally confused.

John waved and smiled. “Hello.”

The short fat man on the donkey flicked his hand up to wave.

“Pardon me,” said the old man on his horse, “but you two seem most out of place here.”

“We are,” said Kingston, thinking more about his books on their way to the bottom of the sea. “Where are we?”

The old man shot them a curiously puzzled look. “La Mancha, my friend.”

“And you would be a knight?” Kingston asked.

“Most indeed sir,” said the old man. “Sancho Panza, the introductions, if you will.”

The short fat man cleared his throat and pointed to the old man on the horse. “Introducing Señor knight-errant Don Quixote. I am his squire, Sancho Panza.”

Don Quixote bobbed his head. “Gentlemen.”

Kingston sighed. “Little John, the introductions, if you will.”

“Huh? What?”

Kingston sighed again. “I am Kingston Raine, this is my friend Little John.”

“A pleasure to meet you,” said Don Quixote.

John looked suspiciously at Sancho Panza. “Did the little guy just call me a sancho panza?”

“No,” said Kingston, “that’s his name.”

“Good, because …” John flexed his fist and relaxed.

“You two are most definitely out of place here,” said Don Quixote.

“We need some help finding our way,” said John. “We’re off to somewhere called Bavaria.”

“I do not know of any Bavaria, gentlemen,” said Don Quixote. “But there is a town not far from here. They might be able to help point you in the right direction. We are heading there ourselves if you care to join us.”

Kingston and John looked over their shoulders. “More walking?” John asked.

“Yeah, more walking,” said Kingston. Considering their options, Kingston wasn’t able to decline Don Quixote’s offer. “Right, let us go,” said Kingston.

Don Quixote and Sancho Panza couldn’t help but stare at the two walkers in such strange attire.

“How did you get so wet?” asked Sancho.

“Ah, a fascinating story,” said John. “See, I was being … wait, from the beginning?”

“Might as well,” said Kingston, as he fought against the sun in his eyes.

“I was … caught, by a bunch of brigands and criminals. This gentleman came and rescued me,” said John.

“Ah!” cried Don Quixote. “Gallantry runs high in our companions, Sancho Panza.”

“Yes, Don Quixote,” said Sancho Panza.

“So naturally I was compelled to join my new friend as he searched for his wife -”

“Girlfriend.”

“- Girlfriend, caught herself, no less, by a bunch of brigands and criminals, somewhere in Bavaria.”

“Tsk tsk, how dreadful,” said Don Quixote. “Isn’t that just dreadful, Sancho Panza?”

“Yes, Don Quixote,” said Sancho Panza.

“But go on, good John, for the story is very good, and you tell it with very good grace,” said Don Quixote.

“Well, we made it all the way to London and found ourselves pursued by another brigand and criminal.”

“What dreadful luck,” said Don Quixote. “Isn’t that just …”

“Yes, Don Quixote,” said Sancho Panza.

John continued, filling in some of the details of London, his experiences with money and waiters, his joy at sleeping in something called an alley, exploring his first major city, and then the unfortunate incident of dropping into the sea and ruining his new suit, which he feared would become quite Italian.

When John was finished Don Quixote said, “I thank you for the pleasure you have given me by relating so interesting a tale.”

“Yes, Don Quixote,” said Sancho Panza.

Don Quixote looked at Sancho Panza with some annoyed curiosity. “You will get your island, Sancho Panza.”

“Thank you, Don Quixote,” said Sancho Panza. He wished the tall and talkative man’s loquacity at the devil, on his part wished his master to go off with Little John and bother him no more. Sancho Panza settled into his journey on his ass thinking of his lady Dulcinea, and felt not like a lover who had been discarded but like a man who had been soundly kicked. Kingston recognised that look.

“Unfortunately we lost our books and they were most valuable,” said Little John.

“Ah, I know that pain all too well,” said Don Quixote. “I had such a collection of books and they were taken away from me. One morning I was frantic in my search and yet not a single book could be found. I called to my housekeeper and she said to me, ‘What room or what nothing is it that your worship is looking for? There are neither room nor books in this house now, for the devil himself has carried all away.’

Kingston looked up at those words and wondered what truth Don Quixote was speaking of.

Don Quixote continued. “Well, then my niece told me it was not the devil, but a magician who came on a cloud one night, and dismounting from a serpent that he rode he entered the room, and what he did there no one knew, but after a little while he made off, flying through the roof, and left the house full of smoke; and when my niece went to see what he had done she saw neither book nor room: but they remember very well and said that his name was the Sage Munaton. Naturally I thought it must have been Friston,” said Don Quixote. “After all, he is a sage magician, a great enemy of mine, who has a spite against me because he knows by his arts and lore that in process of time I am to engage in single combat with a knight whom he befriends and that I am to conquer, and he will be unable to prevent it; and for this reason he endeavours to do me all the ill turns that he can; but I promise him it will be hard for him to oppose or avoid what is decreed by Heaven.”

John looked across to Kingston and hoped that he wasn’t the only one confused by what Don Quixote had said.

“But of course my niece cautioned me. She asked if it was not better to remain at peace in my own house instead of roaming the world looking for better bread than ever came of wheat, never reflecting that many go for wool and come back shorn? So, naturally I enlisted the help of a squire and we ride to do good in the world.”

A moment of silence fell over the group. “So, how far away is this town?” Kingston asked.

“Not far,” said Don Quixote. “And no fear, my dear Kingston. We have plenty of stories to keep us engaged in until we reach our destination.”

“Good,” said Kingston. He trudged on under the Spanish sun with his scythe over his shoulder and his thoughts fixed solely on Joanna.

 

 

After hearing more about Don Quixote’s life against utterly insane creatures, Kingston and John decided it was best if they parted as soon as they arrived in the town Quixote had told them about. Kingston had to do some grovelling and Don Quixote took pity on the pair as they had little money, so he gave them enough to spend two nights in a local inn as well afford them the luxury of dinner.

Kingston and John went to the first inn they could find. They had walked for too many hours and had not slept properly since meeting each other. The innkeeper appeared. He was short and fat, had a noticeable bald patch which he tried to cover up with several clumps of uncombed hair, sported a bushy moustache and hadn’t shaved in days. There was the unmistakable whiff of sherry on his breath. He stared at his guests as though he had just been looking at two rodents mating in a soup bowl and the look of disgust had yet to leave his face.

Behind him, in the dining area, was a woman sweeping the floor and humming to herself while she danced with the broom. John couldn’t help but glance at her and smile. She looked up and smiled back. The innkeeper turned to see what John was smiling at and then looked back at John with even more contempt.

Kingston wondered if their being English was a liability. He decided that after the day they’d had, he didn’t care. “We would like a room,” said Kingston.

The innkeeper looked at his log book. It was blank. He looked at it for some time. “You are from La Mancha?” the innkeeper asked.

Kingston imagined the little man falling helplessly from a cliff. It did not cheer him up as much as he had hoped. “We would like a room,” said Kingston.

“You have pesos?” asked the innkeeper.

“Yes, we have pesos,” said Kingston.

“You will need pesos to get a room here,” said the innkeeper.

Kingston felt his grip around his scythe tighten. With the greatest of effort he was able to ease his fingers and remember that he was a people person. “How many pesos will we need?”

“You will need many pesos to stay one night,” said the innkeeper.

“How much?”

“Hmm, how much do you have?” asked the innkeeper.

“How much is a room?”

“How long do you want to stay for?” asked the innkeeper.

“One night.”

“The both of you?”

“Yes.”

“In the one room?”

“Yes.”

“Hmm, you will need many pesos,” said the innkeeper.

Kingston and John exchanged a look. John smacked his lips. It was game time.

“This is my friend, Little John,” said Kingston.

The innkeeper did not seem interested. “Little John?”

John’s eyes flashed in rage. “What did you call me? Did you … really …” John looked at Kingston. “Did he just call me … ‘Little’?”

The innkeeper was having a hard time keeping up.

John thumped his fist on the counter. “My name is Mister John!” He looked over to the woman sweeping the floor. She kept dancing. John then peered over at the log book. “What’s that?”

“It is mine,” said the innkeeper.

“It’s blank.”

“I find that reassuring,” said the innkeeper.

John leaned in and jutted his chin forward. “So how much is a room in this establishment?”

“Tonight?”

“Yes. Tonight.”

“Hmm. Many pesos.”

“Are we talking one peso?” John asked.

“No. Many more pesos.”

“Two pesos?”

“No. Many more pesos.”

“Three pesos. I’m sure three pesos would be enough,” said John.

“No. Many more pesos.”

“How about a hundred?” Kingston asked.

The innkeeper faltered for a moment then peered at Kingston suspiciously. “One hundred pesos? Hmm, yes, that would be enough for a room for one night.”

“Right. How much for you?” Kingston asked.

The innkeeper blinked and shook his head. “I do not understand the question, señor.”

“How much is it to buy you?”

The innkeeper again shook his head. “I still do not understand.”

“I want to buy you,” said Kingston. “I imagine it will be many pesos, and I am not in a good mood. I think it would cheer me up a lot if I bought you. You could carry my things, follow me through the desert, and I would own you. So how much?”

The innkeeper looked from Kingston to John and back to Kingston. “I am not for sale, señor.”

“Everything is for sale.”

John leaned forward. “How much money do you make?”

“Eh, I make …”

“Many pesos?”

“Eh …”

“I think we could afford either a room or you,” said Kingston.

“Two pesos?” John asked. “Three?”

“Eh …”

“I think I would much prefer to buy you,” said Kingston.

“Is three too much?” asked John.

“Because I’ve been in a bad mood all day,” said Kingston.

“Do you have half pesos?”

“A very bad mood.”

“What about shillings? Do you have shillings?” asked John.

“And I would be very relieved to finally be able to buy a Spaniard. I’ve always wanted one and then I could introduce you to a Dutchman,” said Kingston.

“How many shillings go into a peso?”

“A little Spaniard of my own, who can say ‘More pesos,’ as though he’s a trained monkey.”

“Or do pesos go into shillings?” asked John.

Kingston and John both leaned forward and stared the innkeeper down. After a staring contest lasting a mighty five seconds, the innkeeper walked off, his shoulders low, shaking his head, muttering “It’s too early to deal with King Felipe’s finest.” He passed the woman sweeping the floor and didn’t say a word to her. She leaned the broom against the wall and walked over to Kingston and John.

John immediately picked out her autumn brown eyes and he was sure he could sing about the specks of colour within them for an age. He might even find a few lyrics for her hair, which was as black as woodland ash after a summer feast. He couldn’t help but smile at the young beauty.

She smiled in return. She had enjoyed the duo’s belittling of her boss and she was willing to bet that they would be kinder to her. As she locked eyes with John’s she found they were the hazel of a candle lit end to a poet’s night of drink and rhyme. She was less intrigued by Kingston’s overcast blues, as she had seen a know-it-all reservoir before. “Welcome señores. I am happy to serve you in any way. What can I do for you?”

Kingston said: “We would like -”

“Er,” said John, quickly, looking to Kingston and then back to the señorita. “We would like a room for the evening, please.”

She smiled at him. “Will you be dining with us as well?”

“I would like that very much,” said John. “My name is John. This is my good friend Kingston.”

“A pleasure to meet you,” said the señorita. She winked at John.

John blushed and waited for the woman to tell him her name. The wait lasted too long. “And you are?”

“I am the señorita from Catalonia, and my name is not for everyone to know.”

“Well, maybe if we were friends you would be able to tell me,” smiled John.

She winked and shot him a look with her brilliant brown eyes. “If we were just friends it would be a great tragedy,” said the señorita. She then said something quickly in another language.

“What was that?” John asked.

“A saying from Catalonia,” said the señorita. Her eyes fell upon John’s ruined suit. “Ay, we can have that mended for you.”

“Oh yeah? What will I wear in the mean time?”

The señorita flashed him a smile and looked over to Kingston. “The room will be three pesos, señor.”

Kingston handed the money over. “The innkeeper didn’t seem very happy to see us.”

“He’s not happy to see anyone, especially customers.”

“Maybe he’s chosen the wrong business.”

She smiled at them. “You are upstairs, in the second room from the left.”

Kingston nodded and headed for the stairs.

John lingered. “I have to know your name.”

She bit her lip and glanced around to make sure no one else was in sight, then she leaned forward and held her mouth close to John’s ear. “Catalina,” she said. She leaned back and smiled at the giant. “The girl from Catalonia.”

XI

It was morning in Spain and Kingston was still grim. John had not left Catalina’s side all night and, much to Kingston’s surprise, she was eager to offer her help with their situation, despite John once again bellowing out a tune for the whole inn to hear at the crack of dawn. Catalina listened to their stories of how they each saved the other and she squealed when she heard how Kingston was searching for the woman he loved. She was so impressed with the tales of heroism, love, and friendship that she brought out a map of the area in the hope of helping Kingston and John as much as possible.

Catalina had told him the difficulties in crossing the mountains through Catalonia into France. Kingston remembered Catalonia from when he was younger, having spent a few days in Barcelona. He didn’t expect it to look quite as familiar now considering he was stuck several hundred years in the past. Kingston poured over a map trying to plot a course through to France and knew he would have to bribe a lot of officials along the way. The problem was he didn’t have any money.

Things were not too bad for John. He looked and felt much better in his mended suit and even Catalina told him how handsome he was and how all the men in the town would fear a man such as he. They giggled over breakfast while she taught him some romantic phrases in Catalan.

“No, no, no, it’s vols ballar amb mi?” said Catalina.

_ _
p<>. “Vols ballar amb mi?”

“And the answer?”
_ _
p<>. “Sí?”

Catalina nodded and hugged him. “Good. And … No n’hi ha prou amb una lengua.”

John shook his head. “I think that’s a little too much.”

Catalina smiled. “Then just roll your r’s and the women will be all over you.”

John blushed and raised his eyes. “Really? Roll my whats?”

“Your r’s. Rrrrrrrrr.”

John took a few seconds to figure out how to do that and did his best. “Grrrrrr.”

“You are not a dog,” said Catalina.

“I know,” smiled John.

“So there is no need to growl.”

“I wasn’t growling. I was rolling my r’s.”

Catalina patted John on the head. “We’ll get through to you one day.” She looked around to the back room of the inn and frowned. “Where is that boy? He hasn’t finished cleaning up! Taking another break, I bet. He doesn’t get paid for breaks.” Catalina stood up and fixed her dress.

“Leave him,” said John. “You can teach me more phrases. Look: grrrrrrr. See? I’m getting better.”

She smiled at John and patted him on the head again. “You keep practising. I’ll go fire that little boy.” She walked through to the back room, leaving John to feel a little guilty.

“I think she likes me,” said John.

Kingston smiled. “Yeah, I always liked Spanish girls as well.”

“Ah, she’s not Spanish, she’s Catalan,” said John, with an educated nod.

“Of course. Just like you’re Nottinghamian … Nottinghamite … what’s that denonym?”

“What’s a demownanim?” John asked.

Kingston smirked, then return to the map.

“I got to sleep in my first bed,” said John.

Kingston wanted to roll his eyes. The bed had lived up to all of John’s dreams and expectations, and failed all of Kingston’s. He just wanted to forget about it and spend a few weeks relaxing in a spa in Sicily with a decent cocktail.

John came over and sat next to Kingston. “So, how good, or bad, is it looking?”

“We’ll have to get Catalina to help us out,” Kingston said.

John raised his eyes as he tried to suppress a hopeful look. “I see. Well, I suppose I could be convinced to let her help us out. It’s for a noble cause.”

“I don’t mean that she should come with us,” Kingston said.

John’s shoulders fell. “Oh.”

“Just that she can help us find a guide.”

“Why can’t she be our guide?”

“Because she’ll want to stay here with her inn.”

John shook his head. “She doesn’t own the inn.”

“Her father, then.”

John shook his head again. “Weren’t you listening to her? She came out here with her uncle because he found her a suitable husband. The husband met her and found Catalina a little too … she used a word I didn’t quite understand but she gripped her fists quite tight and looked scary when she said it.”

“Feisty?”

“In charge? Maybe? She had big eyes when she said it.” John smiled and started to drift away. “Oh, those big brown eyes.”

“So … what happened with this suitable husband?”

“Him? She threw a couple of plates and he left.”

“You don’t say?”

“And she may have chased him off with an axe as well. I understand he said something that wasn’t too flattering about her to the town. People started looking at her inappropriately. So when her uncle found out what had happened and that the prick ran off, the uncle went after him, kept on chasing him because the would-be husband broke his promise to marry Catalina. She doesn’t know what happened to either of those two, I guess they’re still chasing after each other. So Catalina had to find a job and this was where she happened to be staying at the time with her uncle.”

“Oh. Well, we might need her help,” said Kingston.

“I think she should come with us.”

“No. No way,” said Kingston, shaking his head. “If, and only if, she comes for any part of our trip, it will be to the border of France and no farther.”

“She speaks French, you know?” said John.

“So do I.”

“Seventeenth century French?”

Kingston shrugged. “As you and I are currently speaking fluent Spanish, and you have never studied Spanish, I imagine …”

“I know a bit of Latin,” John said.

“Right, well … we’re not speaking Latin either. So, since you are currently speaking Spanish, or everyone is speaking fluent English, I don’t know how much of a necessity it is to speak French.”

John sunk in his chair. “But I like her.”

“I like her too. She has spirit.”

John nodded. “And big breasts.”

The back door flew open and Kingston and John looked up in surprise. Catalina was in a rage and had a man in a headlock while punching him with her free hand. The man was wearing a black leather jacket.

Kingston recognised the bleeding man immediately and ran over to help Catalina. John beat him to it and tackled the man to the ground. The man kicked and tried to fight his way free. John pulled him into a body lock and all three men looked on in shock as Catalina came running at them with chair high above her head. “How dare you!” she roared.

“STOP!” all three men shouted.

Catalina stopped, huffed, and panted.

“It’s okay, we have him,” said Kingston.

“Yeah, we have him,” puffed John.

Catalina still held the chair above her head. “You’re sure?”

“Yes,” said Kingston. All the while his heart nearly exploded from seeing Catalina run towards him with a chair.

Catalina looked like she didn’t trust Kingston. “I think I should hit him anyway.”

“Lady,” spat the leather jacket man, “you already hit me enough.”

“There is no enough! You were threatening that poor boy in the street … ay! The poor boy!” She lowered the chair and ran out into the back room.

Kingston turned on the leather jacket man. It was the same guy from London. “How did you find us?”

The man snorted. “Like I’m ever going to tell you.”

“John? Let’s strip him and tie him up.”

“You got it.”

Catalina returned with the young boy. He was busy clutching his forehead. “Ay, you were so brave,” mumbled Catalina. “Here, you sit, I’ll make you feel better.” She eased the lad into a chair and went to get a damp towel. She glanced at Kingston and John. John had tied up the naked man and Kingston was going through his clothes. Catalina paused. “You two know him?”

“Kinda,” said Kingston. “This guy was chasing us in the last place we were in.”

“Chasing you? Both of you?”

John pushed out his chest and stood tall. “Oh yes. He was chasing us.” Something curious then struck him. “How did you manage to overpower him?”

“It was easy,” said Catalina. “He was threatening the poor boy and hit him. Then he was about to hit me.”

John stepped back in surprise. “He was going to hit you?”

“Yes,” said Catalina.

John sneered at the naked man and thumped a finger into the attacker’s chest. “You were about to hit her?”

“I …”
_ _
p<>. Smack!

The man and the chair fell back onto the ground. Catalina gasped in surprise. The boy smiled in delight. Kingston nodded with approval and rummaged through the man’s pockets.

Catalina stepped forward, her eyes locked with John’s. “You did that for me?”

“Hell yeah! I can do it again!” John puffed his chest out.

“Thank you.”
_ _
p<>. [_“Sóc d’Angletera,” _]John said, proudly.

Catalina smiled awkwardly and went to get a damp towel for the young lad.

Kingston found several blank sheets of parchment in the man’s jacket. “Yeah, he’s a bounty hunter.”

“From Limbo?” John asked.

“Yeah. I don’t know how he’s travelling about, though.” Kingston looked over one of the pages and saw a single name written down. Angela, dept 19. There was no other information.

The bounty hunter murmured from the floor. John looked at him and shrugged, then went back to Kingston. “Maybe he has his own set of books.”

“I don’t know, it would be a wild coincidence if he has the same books as we do, since we came here accidentally,” said Kingston.

“Maybe he left them in a room or somewhere.”

It took Kingston a few seconds to go from dismissing John’s theory to toying with it to realising that it was a moment of genius. “Of course! I would hide the key or pass or whatever he was using to travel around so it couldn’t be taken from me!”

John smiled to himself. “All right, John Little to the rescue.”

Catalina returned and started to care for the boy. “Has he said anything useful yet?”

“We haven’t really asked him anything,” said John.

Catalina came over and slapped the bounty hunter across the face. “Speak you coward! Speak!”

John smiled at Kingston. “I like her.”

Kingston looked the bounty hunter in the eye. “How many of you are following us? How did you travel through different stories? Start talking, keeping talking, and if any of us think you’re lying then you’ll be stuck somewhere very unpleasant.”

The bounty hunter grunted and looked away.

John leaned in. “I can find a detective and get him to work on you, you tiny little man.”

Kingston had to go in quietly. “That’s not what you think it is.”

“Either way, I’m betting it’s scary.”

The bounty hunter looked from John to Kingston, utterly confused.

Catalina turned to them. “There is the Catalan way of getting answers.”

Kingston was hoping this wasn’t going to be as bloody as he feared. “Does it involve more punching?”

“Ooo, I’m good at that,” said John. He grinned at the bounty hunter and flexed his fingers.

“No, we get him drunk,” said Catalina. “When men are drunk they say whatever is on their mind.”

Kingston shook his head. “That doesn’t always work.”

“No? He will soon hear so many constant voices that he won’t know what is real and what is not. He will talk,” said Catalina.

John stepped back and dropped into a whisper. “You know, we do have a way or two of tricking him. We just find a different book. That would really freak him out,” said John.

“He’s already been to different books so it won’t be a surprise,” said Kingston. “Although Alice in Wonderland might do the trick.”

John had no idea what that was but he smiled enthusiastically. “See, that’s what I’m talking about.”

Catalina looked over. “Huh?”

Kingston and John paused, hesitant about what to say to such a fiery woman.

Catalina threw her hands onto her hips. “Oh, you’re going to keep secrets from me? Why? Because I am smarter than you?”

“No, noooo,” said John.

“No, not at all,” said Kingston.

Catalina’s eyes flared in response. “Oh? So I am not smarter than you? Really?”

Kingston and John realised their mistake. “Uh … no that wasn’t it …”

“I didn’t mean you weren’t smart or anything …”

“We were answering in the negative because of the way the question was asked …”

Catalina smiled at them. “Silly men. The two things truer than truth in this world is that you never fight with a woman and you never fight with a Catalan. You’ll only lose.”

Kingston and John had to give her credit where credit was due, she did out-think them. That caught Kingston’s intrigue. “Are you always like this?”

“Of course,” said Catalina. “Why would I want to be any different?”

John nodded and smiled at Kingston. “I like her.”

“Now then,” said Catalina, “you were about to lie to me about some secret with the whispering and the quiet voices?”

“Uh …”

Kingston looked back to the bounty hunter. “We still need a few answers. How many bounty hunters are following us?”

The bounty hunter smacked his lips together and remained silent.

Catalina stepped in and pinched the bounty hunter’s earlobe.

“Aaaaaggghhh!”

The short, fat innkeeper happened to walk in at that moment, took one look at the sight of his dining area and shrieked. “What in Felipe’s name is this?”

Kingston, John, and Catalina shot him the most intimidating stares ever seen in his inn and he quickly hurried away.

“Now, this secret?” Catalina asked.

Kingston looked over at John, who was practically dancing with glee on his tiptoes.

“Please?” John asked.

Kingston sighed. “Fine. Tell her.”

“And she can …?”

“If she wants to.”

“What do I want to do?” Catalina asked.

John quickly filled her in on the real details of his trip with Kingston, which baffled Catalina to the point of her refusing to believe everything he said. Kingston, meanwhile, found the bounty hunter was typically silent. That was hardly surprising. He knew there was a way to get answers out of him with ease, he just had to find the right use of leverage.

“Wait a minute, John Little?” said Catalina.

“That’s right,” said John.

“Little John? The Little John?”

John looked puzzled by this. “Yes, that is my name. And nickname. It’s a joke, really, because I’m taller than everyone.”

Catalina’s jaw dropped open. “I thought you were joking last night! You told me your name and said you were from Sherwood, I thought you were just some silly goat herder, but that’s all true?”

John shrugged. “Yeah. Why?”

“Ay! You are famous!” cried Catalina.

The boy looked over, now interested in what was happening. He remained seated with a damp towel on his face.

John stepped back and raised both eyebrows. “Famous? Me?”

“Yes! Very famous! I’ve read your stories!”

“I have stories?”

“Of course! You are a very brave man, you and your friend.”

John started to shrug with pride. “Well … yeah, I suppose I am.” He nodded to Kingston for approval and was delighted when Kingston nodded in return.

Catalina turned to Kingston. “You must be Robin the Hood?”

Kingston shook his head. “No, no. I’m not. Trust me, I’m someone else.”

Catalina cocked her head to one side. “Then who are you?”

“Kingston Raine, famous for the Shanghai Werewolf.”

Catalina waved a hand in the air. “I don’t know it.” She looked back at John. “But you … you are famous! And such a hero!”

John smiled graciously. “Yes, yes I am. But it’s not always easy, you know.”

“Aww, poor Little John,” said Catalina. She flashed her big brown eyes and it was clear that her heart was beating quickly with excitement. She clasped her hands together and started to dance excitedly. “So how can I help?”

“Well, I liked that drunk idea,” said John.

“I don’t know if it’s a good idea,” said Kingston.

“It’s a great idea!”

“It’s an idea. Maybe not a great one,” said Kingston.

“Then until we have a better idea, it’s a great one,” said John.

Kingston wasn’t so sure. The bounty hunter was still conscious and alert, staring intently at Kingston, listening in on their conversation and learning more about them than Kingston was learning about him. The bounty hunter wasn’t going to say a word, not even after an entire case of sherry.

Catalina spoke up. “You two can travel between different stories?” she asked.

“We can’t really do that anymore. We lost the books,” said John.

Kingston nodded to himself. He knew he had to tell John the truth about the scythe, but he wasn’t going to risk telling the bounty hunter, even if the bounty hunter already knew. And, considering that the magnificent scythe was quite noticeable, the bounty hunter had probably already figured it out as belonging to Death and that it was capable of great magic.

Kingston took the scythe and brought John to a quiet area while Catalina watched over the bounty hunter. Kingston told John the truth, the entire truth, featuring Death and Limbo, and how it was all such a confusing mess. He watched his friend’s agony spin through his soul until, at last, John fell very quiet.

“Are you okay?” asked Kingston.

“Hang on … she actually knows stories about me,” said John.

“Yes,” said Kingston.

“But I haven’t done those things yet.”

“No, you haven’t.”

John glanced off to the side and struggled to find the right words. “I thought you were lying to me.”

“About being fictional?”

“Yes.”

“So how does it feel?”

John glanced back over to Catalina and watched her carefully. “I don’t feel any less real.”

“Good. Neither do I. So the important thing is we can still travel,” said Kingston.

John shook his head. “But we never get to where we want to go.”

“We get closer,” said Kingston.

John was no longer his cheerful self and wouldn’t look Kingston in the eye.

“Is something wrong?”

“You stole Death’s weapon. That’s a little dangerous. What if that bounty hunter is just trying to get Death his scythe back?”

Kingston couldn’t argue with him but he suspected that if one bounty hunter was after them then several might be, so they had to keep moving. “I understand if you want to go back home.”

“I can’t go back, we lost the books, didn’t we?”

“I never had a book with you in it. I just appeared in Sherwood. I whispered into the scythe to take me where I needed to be. Lo and behold, there I was. And I found you, didn’t I?”

John scratched his head. “Is that true?”

“Yes. I have told you the whole truth,” said Kingston.

John squinted as though he didn’t quite believe Kingston. “So the scythe brought you to me?”

“Yes.”

“It knew we would be friends?”

“It did.”

John started smiling, then quickly dropped back into a sour feeling. “Then why does it try to stop you getting to Munich?”

Kingston dropped his mouth open ready to retort. The answer didn’t come. “I don’t know why,” he said. John had a good point and that troubled Kingston greatly.

John saw the look of anguish on his friend’s face and wanted to make it up to him. “Catalina has lots of stories. She likes to read. I suppose we can use one of hers to get us anywhere we want, right?”

“Yeah,” said Kingston. “Does she have them here?”

“No. The only way we could do that is if we find Catalina’s home and then try our luck.”

Catalina called out to them.

Kingston looked over at the bounty hunter. “Is he talking?”

Catalina shook her head. “Not exactly. I had a good idea. You can travel between different stories, yes? And you need a great idea and not just a good idea, yes?”

“Right …”

“Then all you have to do is find someone who has great ideas.” Catalina smiled and plonked her hands on her hips.

“Did you have something or someone in mind?”

“Yes, I do,” she said, beaming with a smile. “Otherwise my good idea would be just an idea and not a good idea. You could try the Iliad or the Odyssey.”

“I haven’t read them,” said Kingston.

John started smiling, in sync with Catalina. “I know them. Yeah, they would be perfect.”

Kingston was still lost, which so unusual that it was quite disconcerting. He started to feel like every country music fan trying to survive in the modern world. “So what’s in this story?”

“Muses,” John and Catalina said at the same time.

Kingston was still a little slow. “Muses?”

“Exactly,” said Catalina.

John slapped Kingston across the back. “You know all of those muses from Greece with the great ideas? They give you direction, they give you answers, sort your life out, and are sources of inspiration? Muses.”

“But … that’s kind of an abstract idea,” said Kingston.

John raised his eyebrows and dropped into a very aggressive tone. “I think it’s a brilliant idea.”

“I didn’t mean …”

“I know exactly what you meant and I will not tolerate such ridicule of a lady’s good idea.”

Catalina smiled at him. “The muses are real. There are at least nine of them.”

“And you know how to find them?” Kingston asked.

“Yes. I have the story upstairs.”

“Oh. Right. Well …” Kingston sighed. “John, you really think this is a good idea?”

“Yes I do,” glared John.

“And it’s not just because it’s one of Catalina’s ideas?”

“It’s a good idea,” said John.

Kingston did the thing he was most afraid of in the whole universe. He allowed someone else to make a life changing decision affecting him and his world. He looked over to Catalina. “I know it’s far, and it might be dangerous, but can you come with us?” he asked.

“Of course,” said Catalina. John clapped his hands.

“Normally I wouldn’t ask,” said Kingston. “But you seem like you can take care of yourself.”

“I can take care of everyone,” she said, beaming in delight.

“Good. Er, John, are you comfortable in having Catalina come with us?”

John didn’t listen. Instead he raced over to Catalina and pulled her up into a mighty bear hug.

“I guess he’s comfortable with that,” Kingston said.

The poor boy took the towel off his face. “Can I come?”

“No.”

“Please?”

“No.”

“Señor?”

“No.” Kingston headed over to the couple and the bound bounty hunter. “How long do you need?” Kingston asked.

“A while,” said John.

Kingston rolled his eyes. “Not for that, Jeez. How long to get your things together so we can leave?”

“Oh, not long,” said John.

“Not long at all,” said Catalina.

“Weren’t you waiting for an uncle?” Kingston asked.

“Yes, but he’s a year late, he’s not coming back,” said Catalina. “I will get a few things.”

“Remember, we have to mostly walk.”

“I know, I know.”

“I’m serious!”

“I know.” Catalina headed upstairs to her room.

John smiled. “Thanks.”

“Don’t mention it,” said Kingston. “But when this mess is over we have to return her here and then get you back to Sherwood.”

John held his breath and wasn’t sure how much he liked that idea.

Kingston recognised that look and he quickly focussed on the bounty hunter. “I guess we should take him with us.”

“While naked?”

“Might as well. Makes him harder to run away.”

John stared at the bounty hunter. “We could put nails on his feet, stop him from running away.”

“We could,” said Kingston.

“Or chop off his feet. That would stop him from running away.”

“That too,” said Kingston.

The bounty hunter shot them daggers with his eyes but he refused to budge.

“Excuse me,” came a little voice from the back.

Kingston and John looked over to the boy.

“Are you really taking him away?” the boy asked.

“Yes,” said Kingston.

“And there is no way he will ever come back?”

Kingston wasn’t sure if this was heading in a good direction. John took over as the more sensible adult in the room. “You want to punch him a little?”

The poor boy smiled. “He threatened my family.”

“He did what?” roared John, spinning to face the bounty hunter.

The bounty hunter still did not budge.

The poor boy ran forward. “I’m ready!”

Kingston stepped back. “How old are you?”

“Old enough,” said the boy.

When Catalina returned she was not the least bit impressed, though the sight of a ten year old boy clubbing a brute of a man over the head with a mop was something she would come to think of as quite amusing.

They left the inn through the alley and went over the last of the bounty hunter’s steps. They found nothing useful except for an old rifle lying on the dusty ground and a crumpled piece of paper with Kingston’s name on it and the words Don Quixote underneath. Kingston broke the rifle down and tossed the pieces away, then he and everyone else went off to find the muses of ancient Greece.

 

 

Don shivered and looked around the miasmatic darkness. “I don’t like it here.”

Michelle shrugged and rubbed her feet. She knew it had been a mistake to run in those shoes. Now she had blisters. She would have to walk barefooted.

Don shivered again. “Is there anything out here?”

“There is almost nothing out here,” groaned Michelle. “The ground is a continuous hard grey and sometimes black rock. There are occasionally cracks in the surface to add a little variety, sometimes there are boulders and sometimes you find the remains of what would be Stonehenge, as though people got so bored they carved themselves a giant calendar to help speed things up. Either that, or they are ancient landmarks.”

“Oh,” said Don. “How come there are hills?”

“Probably to give someone hope that there might be something on the other side. I don’t know. I’m not really interested in the hills or the rocks or the ground.”

Don held his hands together. “This feels like Waiting for Godot.”

Michelle shivered and tried to get her bearings, but it was no use. There were no landmarks in sight and she knew better than to try.

“How long are we staying?” Don asked.

Michelle sighed and started to regret putting so much faith and respect into the miserable Don Keaton. “Look, let’s just assume that we are here forever, okay? And by ‘forever’ I really mean: more than a billion years. Okay? Can you hold out for a billion years?”

Don tried to think that through and it didn’t make any sense. “But, people are looking for us,” he said.

“Yes, which is why we are hiding in the wilderness. No one will find us here. No letters will get here, no bounty hunters are willing to come here. There are literally four things in the wilderness. You, me, rocks, and the ground. Anything else will be something of a miracle.” She paused. “Five things.”

“What’s the fifth?”

“Someone else is trapped here.”

“Great! He can help us.”

“She, and: no. She’s here for a reason so drop it.”

Don looked around and wanted to burst into tears. He knew he had to man up and not let his fear of the nothing overwhelm him.

“I brought you here to save you,” said Michelle. “And me, I shouldn’t forget that. But mostly you.”

“Is this really better than Hell?” Don asked.

“It depends. Are you an optimist or a pessimist?”

“I’m a rea …”

“Realism is not an option,” snapped Michelle.

“But it’s true.”

“No! It’s just something pessimistic people say when they don’t want to be hassled for being too negative. You know, you’re just like my sister, always middle of the road.” Michelle checked her blisters and was grateful they weren’t as bad as she feared.

“The middle of the road is kinda where we are now and where we were then,” said Don.

“No. Limbo is only there to sort people into one of two options.”

“But people stay in Limbo. You, for example.”

“Yes, but … Don? Shut up.”

“But …”

“Seriously!” She stood and pointed a finger at him accompanied with a nasty look. “I am the only woman within millions of miles and I am many centuries older than you. So respect your elders, shut up, stop being so neurotic, shut up some more, and don’t say anything that might piss me off because I am here to save your life and you’re making me miserable! Now, we are just going to wait here until my blisters heal.”

Don gulped. “Thank you for saving me.”

“It’s too early for compliments Don, just sit down and shut up.” She still held on to the newsletter from the unions and flung it over to Don. “Read that if you want.”

Don did so but it was very confusing. He wanted to ask what each party represented but didn’t dare, he wanted to know the background of the politics, but he knew Michelle would simply shout at him if he bothered her. He did, however, read between the lines. “There’s a reshuffle of union leadership,” Don mumbled. Thankfully Michelle did not say a word.

Don read through the next article. “A union official is sitting in on the civil court proceedings to make sure they meet the standards of the public,” Don mumbled. “They’re taking a hard line against Death, making him responsible for rising taxes and the cost of living.” Then he peered closer into the article. “It says the tax rate is two and a half percent.” He glanced at Michelle, then he looked back to the article.

Michelle shook her head. She knew Death had no interest in those things, so he allowed the public free rein on how they lived and they could set their own prices. Everyone wanted more than they deserved and became angry when they were just as rich or poor as everyone else. Eve was using Death as a scapegoat. Sooner or later Michelle would find an article highlighting the need to arrest Michelle and Don on sight. Everyone in the realm would be looking for them. For now Eve was trying to limit the union’s failings while also casting the blame onto any rebellion that rose against her.

“It sounds like she has a secret police,” Don mumbled.

Michelle wasn’t surprised. Eve would need a network of spies and would have to work every angle of the coup and infiltrate every level of government in order for it to succeed.

_ _
p<>. [_She’s had years to set things in motion, _]Michelle thought. She wondered where Eve came from and where she was hiding before she made her grand appearance.

Don finished the brief newsletter and folded it over. He waited for what felt like an eternity. “You’re a Capricorn, aren’t you?”

Michelle was too surprised by his accuracy to remember that she was still annoyed with him. “Maybe.”

“Thank you for saving me.”

“You’re welcome,” Michelle said. She wanted her silence to rattle him some more but she couldn’t let it go. “You had a one in twelve chance with Capricorn.”

“Yeah, I guessed.”

“Good, because if you said ‘I know the type’ then we would have had problems.”

Don nodded, relieved that she had said that for him. “So, honestly, are we waiting here to be rescued?”

“Yes,” said Michelle.

“Can anyone come and rescue us?”

“No, only an Eternal or someone on direct Eternal orders.”

“Like Eve,” said Don.

“Yeah.”

“So if she orders everyone in Limbo to come and look for us …”

“She has to explicitly mention the wilderness and there is a lot of it to search. People get trapped here if they’re not too careful. But don’t worry, Death will save us.”

“Death … will save us,” said Don.

“That’s exactly what I said.”

“It’s just that I’m a little worried about him,” said Don.

“He can take care of himself.”

“That’s exactly it. He takes care of himself.”

Michelle arched an eyebrow at him and seemed a little slow on the uptake. “I don’t follow.”

Don shrugged to buy himself some thinking time. “If you think of any lovable rogue, the anti-hero, the guy who will fight the big guy no matter what the consequences are, risk everything to stand up for his values … that sort of person is wonderful at causing mayhem and inspiring others to act, but they are dreadful if they are put in command, in charge of a company or an empire or any type of formal bureaucracy.”

Michelle held off from groaning. “He’s an Eternal, Don, he’s going to be here long after we’re gone and he is used to wielding the kind of power that everyone on Earth is afraid of.”

“Exactly,” said Don. “He’s -”

“He’s not one of your character studies, Don!” shrieked Michelle, her voice rising to a piercing wail. She gripped her hands and laid them carefully down on her lap. “He’s not a bad guy.”

“I know.”

“Or were you talking about Kingston?”

“No. Death.”

Michelle rolled her eyes at Don. “You’ve spoken to him for all of five minutes and you think he’s a lovable rogue?”

“He’s sabotaging his own realm by flooding it with useless unions just to spite a usurper. [_And _]he’s best friends with Satan. Those two must have a lot in common to risk everything for each other.”

Michelle gritted her teeth and stared back at the endless horizon. “Then you can stay here while I get rescued and you can imagine all the fun things Eve will do once she’s in power, because she will be worse, far worse, and you have no idea how bad it will get.” Michelle looked away.

“I just -”

“Silence, Don. Now is an excellent time for silence.”

 

 

Eve stared at Death from across the boardroom. Death held his head up with one hand while his elbow rested on the table. They were surrounded by a dozen lawyers all working on their own version of Eve’s deathly stare.

“How many more of these meetings are there?” Death asked.

“Oh, these are vital to the smooth running of business and empire,” said Eve.

“That’s not what I asked.”

“Item eighteen on the agenda. Law 297,324, section 17, article 1, paragraph b. Are you familiar with this law?”

“I never thought a coup would be so drawn out and boring,” said Death. “How’s that author? Have you found him yet?”

“Item eighteen …”

“Or what about that fictional character? Any progress?”

“As I was saying …” said Eve.

Death lifted his head off his hand. “Make sure you check things thoroughly, you’d hate to lose on a technicality.”

Eve looked up and dropped the agenda on the table. “Death, I do not care for these constant interruptions.”

“Neither do I, you are ruining my perfectly good day and wearing out the priceless leather chairs with your fat asses. And you, Bertrand,” Death said, pointing to one of the lawyers. “Yes, you, I know when you fart into my chair. The next time you do it I will throw you out the window.”

Bertrand and the other lawyers, except for the two sitting either side of him, glared at Death.

“That would not be appropriate,” said Eve.

“Yeah, you can’t do that,” said Bertrand.

“I’m afraid I can,” said Death.

“No,” said Bertrand. “You can’t. You’ll go to jail for that.”

“You’re mistaking cause and effect there, Bertrand. Going to jail does not stop me from throwing you out of the window.”

“But you’ll go to jail,” said Bertrand, his voice crackling slightly.

“I’ll go to jail if I throw you out that window?” Death asked.

“Yes, you’ll go to jail if you throw me out that window. I guarantee it.”

“Well, this is confusing, very confusing,” said Death, as he shook his head.

“Can we move on?” asked Eve.

Death ignored her. “Because I distinctly remember you saying that I can’t do that. Now you are saying I can do that but I will face consequences if I do. So which is it? I can or I can’t? That is quite a puzzle, isn’t it? Do I throw you out the window and go to jail, or do I not throw you out the window and go to jail? Very confused.”

Eve sighed. “Bertrand, you may excuse us.”

“But …”

“Now, Bertrand.”

Bertrand glared at Death, who promptly smiled and waved enthusiastically as Bertrand stood, fixed his jacket, and left the boardroom. Death started to laugh to himself.

“These proceedings are no laughing matter, Death,” said Eve, her steely glare peering over her glasses.

Death couldn’t help himself and he roared with laughter, which seemed very out of place in a boardroom surrounded by eleven lawyers and one Eternal masquerading as a lawyer. Finally, Death let out a long whistle.

One of the lawyers leaned forward with some concern. “Mr Death?”

“No, no, let him be,” said Eve, “I am sure Death’s outburst is nothing more than a ploy to delay the agenda.”

Death wiped a tear away from his eye. “A he, a he, a hehe. Oh mercy.” He continued to giggle and then it got the better of him. Death launched into a full blown fit of hysterics. He howled with such laughter that the crowd of lawyers started to shift uncomfortably in their seats. It was unnerving to be that close to an Eternal cackling in maniacal laughter.

At last, Death settled down. “I just thought of the funniest thing ever,” said Death.

“Item eighteen on the agenda …”

“No, no, please, this is good,” said Death, holding one hand up.

Eve sighed and put the agenda back on the table.

“I just have to question the wisdom of pissing off an Eternal and trying to take what isn’t yours. You all are under the false illusion of power and control and none of you actually have any of it. You lot are so focused on the details, the finicky matters of how to usurp authority and hold it for yourselves … what is the legal process, what loopholes exist from a thousand years ago that can still be exploited, how you might be able to coerce people into voting for you … all of that … and yet you are really missing the greater point. Maybe not you,” he said to Eve, “but the rest of you, and everyone else in the city. It’s that only two people in the entire realm are able to go over to Earth and steal something like a nuclear warhead, bring it back here and detonate it, obliterating everything.”

The room fell into an unearthly discontent.

Death smiled as he saw the fear in their faces. “You may think that is unreasonable and outrageous, yet I am Death. Regardless of what you do to me I am still supposed to kill people. I’m not going to feel any remorse over it at all. It’s just part of a process. But as you toil away for months and years trying to execute the perfect hostile take over, just remember that I can take it all away in a second, legal or not, ethical or not, and blow you all apart and sort your pieces to Hell. Two people in this realm will survive. No one else will. I will continue, rebuild, and start everything over again. After all, I am not a cuddly fluffy bunny. I am the one responsible for all of the injustices on Earth, like why do good people die when assholes live? I am the inevitable. I am Death and I will end you all with a nuclear warhead today if I feel that you’re disrespecting me.”

The lawyers took the message home and weren’t willing to look Death in the eye. Eve, meanwhile, sighed. “Are you done?”

“For now,” said Death. He leaned back and relaxed into his chair.

“Good.” She triple clicked her pen. “Item eighteen. We have formed a committee to review archaic laws that are still on the books. People can be arrested for littering and vagrancy, did you know?”

“Yes, I did know, I do possess a perfect and flawless memory, thank you,” said Death.

“And yet you couldn’t remember the order of your books on the bookshelf,” said Eve.

“Because someone kept changing the order.”

“Well then, with any luck you’ll remember law 297,324, section 17, article 1, paragraph b,” said Eve.

“Of course, I wrote it,” said Death.

“Good, because it stipulates that a committee can be established to review archaic laws. Under careful review these laws can be deemed no longer necessary, if approved by a quorum of judges appointed by the president of Limbo. Then the ineffectual laws may be stricken from the law.”

Death rolled his hand in the air to get Eve to jump to the point.

“It means old laws can be eliminated, Death,” said Eve.

“Thank you, I am much smarter than your typical arts student, I don’t need it explained to me.”

Eve pushed across a piece of paper. “Do you know what this is?”

“Yes, I can read it from here, even when it’s upside down.”

“How remarkable,” said Eve. She then clasped her hands together and smiled. It was not a good look for her. “You have not always been the president of Limbo, isn’t that right?”

Death nodded.

“There have been presidents who have written their own laws, even their own secret laws and decrees.”

“I don’t know how secret they are,” said Death.

Eve pushed the piece of paper all the way over to Death. It was an official document with a curious signature at the bottom. “This is a presidential order signed by your predecessor. This one covers the appointment of a quorum of judges to be established if there is a crisis of government.”

“So … you can eliminate old laws?”

Eve nodded. “And enforce others previously ignored. After all, there are more than six million laws, most of them contradict another. Some are very interesting. Another presidential order, also signed by a predecessor, is put in place to see if a president has actually achieved the necessary number of votes to establish a government. These votes can not be affected in any way by any resident of another realm.”

“You’re boring me, Eve,” said Death. “If you’re trying to take over my realm and my company, by all means you may try.”

“Oh, my dear Death, I wouldn’t dream of it,” said Eve, laying her hands firmly on the table top.

“Good. Because I don’t need to listen to your boring drivel and legalese. You know perfectly well how fast I can move within my own realm. That nuclear warhead is now starting to appeal to me. That will solve a lot of my problems.”

The lawyers shifted in their seats and dropped their eyes away from Death.

“It might,” said Eve, “if it was still your realm, and yours alone. I’m afraid the realms belong to the Eternals. you’ve been here for so long it seems as though you’ve forgotten a few of the fundamentals.”

Death nodded. “I’m glad we understand each other. Do you have a quill?”

Eve glared at him.

“No? That’s right, no quills allowed.” Death pointed at one of the trying-hard-to-look-scary-and-failing lawyers. “You, give me your pen.”

He tried his best, but the lawyer succumbed and handed over his pen. Death quickly scribbled a few notes. “Wonderful thing about presidential decrees, you can write them whenever you want. All you need is the presence of a few lawyers.” He smiled and quickly counted the room. “I see eleven lawyers and one Eternal. I dare say that qualifies.”

Eve glared. “What are you doing?”

“Legalities, Eve. How many decrees do you think I need to write before I put a stop to all of your efforts?”

“I have more presidential decrees at my disposal and the confidence of thousands backing me up,” said Eve. Her eyes continued to flick to what Death was writing.

“You mentioned law 297,324, section 17, article 1, paragraph b,” said Death. “That a legal team must review archaic laws and then be presented to a quorum of judges? You seem to think that it was never enforced. Bad news for you, it has been, and has been going on for several thousand years.”

The colour in Eve’s face dropped and she was not alone. The eleven lawyers looked as though they were about to pass out as well.

“I know exactly the sort of laws that exist that would be useful to you,” said Death, while he continued writing furiously. “Some involve pay rises and taxes, some involve replacing a government official, some involve the person responsible for watering the plants. Well, every law has been reviewed and has previously been sent to a quorum of judges.”

“There is no record of that,” said Eve.

“I’m afraid there is. You just didn’t find it.”

Eve stiffened considerably. “You hid it from us?”

“Yes.”

“Where?”

“That would be telling,” said Death.

“I demand to know,” said Eve, as her voice rose with anger.

“Ha!” Death slapped the pen down on the table. “Finished. The coup is over.”

A momentary silence hung over the boardroom as Death and Eve stared each other down.

“You have jeopardised this entire realm,” said Eve.

“Curious you said that,” said Death. The newly written presidential decree disappeared in a flash of flames and smoke.

Eve sat up. “That went to Hell.”

“Yes, it did,” said Death.

Eve’s jaw fell open. A few of the more intelligent lawyers did the same. “You … kept the records in Hell?”

Death nodded. “Kinda makes sense, don’t you think? I mean, why else would I let Satan take a percentage of the company if I wasn’t going to gain a little security and leverage? Not only that, there was never a clause in law 297,324, section 17, article 1, paragraph b that said the quorum of judges has to be made up of judges from Limbo.”

Eve’s eyes flared in fury. “You used judges from Hell?” she roared.

“Of course! And you wouldn’t believe how many of them there are down South, you really wouldn’t.”

A burst of flame erupted from the middle of the room and a single sheet of paper fluttered to the table.

“What’s that?” Eve asked.

Death smiled victoriously. “All of my presidential decrees have been legalised, ratified, personified, glorified, and whatever adjective you think is best.” Death cleared his voice. “As of this moment every single law that has ever existed in Limbo has now been scrubbed and erased.” Death looked over each of the lawyers. “You people are now redundant.” Death gave them a gracious nod.

All of the lawyers looked ready to cry foul, but Death held up one hand quickly and silenced them. “I’m not done yet. I am proposing a brand new law.” Another piece of paper flashed off to Hell and quickly returned. “And it’s been approved. From now on, every law that is to be written into effect must be done in one of the most infuriating languages ever to have existed. Ayapaneco.”

Eve’s jaw dropped open. “What?”

“It’s been approved,” said Death, holding up the piece of paper. “See? There is only one law in effect in Limbo and it says that all subsequent laws must be written in Ayapaneco.”

“It’s an extinct language,” said Eve.

Death smiled with glee. “Fancy that.”

“The Eternals speak every language,” said Eve.

“Yes, but the masses don’t, so whatever law you invoke will be incomprehensible nonsense to anyone trying to read it.”

Eve titled her head to one side. “There is the Eternal’s Law.”

“There are several. To which are you referring?” asked Death.

“That by a vote of anything greater than fifty percent of the population we can effect a new law. All we need are the votes.”

“And as soon as anyone votes for you I will send them to Hell, thereby reducing your votes quite significantly.” Death stood and shot a grin at Eve. “You can tell your supporters that if they stop working they face the very real threat of being processed out of here. Also, my time is valuable, much more valuable than you think and these meetings are boring the crap out of me. So whenever you waste my time with your presence I will suspend all death on Earth.”

“The people in Life will notice if they’re not dying,” said Eve.

“Yeah. That is being put into effect … now. Tick tock, Eve, no one in Life is dying, tick tock.”

Eve shot him the most evil of looks she could manage. “You will be stopped. The people will not put up with this.”

“I’m sure everyone in Life will be delighted that no one is dying.”

Eve’s shoulders tensed and her fists contracted tightly. “I was talking about the people of Limbo.”

“Oh, well you should’ve been clearer with your words. But just as long as you remember that this is all your fault, with your pushing and meddling. Now, everyone, get out of my building.”

The lawyers all rose and shuffled out slowly, much to Death’s delight. He smiled and waved as they left, then he sat back in his chair and reclined as a great relief fell upon him. He didn’t care if this was going to be his downfall, all that mattered was that he did it with style.

XII

Indigo’s eyes went wide with fright. “Oh shit!”

Satan looked up with a mild sense of wonder. Any psychic with that kind of reaction was never a good sign.

Satan ran across his office to get to Indigo. “Yes? What happened? Tell me!”

Indigo still held a look of utter shock.

Satan shook the psychic by the shoulders. “Tell me what you saw or I will hold you in the dungeon of self inflicting pain with a stack of sharp paper edges, a cheese grater, and a bucket of lemon juice!”

Indigo blinked and focused on Satan. “It’s Death.”

Satan arched an eyebrow. “You can see that clearly into another realm and yet you can’t see into this one?”

“He has had contact with this realm,” said Indigo.

Satan paused, thinking it over. “Recently?”

“Recently, yes.”

“Does this contact involve me?”

“Recently, no.”

“Would I be likely to find out about this contact without the use of psychic powers?”

Indigo swayed in the breezeless room. Obviously such a question was too difficult to answer.

“Tell me about this contact,” said Satan.

“There are no more laws,” said Indigo.

Satan cocked his head to one side. “Did … did Death declare martial law, or something?”

“He mentioned detonating a nuclear warhead,” said Indigo.

“Huh,” said Satan. “Well … that’s one way of … Is he actually going to do that?”

“He threatened to, yes,” said Indigo.

“Well, my hands are tied, like a protestant school girl at midnight. I can’t even get to Limbo, can I?”

“There are no laws,” said Indigo.

“Yeah, that’s the part I’m curious about,” said Satan. “Where are there no laws?”

“Limbo.”

“He just outlawed all laws?” Satan asked.

“There are no laws,” said Indigo.

“And he used Hell to help him?” Satan asked. He stroked his chin. “Interesting. Most interesting because Indigo is able to see into that realm.” Satan paused. “Hang on, if there are no laws, can I go back to Limbo?”

“If you choose,” said Indigo.

“Very interesting.”

 

 

Despite John’s best efforts at being menacing and towering, the bounty hunter still had not said a word, even as he was forced to trudge through the Spanish hillside naked and barefooted, mocked mercilessly by all the passers by. Kingston, John, and Catalina followed him.

“It’s not the greatest view,” said John.

“You’re telling me,” said Catalina. “I’d rather remain at two sails than stare at his rear all day.”

Kingston and John didn’t quite understand that.

“It’s true!” said Catalina.

“I’m not surprised myself,” said John, inhaling profoundly and puffing out his chest. “You remember what I said about hair colour? Well, this guy has all the wrong hair colour, so you know he’s up to no good.”

“What’s this about hair colour?” Catalina asked.

“Ah, nothing, just that you can tell a lot about a person’s character by their hair.”

“I’ve only seen black hair, white hair, and no hair,” said Catalina. “You two are the first ‘other’ I’ve seen.”

“We do kinda stand out,” said Kingston.

Catalina nodded. “Maybe you two should wear a hat and try to blend in.”

“What?” said John, as though his honour had just been questioned. “A hat? No, no, no, no, no, no. Can’t wear hats. No.”

“You’re a very strange man,” said Catalina.

“Men in hats can never be trusted. They can hide under a hat and go places they shouldn’t be allowed,” said John.

“I think a man in a hat looks sexy,” said Catalina. She arched an eyebrow at John, making him wonder if he was being tested.

John shook his head and stuck to his convictions. “No. You should never trust a man in a hat.”

“Your bounty hunter wasn’t wearing a hat,” said Catalina.

“I bet he wishes he could have one right now,” said John. “The sun must be getting to him.”

The bounty hunter stumbled along, kicking his toes into the ground and grimacing with every step.

Catalina tugged at John’s shirt. “So what do they say about people with black hair? Anything good?”

“Oh yes. Well, unfortunately good.”

“Unfortunately good?”

“I’ll explain,” John said quickly, seeing Catalina’s eyebrow twitch, which caused him to reconsider while talking. “See, and this is unfortunate, you see, it’s all on a sliding scale, really, but people with black hair, they tend to … you know, if you give me a moment I can think … it’s the sun, you see, plays havoc on one’s mind.”

Kingston didn’t blame John for trying to be evasive. He remembered John saying that no one could ever tell if black haired people were in a good mood or bad, so they preferred to talk to someone they could recognise and thus ignore the black haired crowd, which eventually put everyone in a bad mood.

“I’m waiting,” said Catalina.

“I’ve only met English black haired people,” said John, “so I haven’t quite mastered everything yet. But when I do, I will tell you.”

Catalina nodded. “So black haired people can be redeemed?”

“Yes,” said John.

Kingston shook his head and knew that was a rookie move.

Catalina drew in a long breath. “So … we need to be redeemed?”

John realised he was screwed no matter what he said. “That’s not quite what I was saying, but look, see, Kingston has brown hair.”

“I noticed,” said Catalina. “But we weren’t talking about him.”

“And I have red hair,” said John. “We speak our mind, and that usually gets us into trouble. But dark brown haired people, see, like Kingston, they usually act before thinking and have the arrogance of believing they can get themselves out of trouble, and while that is true it’s usually because they need the help of others. Like you and me.” John smiled, hoping that would smooth everything out. “But, really, I think we can all agree that men in hats can never be trusted, don’t you?”

“I don’t agree,” said Catalina.

John opened his mouth a few times and closed it just as many. “Kingston? A little help?”

Kingston burst out laughing. “Hey, she’s your girlfriend.” Kingston continued walking, desperately wanting to keep prodding the bounty hunter with the scythe, but equally desperate not to give his enemy an opportunity to grab the scythe and turn the tables. After a few seconds Kingston realised that John and Catalina had stopped walking.

John was looking at Catalina nervously, his heart beating so loudly that he could hear it thumping in his ears and he was sure his whole chest was shaking. “So, what he just said …”

Catalina smiled at John. “Yes?”

“That … you … might? Might be my girlfriend?”

Catalina bit down on her lower lip. She found it cute to see such a hulking man tower over everyone else in the world and yet he was flummoxed by one little señorita.

“So you … are … my girlfriend?”

She smiled and nodded. “I am.” She wandered back towards Kingston and their prisoner.

John punched a fist into the air and smiled. “I have a girlfriend!”

Kingston looked back at John and smiled. “Well done, John, well done. Your first one?”

Catalina turned slowly to see John’s answer.

John took a few seconds too long. “Yes! Yes, Catalina is my first girlfriend!”

Catalina laughed and slapped the back of the bounty hunter to get a move on. John hurried after them.

“I’m starting to re-think my position on the black haired non-English people,” said John.

“Just as well, about four fifths of the world have black hair,” said Kingston.

John’s eyes went as wide as a bullfighter’s moments before being gored. “No!”

“Yep.”

“Nooooo,” said John.

“Yeah, so when you see a whole bunch of ancient Greeks, try to keep an open mind.”

They were heading out of town so that no one would see where they were going, in case another bounty hunter came along and started asking questions.

John pulled Kingston aside. “I need some advice about Catalina.”

“Don’t piss her off,” said Kingston.

“That’s the problem there,” said John.

“You don’t want to leave her behind, do you?”

At that moment Catalina looked behind at the two men caught in a hushed conversation and saw their faces go bright red. She looked puzzled. She then saw John slap Kingston quite hard on the shoulder and Kingston apologise for something. She shrugged it off and continued avoiding looking at the bounty hunter’s bare arse.

“What did you say that for?” whispered John.

“I was just checking!”

“We can’t leave my girlfriend behind!”

“I didn’t say that, I was merely asking,” said Kingston.

“Well … no. I like her.”

“So do I.”

John nodded. “Good. You’re not just saying that?”

“I’m not just saying that. So what is the problem?”

“I’m afraid that if I start talking to her she might spontaneously shout at me,” said John.

“Right, well … two people, no matter how much they get along will eventually find something to shout about,” said Kingston.

“I know. Believe me, I lived in a forest with nothing much to do. I know.”

“Good.”

“So how do I get her to not shout at me often?”

Kingston drew in a deep breath, thinking over all of the bad advice he had ever heard and given. “You could try sandwiching her.”

John nodded in approval. Then: “What’s that?”

“You say something nice about her, then something bad, then something nice. That’s a sandwich. See?”

“And she won’t shout at me if I do that?”

“She will shout at you less,” said Kingston. “Because sometimes people have to say unpleasant things to other people, so if you sandwich it between two nice things it makes the unpleasantness less unpleasant. You follow?”

“A … little?”

“Okay, I will show you. John, you are a wonderful singer.”

John rolled his shoulders back. “Thank you.”

“But singing at the crack of dawn with a mighty bellow and waking me up is unpleasant and not good for our friendship.”

John’s shoulders fell forward. “Oh, I’m sorry.”

“But, in the evening, I would really like to hear you sing because you do it very well.” Kingston nodded and smiled, then tapped his friend on the shoulder. “See?”

John started nodding. “Hey yeah! You gave me two compliments there! That was really nice of you.”

“My pleasure. Do you want to practice on me?” Kingston asked.

“Okay. Er … you fight very well against many opponents.” John paused and looked to Kingston for guidance. “You’re not going to say ‘thank you’?”

“No, see, I don’t need to say anything. You can just keep talking.”

“Oh. Er, you are too secretive and you keep things to yourself when I should be an equal partner.”

Kingston stared at the ground and felt the guilt rise within him.

John waited to see if Kingston was going to apologise. When he didn’t John carried on. “You look very good in a suit.” John shot Kingston a smile of to show that he was finished.

“Okay, that was good, wasn’t it?”

“Yes,” said John, rolling his shoulders back. “I feel very good about that.”

“Excellent. It helps if all three things are related. Remember how I focused on your singing?”

“But I couldn’t think of anything related.”

“I know, but it helps.”

“Oh.”

“But you were very good,” said Kingston. “Are you ready to try it on Catalina?”

John looked across to his girlfriend and imagined the very worse thing happening to him. Since she was currently reading her book while walking he decided not to bother her. “I’ll try it later.”

Catalina looked around and had her finger bookmarking the pages. “I think we are far enough away.”

“Good,” said Kingston.

“I have found the correct passage to take us to a muse.”

Kingston nodded. “And these muse people have good ideas?”

“They do,” said Catalina.

“And is it really necessary for our bounty hunter to be naked?” John asked.

The bounty hunter grunted at that.

“You want to say something?” Kingston asked the bounty hunter.

Apparently the bounty hunter did not want to say something and kept his mouth shut.

“I mean, is it really fair?” John asked.

“Don’t worry. Remember in London how we had to rob a policeman and a few passers by?”

“Yeah.”

“And then we had to ask Don Quixote for money?”

“Yeah.”

“Well then, I figure we can sell a naked bounty hunter the next time we need some cash.”

John nodded. “Ah yeah, that is a good idea.”

Catalina smiled at them. “We can go now.”

“To ancient Greece?”

“Yes.”

“Okay,” said Kingston, nervous about how this was going to work. “Four people teleporting at the same time. Right, John, Catalina, hold onto me. I will hold onto the bounty hunter.” Kingston death stared the bounty hunter. “If you try to escape, so help me …” Kingston wished that he had more time to think of a good threat. The problem was he was never very good at making threats. He knew he was very good at letting people think that he had threatened them with nothing more than silence. The problem was also that he was sure the bounty hunter was better at making and taking threats than Kingston was.

The bounty hunter death stared Kingston.

Catalina flashed her long fingernails. “I can hold him by the pito and cojones,” she said.

The three men flinched.

“How about I just hold him by the arm?” said Kingston.

“Hang on,” said John. He pointed to Catalina. “Can you swim?”

“Yes. Why?”

“Just checking,” said John. He put on a brave face but it was clear that he was starting to reconsider the plan, having only just agreed to walk to Munich regardless of how far it was instead of trusting an instrument of Death’s.

The four of them gathered together. Kingston concentrated as hard as he could on the open passage Catalina held out for him.

_ _
p<>. Take us to a muse, take us to a muse, Kingston recited.

“How exactly does this work?” Catalina asked.

_ _
p<>. Pop.

Kingston, John, and Catalina gasped. They stumbled back and the last thing Kingston saw was a naked foot shooting very quickly between his legs, and the sharp and agonising pain of a bounty hunter kicking him in the balls. Kingston gasped and fell back, tears bursting out of him like angels fleeing the scene of a crime.

John also fell onto his back, his hands covering his groin and a look of horror, akin to Dear God why???

The bounty hunter ran for it.

“Ay![_ Déu!]” Catalina crouched down beside John. “[_Mi amor], are you okay?”

John’s look of surprised pain shifted to resounding anger. He grunted, growled, his eyes bulged, and he staggered to his feet. The sight of the naked bounty hunter running off was too much for him to ignore and John bellowed a mighty war cry. “FUUWAAAAAH!”

The seven foot tall woodsman in a nineteenth century business suit bounded after the escapee, his feet thumping into the shaking ground, causing seismic shocks as he tore after his opponent.

“MY BALLS!”

All at once the bounty hunter realised that he had made a slight tactical error in pissing off Little John. He stumbled over the loose rock and hard ground, the heels of his feet giving him a sharp pain with every stride, and he could feel the hulking giant bearing down on him.

“MY BALLS!” John roared again.

The bounty hunter started to pray for his own balls, realising they were now likely forfeit. Barely eighty yards from where they landed, the bounty hunter felt a thunderous fist slam down on the top of his head and the world started to fade as he tumbled to the ground. The bounty hunter went down. On uneven solid rock. Covered in divots and pebbles.

Kingston and Catalina stood very still, their eyes white with surprise and a profound respect never to annoy Little John for as long as they lived.

John dragged the unconscious bounty hunter back over the dry rock, one eye still bulging with adrenaline, the other squinting in the sun. His shoulders still rose up and down with every breath and he stopped just in front of Kingston and his girlfriend.

Catalina didn’t know quite what to say.

Neither did Kingston.

Neither did John.

The bounty hunter was unconscious so he couldn’t have said anything even if he wanted.

There was one person who had a good idea of what to say. “Merciful Zeus!”

Kingston, John, and Catalina looked over and caught sight of a beautiful and lithe woman, wearing a flighty white tunic that billowed in the breeze. She carried a light blue sash behind her back that flowed over her arms. She looked at the four arrivals with a healthy dose of surprise.

“I think you can let go of him,” said the muse.

John dropped the bounty hunter’s foot and heard it thump against the ground.

They were standing on a rocky shore surrounded by glorious blue water. It felt as though they were on a small Mediterranean island in the middle of a perfect afternoon. Behind the new arrivals, in the distance, were some flowers and a grassy field. There was no building anywhere around them.

Kingston shook the teleporting migraine from his head and regained his composure. He found himself smiling at the beautiful woman, took in her enchanting lips, her perfect smile, and noticed every curl of her hair. She wore an intricate crown and carried a thick book with its edges lined in gold. “You’re a muse?”

“I am Calliope, the muse of epic poetry.”

Kingston didn’t know why but that information was fascinating. “Oh yeah?”

“Yes. Melpomene, the muse of tragedy, was busy.”

“That’s too bad,” said John.

Catalina was caught in a gaze. “She’s beautiful.” She extended one hand to touch Calliope’s robe. It was very soft and Catalina started to quiver. “You are a goddess.”

Calliope smiled. “Yes, I am. I am used to seeing the robust of heroes come my way, and the lords of rhyme and philosophy, but you four are truly a surprise.”

The bounty hunter started moaning.

“I don’t want to buy him,” said the muse.

“… You know what we’re about to say?” Kingston asked.

“No. But I have very good ideas.”

“That’s one super power I’ve always wanted, good ideas on demand,” said Kingston.

The crowd remained quiet, staring at Kingston.

“Sorry,” said Kingston. “I couldn’t help myself.”

The muse shrugged it off. “I see you have come to seek my counsel. I can not offer it to just anyone, you must understand.”

“Of course,” said Kingston, and he bowed his head. “How may we, uh, attain your counsel?”

The muse paused, allowing her guests to think for themselves.

Kingston didn’t have any good ideas so he went with the basics. “I’m sorry, you’ve given us your name and we haven’t done the same. My name is Kingston Raine.”

Catalina smiled and curtsied. “Catalina.”

John nodded. “John Little.”

Kingston pointed at the bounty hunter slowly regaining his senses to a mass of crippling pain and bloodied buttocks. “And that’s some guy who has been trying to kill us for a while. We don’t have a name for him.”

“But we should,” said Catalina, “or else it would be rude.” She smiled awkwardly again at the muse, as though she had met her very first fairytale and it was as glorious as she always imagined it to be. To Kingston and John it looked as though Catalina had developed a schoolgirl crush.

“Right,” said Kingston. “A name for our attacker …” He looked to Catalina but she was too busy living in awe of the muse. Kingston looked to John.

“Uh, M … Mar … Martin?”

“Chester?” Kingston offered.

“Theodore.”

“Monty.”

John shrugged. “I like Monty.”

Kingston smiled, looked back to the muse and pointed at the bounty hunter. “This is Monty.”

“How interesting to meet you,” Calliope said with a gentle bow of her head.

John was doing his best to sandwich the muse. “You have beautiful hair.”

“Why thank you.”

“Why do you live on a rock?”

“What?”

“You have lovely sandals.”

Calliope blinked for a moment. Catalina and Kingston blushed. Calliope laid a hand on John’s shoulder and realised just how tall he was. Her arm was at full stretch. “I know you mean well.”

“Thank you.”

“I am sure I will be able to help you all,” Calliope said.

“All of us?”

“All four of you.”

Kingston, John, and Catalina looked down at Monty, who was now listening in on their conversation. “Even him?” Kingston asked.

Calliope nodded.

“No,” declared Catalina. “No, he is a bad man. He beat a poor young boy in an alley, had him by the throat.”

Calliope nodded. “And John Little almost killed him just moments ago. I can’t ignore one act of violence and condemn something I haven’t seen. I either help all of you or none of you. But I won’t know what to do until you’ve told me as much as you can.”

Kingston sighed. He was getting tired of hearing his own story. Worse still was that Catalina and Monty would now be privy to all of his secrets. But he was running out of options and speaking to a muse did not seem like a complete waste of time.

Thankfully, Calliope selected Catalina to speak first. Catalina told her life story and how she came to meet John, Kingston, and Monty. She spoke of her uncle chasing after her fiancé and her dealing with the various customers of the inn, her dreams of returning to Catalonia to see her grandfather’s orchard, and blushed when she spoke of John. She said meeting him was like a lightning bolt – devastatingly powerful and destructive, yet something she had always dreamed of and never expected it to happen with someone outside of Catalonia.

Calliope smiled while John blushed. Calliope then selected John to tell his story and he did so with eloquence. Talking about his own world, it was clear that he was an intelligent young man who spoke without the need to pause or use filler words while lost in his own thoughts. He was also strong and capable, able to hunt and track better than most of his people. It was only when he was out of his depth that he really started to feel like a fool. He spoke highly of Kingston and was grateful that, despite Kingston’s occasional bad mood, there was never any bad blood between them and that Kingston was never condescending. That made Kingston blush and he feared having to speak next.

Instead, Calliope selected Monty. At first Monty tried to refuse, but through some unseen and unheard enchantment Monty began to blubber as though he had been holding onto the greatest secret in the world and was dying to be a gossip queen all over again. He confessed that his grandfather was Greek and Monty had grown up listening to all of the old Greek stories. Monty died in 1960 and pleaded with one of the processing agents in Limbo. Pleas were common, he understood that, but Monty was persuasive and found himself on probation. Probation lasted for one hundred years and required a one hundred percent success rate, which was why bounty hunters usually worked in teams, because as long as one team member was successful then the whole team was successful. Monty, however, was one of only two agents to work alone and still he maintained a perfect record. Mostly he had to chase down people trying to escape processing and he let it slip that Michelle and Don Keaton were on the run. Kingston did not take that news well. At last, Monty fell quiet, and it was Kingston’s turn.

Kingston shrugged and stared at the ground. “I’m in love with a woman who probably hates me for leaving her. We’ve ruined each other enough times that by all sense of reason we should never see each other again. But I’ve seen my life without her and it’s a misery that I don’t want to experience again. I willing to risk everything to save her.”

Calliope listened and was saddened by Kingston’s life, his career of mischief and his devotion to Joanna. Calliope’s heart seemed to break when he promised again to find Joanna, to rescue her, to make up for all the mistakes he had made. She saw how he had convinced himself that it didn’t matter if Joanna liked him or not, all that mattered was the most important person in the world was safe.

Calliope lowered her head. “Very well. I have heard you all and I am grateful that you have revealed so much of your souls.” She looked at the bounty hunter. “Limbo should never be a permanent goal. You will have to decide within the next few days where your loyalties really lie. If they lie within yourself and yourself only, then you face the worst news of all.”

Monty looked glum and nodded. Calliope reached out and held him by the shoulder, then with her other hand she touched the scythe. With a pop, Monty was gone.

The other three were aghast. “Where did you send him?” Kingston asked.

Calliope remained calm. “He has to make his own choices. I can’t promise he will never bother you again. In fact, he will probably make life very difficult for the three of you. Luckily the long walk through the desert has given you a head start.”

“He knows where we’re going,” said John.

“Yes, and he’s known for some time. My advice for you three is: stay together, keep each other safe, trust each other. Your world is stranger than most people’s and it will require unique thinking.” She looked over Kingston. “And when you see your Joanna again …”

“Yeah,” sighed Kingston. “That will take a lot of explaining.”

“We’re all probably going to need a miracle,” said John.

“Most likely,” said Calliope.

“Can you help us?” Catalina asked, with a mix of hope and awe.

“I can help you with good ideas,” said Calliope. “And you won’t be able to do anything from here. You need to be closer to your time. But Kingston is right.”

Kingston looked up, surprised to hear such a bizarre phrase from a goddess. “I’m right?”

Calliope smiled. “In so much as: getting to Munich will be difficult. When you are there it will be easier to get to your era.”

“Oh.” It was strange to hear someone else say what he had been thinking all along. He wondered if that meant it was true, or just that Calliope was humouring him.

“John? You mentioned something about a miracle.”

John nodded. “I did. Can you do miracles?”

Calliope paused. “Miracles are small acts, turning one thing into many, discovering an ability you didn’t have before.”

“Right.” John hoped to think of the answer before Calliope did.

“You do not need a miracle,” Calliope said. She saw her three guests drop their shoulders in disappointment. “You need something much bigger.”

“Bigger than a miracle?” Catalina asked.

“Can we wish for something bigger than a miracle?” John asked.

Kingston raised his eyes. [_That’s it … _]he thought.

Calliope smiled when she saw the look of realisation on Kingston’s face. “Are you ready?”

Kingston gripped the scythe tightly. “Yes.”

John looked a little lost. “What’s going on?”

“Both of you hold onto me again,” said Kingston.

“You know where to go?” John asked.

“I do,” said Kingston.

Calliope leaned out and touched Kingston on the chest. “I wish you all the best.”

Kingston locked eyes with the beautiful goddess and smiled. “Thank you.”
_ _
p<>. Pop.

 

 

Kingston, John, and Catalina gasped and staggered backwards. Thankfully there was no one kicking two of them in the balls this time. As soon as Kingston was able to look around he was disappointed. He felt the strength in his body fade away and, even though he had been utterly confident just a minute ago, now he was devastated. “I don’t think it worked,” he said.

In front of them were a few towers with jagged roofs at every floor, people with black hair and olive skin wearing wrap-around clothing and sandals. There were red lanterns hanging from the buildings and unusual writing that John and Catalina had never seen before. There was a twang of a strange instrument nearby that made Catalina shudder. They were in a large town, and John and Catalina were not at all comfortable being so far away from home.

John looked at everyone moving by. Everyone had black hair. “Oh dear.”

“We’re in China,” said Kingston, though he was more baffled than the other two.

“Never heard of it,” said John. “Is it near to Munich?”

“No, it’s almost as far away from Munich as you can get.”

“Did you mean to bring us to China?” Catalina asked.

“I thought we would end up in the Middle East,” said Kingston. “What we needed was a wish, right? Well I only know of two stories where wishes come true: the Monkey Paw, and I’m not willing to do that one because bad things happen when you wish … and Aladdin.”

“I don’t know Aladdin,” said Catalina.

“Neither do I,” said John.

Kingston shrugged. “I thought it was a Middle Eastern story. A boy discovers a magic lamp.”

“You have a magic scythe,” said John.

“Yes I do. Anyway, in the magic lamp is a genie and the genie grants wishes. I was hoping we could wish our way to Munich.”

“Oh,” said John.

Catalina was still petrified with what she saw. “Everything is very strange here.”

“Yeah,” said Kingston. “I’m a little confused by this as well.”

They looked around and still were not willing to take a step in any direction. There were Chinese people watching them, trying their best to stay away from the unusual foreigners who happened to appear out of thin air. It looked as though the crowd was gathering for a ceremony.

Kingston looked up to the sky. It was almost sunset. They would have to find somewhere to spend the night and they had no money and no way to afford food. Once again he considered using the scythe and wondered just what Calliope was playing at, sending them here instead of the Middle East.

John looked over Kingston, who appeared to be deep in thought. “Are you okay?”

“I don’t know. Last week everything was perfectly normal. Now I’m looking for a magic lamp in a story that doesn’t exist after getting constantly blown off course while teleporting. It’s a lot to take in. I’m usually much better at this fish out of water thing, I swear.”

“At least no one has been able to kill you yet,” said John.

“Well, they do try, and quite often,” said Kingston.

“Really?” asked Catalina. She looked as though she was beginning to reconsider tagging along with Kingston.

There was a call from one of the towers, a human speaker crying out to the people below in a chant. The crowd hurried to get into place and soon they all faced Kingston, John, and Catalina.

“Uh … they’re looking at us,” said John.

“Yes,” said Kingston. “I’m a little concerned about that.”

Catalina gripped onto John as tightly as possible.

The crowd dropped to their knees and lowered their faces and hands to the ground in worship.

Catalina loosened her grip.

John blinked a few times. “Are they doing that for our benefit?”

Kingston listened to the speakers in a loud chant, looked at the sun and felt one of the most surprising moments in his life. “They’re praying,” said Kingston.

“Did you wish for that?” John asked.

“No, they’re Muslim. We’re in China and yet these people are Muslim.” As Kingston felt his mind completely freeze in a total brain lock, the three of them watched the crowd pray and hoped they weren’t going to be too annoyed that three trespassers were in their line of sight.

The threesome watched, intrigued by such an unusual sight. They stepped gingerly out of the crowd’s eye line and hid behind a wall. The praying finished and the crowd rose to their feet. They dispersed and went about their lives as normal.

“Huh,” said John. He had never seen anything like that before and desperately wanted to ask Kingston for his opinion. “Can we join in next time?” John asked.

Kingston was stuck trying to figure out what kind of story they were in.

Catalina looked around and saw a young Chinese boy in brand new clothes hurry by. “Did you say a lamp?”

“Yes,” said Kingston. He started shaping it with his hands. “A lamp, small, gold, like a tea pot, I think.”

“What’s a tea pot?” Catalina asked.

“It looks a lot like a lamp,” said Kingston, deciding that now was not the time to talk about tea.

Catalina pointed into the crowd. “Do you see that boy there? He had a lamp.”

Kingston was trying to weigh up the odds of that being just a coincidence and decided to rule out any chance in one go. He shouted: “Aladdin!”

Some of the crowd stopped to look at the strange man shouting and quickly looked away again. The young boy, however, stopped, turned around, and held a look of sheer surprise and recognition.

Kingston’s eyes went wide with another round of being completely baffled.

The young boy ran off.

_ _
p<>. Okay … _]Kingston thought. [_So Aladdin is Chinese and we’re in Muslim China.

“Should we follow him?” John asked.

“Yes, and quickly!” said Kingston.

They chased after the little boy.

XIII

Edmonds watched his boss getting ready. “Just how many swords are you going to take, sire?”

Satan shrugged. “You can never have enough swords when going to Limbo. I have the claymore to scare the Germans, the broadsword to scare the French, the katana to scare anyone afraid of the Japanese, the rapier in case I am challenged to a duel, the battle axe to scare the Scandinavians, the machete to scare the South Americans, the scimitar to scare anyone who’s scared of the scimitar, the daggers in case I’m in close quarters, the throwing axes in case there is a crowd, the bolas in case someone is trying to run away … I’m missing something … maybe the nunchucks? No, I have the Japanese angle covered already.” Satan looked himself up and down. “I’m feeling a little under dressed for the occasion.”

Edmonds nodded to show that he was listening, but he was more concerned about his overladen boss.

Satan gave his assistant a quick nod. “Each sword is suited to a different style of combat and combat is mostly psychological, so the right sword will always be better than the wrong sword. Now then, my friend is up to no good and doing something stupid. It’s time to get cracking.” Satan turned to Indigo. “Indigo? Last chance, who is your boss in Hell?”

Indigo swayed as though he was carried by an invisible breeze.

“I thought as much. So tell me, where’s Michelle?”

“I do not see Michelle,” said Indigo.

“What an outstanding psychic you are,” mumbled Satan. He walked over to his desk and picked up a piece of parchment. He scribbled a note and put it inside a return envelope, then in a flash of flame and smoke it disappeared.

There was another flash of flame and the return letter dropped onto Satan’s desk.

 

 

Don Keaton was hiding behind Michelle.

“You can stop checking out my ass,” Michelle said.

“I’m not.”

“Then what you’re doing is really creepy,” Michelle said.

“Satan’s coming!”

“To rescue us.”

“I don’t think you’ve really thought this through,” said Don.

“Stop checking out my ass.”

Don glanced down.

“I said stop it!”
_ _
p<>. FWUMF!

“Aaaaggh!” cried Don.

Satan wore his black leather jacket over his black t-shirt, had on beat-up jeans and work boots, sported a grin, and carried fifteen weapons that bulged from his outfit.

“Oh, thank you!” cried Michelle.

“Good to see I’m appreciated. Now come over here and give Satan a hug.”

Michelle leaped forward and dragged Don along with her.

_ _
p<>. FWUMF!

The three of them gasped, staggered, and spluttered. It was by far the most painful and nauseating teleport they had experienced. Now they were on the very edge of Limbo.

“This is as close as I could get us,” gasped Satan.

Don looked around. “Are we still in the wilderness?”

“No,” said Michelle. “You see that dot of light in the distance?”

“I’m short sighted,” said Don.

Michelle sighed. “Of course you are.”

“We’re one hundred and eighty seven leagues from the main building,” said Satan.

“Oh. That sounds far,” said Don.

“It is.”

“How come you guys can still see it?”

Michelle sighed again. “See what I’ve had to deal with?”

Satan shrugged. “Limbo is perfectly flat. There is no horizon.”

Don raised his eyes and was intrigued by that.

“Meanwhile,” said Satan, “Hell is inside a sphere so I can see everyone and everyone can see me.”

“Huh,” said Don. Michelle, though, quickly shook her head.

“Is something wrong with your head?” asked Satan.

“No,” said Michelle. “But I know for certain that Hell is anything but spherical.”

“I assure you -”

“Nope.”

“I’ve lived there for a long time.”

“Don’t care. There are too many caverns, you can’t see everyone.”

Don leaned in. “What’s it like in Heaven?”
_ _
p<>. Wham!

Don flew three metres and tumbled to the ground. His nose was bloodied and the shock of it all was too much for him to process in one go. He laid still as he slowly came to terms with what had just happened. Then the pain started to rip through him.

“aaaaaaaAAAAAOOOOOWWWW!”

Michelle glared at Satan. “That wasn’t nice.”

“I know. He hurt my feelings.”

Michelle knelt down next to Don and helped him sit up. “Eee hid mah!” Don spluttered.

Michelle whispered: “Do you see his swords and battle axes?”

“Yeth.”

“Would you prefer him to hit you with one of those?”

“No.”

She helped him stand up.

Satan looked around. “Michelle? What’s going on?”

“Eve is taking over. It’s a coup.”

“Where’s Death?”

“Either in his office or on holiday, I guess,” said Michelle.

“Well then, I guess I better go and find him. By the way, Don?”

“Yeth?”

“I actually like your writings.”

Don looked up. “Really?”

“I like them too!” said Michelle quickly.

“Well, it looks like you’ve spent the last few days shouting at him, am I right?”

Michelle fell quiet.

Don mumbled. “She had her reasons.”

Satan smiled. “He’s had a few very traumatic days and he’s used to spending his time in a dimly lit room with no distractions. He’s no superhero. And it could be a lot worse. Imagine if you were stuck with an accountant.” Satan shuddered.

“I like accountants,” mumbled Don.

Satan was left gasping in shock. “You … but … why?”

“Can you get us back to Limbo?”

“Yeah, it involves a lot of walking, so would you like the answer in metric, imperial, infernal, or colloquial?”

“Uh …”

“I thought as much,” said Satan. “Now then, I’m off to help Grim. You two be good, okay?”

Satan disappeared.

Michelle sighed.

“Who’s Grim?” Don asked.

“The Grim Reaper.”

“Oh.”
_ _
p<>. Pop.

“Gaaah!” cried Don.

A tall and imposing, yet rather stupid man, grinned at Don and Michelle. He was a bounty hunter. He chuckled to himself. “Hehe, ahhhh. Gotcha.”

 

 

Aladdin ran through his Chinese home town pursued by a feisty Catalan, a giant woodsman, and an Oxford educated industrial thief. The town was crowded as everyone hurried back home for the evening and were surprised to see a man towering over them hurtle through the streets with boundless amounts of energy.

Kingston and Catalina huffed after Little John. The crowd parted quickly, fearing the giant, and Kingston knew there was no way they could get through this town without drawing a lot of attention to themselves. Kingston’s heart plummeted when he saw John’s fist rise up into the air.

“Don’t hit him!” Kingston shouted out. “John! Don’t hit him!”

John looked back, puzzled, and lowered his fist. Then, Aladdin tripped. John gasped, collided into the falling boy, and tumbled over him. They both slammed into the cobbled street and rolled forward.

“Ay! Déu!

Kingston stopped next to Aladdin. The boy was still alive, though injured and breathing faintly. It looked as though he had fainted from the sprint.

Catalina stopped next to Aladdin as well. “Is he okay? Oh, the poor boy, is he hurt?” She checked Aladdin’s forehead and held his hand. She then shot a powerful look at John. “Please tell me you weren’t about to hit this boy over the head!”

John staggered to his feet, exhausted and injured. “What? No, I was just … no.” He gasped and wheezed.

Kingston looked around. They were in the middle of the street surrounded by a hundred people watching them. There was no easy way out of this. He looked down at the dusty old lamp and knew he should just take it, but he risked angering the genie inside. There was a chance the genie knew exactly what was happening in the street, so Kingston had to play this with extreme caution. He picked up the lamp and put it into his jacket pocket.

Aladdin was starting to murmur.

“John? Are you okay?” Kingston asked.

John limped over. “I took a nasty tumble. I think I hurt myself.”

Catalina ignored him.

John held out his wrist. “I think I’ve really hurt myself.”

Catalina snapped around. “You could have really hurt this boy! He didn’t do anything to deserve this! He was just running away from the people chasing him!”

John opened and closed his mouth several times. “I … well … I didn’t know who he was, did I? And if he was such a good guy why did he try to run?”

“He looks half starved,” Catalina said.

“We have to bring him back to where he lives,” said Kingston. “John, can you carry him?”

John looked at his wrist. “I … guess so.”

Kingston and Catalina looked at him and John didn’t know which look was worse.

“Yeah okay, I’ll carry him,” said John. He did his best to scoop the young Aladdin up but it wasn’t easy with a busted wrist and a few bruises developing over his body. He threw the boy over his shoulder. “Ready.”

Catalina looked at Kingston. “Now what?”

Kingston walked over to one of the bystanders, hoping to ask for directions. The surprised people hurried away. It probably had something to do with the gigantic scythe Kingston was carrying at the time. “Excuse me! I’m a little lost!” He tried some of the others but they hurried away as well. “Does anyone know where Aladdin lives? My friends and I would like to bring him home.”

No one answered. Everyone they came to tried to leave Kingston and his group alone.

“Could we use the scythe?” John asked.

“I guess we could,” Kingston said, thinking more about the lamp in his pocket. He had what they came for, and if he had gone straight from Macbeth to here he wouldn’t have thought twice about leaving the poor boy unconscious in the street … or he may have thought twice and felt guilty, but he would still have taken the lamp for himself. However, now that he had met plenty of people from various stories he started to see how useful and helpful they were, often abandoning their lives in order to help him out. He knew the lamp and the genie were supposed to save Aladdin’s life and give him some happiness in the world, and here was Kingston, ready to take that for himself.

“You shouldn’t steal,” said Catalina, reading Kingston’s expression quite accurately.

“We might have to,” said Kingston.

“Our lives are not more important than his,” Catalina said. “Everyone is capable of great things and you are about to take away the greatest thing that has ever happened to him. Give me the lamp.” Catalina held out her hand.

Kingston shook his head. “I can’t give you the lamp.”

John looked from Kingston to Catalina and felt Aladdin start to regain consciousness.

Catalina glared at Kingston. “People help others when they are nice, not when they steal. And you ran away from Joanna when you could have stayed.”

Kingston gritted his teeth and didn’t know which he disliked more; that Catalina stooped to such a low level or that she was right.

“You should have stayed to help the woman you loved, regardless of the consequences,” Catalina said.

Kingston’s shoulders fell slightly and it was enough for Catalina to register. She stepped forward and held her hand out for Kingston. She didn’t want to take the lamp from him, she wanted him to hand it over.

Kingston reached into his pocket and with a tremendous amount of resignation he gave it to Catalina.

“Thank you,” she said.

Kingston hoped that she would smile but she didn’t.

“We’ve terrorised the boy. Now we have to take him home.”

Aladdin groaned.

“He’s waking up,” John said.

Aladdin opened his eyes and couldn’t understand what he was looking at. It was John’s butt. Aladdin glanced up and was surprised to see the cobbled ground in front of him and he felt something awkward press against his stomach, which would have been John’s shoulder. What surprised Aladdin the most was just how high off the ground he was. He looked across at Catalina holding his lamp and he panicked.

Catalina rested her hand on his forehead. “Hello. My name is Catalina. Are you able to walk?”

Aladdin spluttered. He knew this had to be a trick from his fake uncle, the same fake uncle who had left Aladdin to die in that cave. Aladdin flexed his fingers and was grateful to see that he still had on the magic ring. He rubbed it quickly with his thumb and an enormous and frightful genie appeared amid a cloud of smoke with terrible silver eyes and long flowing hair.

_ _
p<>. “I will obey my master!” the genie cried.

Kingston and Catalina gasped and jumped back in fright.

“What? What is it?” John cried, trying to spin around.

Aladdin cried out, surprised at now facing the other side of the street and losing sight of the genie.

John saw the genie and he too jumped back. “Demon!” John screamed.

“Get the lamp!” Aladdin shouted.

_ _
p<>. “Yes my master!” The genie grabbed the lamp from Catalina’s hands and hurried to face Aladdin.

Aladdin held out his hands and took the lamp from the genie. He pulled it close to his stomach and nothing was going to make him let go. As it rubbed against his stomach a mightier and greater genie appeared, this one with golden eyes and long flowing hair. Kingston and Catalina retreated two steps, stunned that a second genie was now involved.

“YES MY MASTER!” boomed the genie of the lamp.

“Take me to my mother!” Aladdin shouted.

“YES MY MASTER!” boomed the genie of the lamp.

_ _
p<>. Poof.

Aladdin, the lamp, and the two genii had disappeared.

It took a moment for the people in the street to try and make sense of it all. The baffled silence was broken by John. “What the hell just happened?”

“Was that a genie?” Catalina asked, deathly white and shocked by what had flashed before her eyes.

“Yes, that was a genie,” Kingston said.

“There were two of them.”

“I wasn’t expecting that either,” Kingston said. “Of course, I should have expected the arrival of at least one of them and even that caught me by surprise.”

John was left gasping, looking all around and turning on one spot. “Seriously, what the hell was that? I was standing here in blue smoke with loud voices shouting at me, quick things going on, bim and bam and it was all over!” John fell into a quiet voice and raised one finger. “Is that boy a devil? Is that why we were chasing him? I knew I should’ve hit him when I had the chance.”

Catalina stepped forward and held John’s hand. “I know you don’t mean that.”

John pulled his shoulders back. “I don’t know, if that kid really was a devil then I’m pretty sure I did mean that.”

“That was a genie, mi amor, not a devil.”

Kingston looked down the street. People were still watching them and no doubt the preceding few minutes had caught a lot of unwanted attention. “We have to find that kid again.”

“And apologise,” said Catalina.

“… Get him to help us,” Kingston said. “He was heading east along this street, so let’s go that way as well.”

No matter where they went they drew stares and gasps. People hurried away and refused to stop and talk. A few times Kingston was sure he heard the locals calling for the guards.

Kingston looked around and tried to get his bearings. “I’m just warning you two, if it’s a fight between us and a few armed guards I think we should just use the scythe and get our arses out of here.”

“How many armed guards?” John asked. He thought back to the eight that he and Kingston fought against near Sherwood Forest, even though he was bound at the time. “I could probably take on four at a time.”

“I think if I see just one guard I might try to run away,” said Kingston.

“Hmm,” grunted John. “It’s because of the hair, isn’t it?”

Catalina glared at John.

“No,” said Kingston. “It’s because of all the kung fu movies I’ve seen.” Kingston looked over his shoulder and felt trouble was brewing. Some of the locals were pointing at him, John, and Catalina. “We might need to hide for the night,” said Kingston.

“Can we hide in an inn?” John asked.

“We don’t have any money,” said Catalina.

“Maybe we can find a few policemen and they can call me a vagrancy again,” said John.

That went right over Catalina’s head. “They what?”

John smiled. “Vagrancy. It’s great. When they call me that I … talk to them nicely and wish them a good day.”

Catalina arched an eyebrow at him. “You’re not used to lying to a Catalan, are you?”

“No. But without my help Kingston would probably still be stuck in Dracula.”

Kingston shrugged. It was possible and he wasn’t going to argue with John.

_ _
p<>. Maybe we should let Aladdin find us, he thought. Obviously the locals and the guards would be aware of us and Aladdin would soon hear about these things and come investigating. Of course, if he’s paranoid he does have two genii at his disposal.

They saw more pointing and a few shouts coming their way. “Time to hide,” said Kingston. The three of them hurried between a couple of buildings, climbed over several walls and found themselves in the back of a large garden belonging to one of the wealthier merchants in the town. As the sunlight finally faded and night took over, Kingston, John, and Catalina decided they weren’t going to find anywhere more comfortable than this guy’s backyard. They kept their voices down, picked at the fruit from the nearby trees and shrubs, and did their best to stay out of sight.

“We need an ally,” said John.

“We don’t have any,” said Kingston.

“That’s why we need one, someone who knows this Aladdin kid.”

Kingston shook his head. “Absolutely not. We’re just going to stay here and keep out of sight.”

John slumped back against the wall. “Are you sure you know what you’re doing?”

“Oh yes,” said Kingston. He peered around the garden to try and figure out what to do next.

John glanced over at Catalina and they shared a nervous look.

An hour later, the wealthy merchant stumbled out of his house and came out to the garden. Kingston, John, and Catalina held their breaths. The merchant staggered about, swaying from one side to the other while humming a tune. He giggled and then trotted over to one of the far trees.

John nudged Kingston and gave him a few quick nods. Kingston didn’t quite follow what John was trying to telepathically say to him. John whispered: “That guy is so drunk I’m sure he will help us.”

Catalina nodded to Kingston as well.

The merchant dropped his pants and began to pee against one of the trees while singing out of tune.

Kingston started to reconsider. “John, did you see either of Aladdin’s genii?”

John shrugged. “A little.”

Kingston passed the scythe over to him. “Pretend to be a genie.”

“But … you’re the better talker.”

“And you’re taller.”

“Well, there is that,” John said. He looked over to the short Chinese merchant and thought the guy was at most five foot one. He would come up to John’s stomach and no higher.

The merchant carried on signing to himself.

“What do I say?” John asked.

“Say what I would say,” said Kingston.

John worked up the courage to con a Chinaman. It was an unusual feeling. He was used to hitting people over the head to convince them to listen, so this was definitely new.

_ _
p<>. “Bona sort,” whispered Catalina.

“Uh … yeah,” said John. He stood and stumbled through the garden towards the merchant.

“We should get into position as well,” said Kingston.

Catalina nodded.

The merchant started to bellow out a tune and had forgotten why he was standing in front of a tree. He turned around with such joy and happiness that he didn’t even see the hulking giant with a white scythe standing very still at an arm’s reach. It wasn’t until the merchant threw his hands out and spun on one spot that he came into contact with Little John. The merchant paused, looked at his hands to see what he had hit, and took a moment to stare at John’s stomach. He didn’t quite understand what he was looking at. John breathed in and rolled his shoulders back. The movement caused a fright within the merchant as he looked up and took in the sight as best he could. There was an angry white man staring down at him.

The whole world paused to reflect on the sheer baffling moment the merchant felt. He had never seen anyone this tall, he had never seen anyone so white, he had never seen an intruder in his garden, and this just wasn’t fair. Only a few seconds ago he was blissfully drunk. Now he was terrified and unable to move, except for a slight quiver of his lower lip.

_ _
p<>. Say what Kingston would say, John thought. Kingston likes to sandwich people. Kingston sandwiched me with singing. This man was singing.

John remembered this wasn’t the first time he had seen a drunken man pissing against a tree. He knew the best way to get on a drunk man’s side was not to combat him but to work together and steer him towards a common goal. John went for it and tried to sandwich the merchant into liking him. He also forgot that he was still staring at the short merchant. “You were singing because it is enjoyable.”

The merchant still could not move.

_ _
p<>. Now for the negative, John thought. “You sing badly.”

The merchant started to wheeze with fright.

_ _
p<>. Now back to the positive, John thought. “But you sing with exuberance and that is good.” John nodded, pleased that he had successfully sandwiched someone. He hoped Kingston and Catalina were listening.

The merchant’s eyes flicked from John’s face to John’s powerful arms and then to the scythe.

“I didn’t say you should stop singing,” said John.

The merchant gulped. He could now see two John’s, blurring together.

“Sing!” John commanded.

The merchant gasped and mumbled: “I left home young … and am now old when I’ve come back …”

John hummed along.

Kingston and Catalina hid behind a tree and stared at each other, both with the look of, What the hell is he doing?

“What are the words?” John asked.

The merchant nervously recited them and John said it back. “I left home young …”

“I left home young,” said John.

“And am now old when I’ve come back.”

“Uh huh.”

“But local accent remains the same,” said the merchant.

“Oh, hey that’s kinda nice,” said John. Then he started to bellow out the lyrics to the awful melody the merchant had used, which was more of a drunken warble than anything in tune. Since John had never heard the song before he thought that was how it was supposed to sound.

“Well done,” said John.

“Thank you?” said the merchant.

“My name is John. What is your name?”

“Xin.”

John arched an eyebrow. “One more time please?”

“Xin,” said the merchant.

“That’s a name?”

Xin nodded.

John shook his head. “I don’t think so. I’ve never met a Xin before. I’ve met a Sancho Panza, but Xin? Certainly not.”

Kingston dove head first into damage control as he saw John was about to make things a lot worse. “Pssst!”

John looked over and saw Kingston frantically pointing to himself and Catalina. John was baffled by the gesturing.

Xin glanced over as well.

_ _
p<>. We’ve been seen, Kingston thought and his shoulders fell.

John realised he had to seize the moment. He clapped a hand onto Xin’s shoulders and turned to Kingston and Catalina. “My friends! I have found a singer. This is Xin, or so he tells me.”

Kingston and Catalina both sighed. It wasn’t the greatest of entrances but it was all they had. They stepped out from behind the thick tree and approached John and Xin. Xin looked terrified at seeing more people in his garden. He realised they must have been watching him for some time. He also knew they had seem him make an ass of himself.

John smiled down at Xin. “Xin? You are a good friend. Your singing inspires me to be a good friend to you. You have a terrible singing voice but you make it fun.” John nodded and knew that he was now a master of good grace and charisma. “These are my friends. Friends? This is our new friend, Xin. Xin, what was that you were drinking inside?”

“Rice wine,” mumbled Xin.

“Ah! Wine! Did you hear that, my friends? Xin has wine. You have more wine, don’t you Xin?”

Xin glanced up to the scythe leaning over his head and saw the very sharp blade was several hundred miles too close to his scalp for it to be a comfort. “I have wine, yes.”

“Excellent,” said John. “Xin, you must teach us more of your songs. Will you teach us some songs, Xin? Will you?”

Xin looked from Kingston to Catalina and finally to John.

“What’s the matter Xin? You look like you’re about to cry.”

“No,” mumbled Xin.

“Xin, don’t worry. We are friends. Friends help each other. Look, my name is John. I know your name already, because that’s what friends do, and now you know my name. John. Not as weird as your name, but maybe you had parents with a mischievous sense of humour. Mine certainly did. After all, they wanted to call me ‘Jeff’. Boy, could you imagine trying to live that one down?”

Kingston could see that the situation wasn’t going to get better any time soon. “John?”

“Hmm?”

Kingston stepped forward and put on his best car salesman game face. “My good sir, my name is Kingston, and may I just say I think you have a beautiful singing voice. You have been so kind to us already and we would love to spend some more time with you. I’m sure you have remarkable stories and we would love to hear them. I have heard of your reputation as a very brave man, very generous, and the -” Kingston quickly looked him up and down to see if ‘man’ or ‘woman’ was more appropriate here. There was no obvious sign as to which gender Xin preferred, “- people hold you in the deepest of respect.”

Xin glanced over to Catalina. His eyes landed on her breasts and Kingston had his answer.

“This is our beautiful friend Catalina.”

Catalina stepped forward and kissed Xin on the cheek. “Hello.” She took Xin’s hand and held it, determined to hold on for as long as possible.

Xin no longer looked as though he was about to cry.

Catalina smiled. “You have a remarkable singing voice.”

“Do you have a wife?” Kingston asked.

Xin sniffed. “She’s away with her parents.”

“Oh really? What about children?”

“They are gone as well.”

“Any maids or servants?”

“They are gone for the night.”

Kingston was delighted by such news. He nudged Catalina.

Catalina feigned a gasp. “You mean to say that you are all alone in the house? Oh you poor man. You poor, handsome man. John, Kingston, I think I should go in with Xin and make sure he’s comfortable, let him get settled, and see how he feels about spending the evening alone or with three very good friends.”

John didn’t like that idea but Kingston nodded.

“I think that would be best,” said Kingston.

“Really?” said John.

“Of course,” smiled Catalina. “I will get him settled. After all, it would be very rude for us to just barge in uninvited.”

“Well, of course,” mumbled John, surprised that he had started the conversation only to have Kingston and then Catalina take over.

“We won’t be long,” said Catalina. She led Xin inside his house.

Kingston and John were standing in the garden for a few minutes. “Why was she holding onto his hand the whole time?” John asked.

“Because she’s very good at what she does,” said Kingston. “Joanna does the same. But anyway, when we get in there we have to drink a little, sing some more, and find out what he knows about Aladdin. From what I know, and so far I’ve been completely wrong except for Aladdin’s name and that there is a lamp, but from what I know Aladdin is something of a pick pocket, or a street urchin, and those kind of people have reputations. They would have to live in one part of town and the rich would keep an eye on the problem areas. So, Xin might be of great help to us.”

“I hope so,” said John.

A few minutes later, Xin and Catalina returned, their arms around each other. Xin was cheering and laughing. “Mah fwends …” Xin cleared his voice and it was clear that he had helped himself to a liberal amount of wine. “My friends, please come and let us sing!”

“Yay!” cried John.

“Not that loud,” whispered Kingston.

“Yay,” whispered John.

They headed inside and spent the evening listening to Xin ramble on about the textiles business, about his stupid customers and the constant problems of work, but the one thing Xin was able to do with remarkable ease was mix one story with several songs and then forget what he was originally talking about. He hadn’t laughed that hard in years.

“I’ve been re-thinking,” slurred John, late into the night. “I think I got a few things wrong with the hair colours. It turns out, the majority of all the black haired people I’ve met are actually quite nice. My grandmother always said it was something about the weather that made people miserable. I always thought no. I thought it had everything to do with the hair colour. I love the black haired people!”

“Bravo,” said Kingston.

John’s enlightenment earned him a kiss from Catalina.

Before Xin collapsed into his bed he did start talking about the thieves den and the run down part of town. There were young boys and girls hustling in the streets and it was not a good area to go to. There were street markets there every morning and, if anywhere, that would be where Aladdin lived.

Xin found a map of the city and Kingston spent the night memorising it.

XIV

There were forty heads of department within Death Inc., and even though Eve was sure she had lost the power to have Limbo running smoothly and efficiently, Death Inc. was still within her grasp. The resounding and infamous moment became known as ‘The Meeting of the Sink’, as the heads of the various departments met in the executive bathroom. ‘The Meeting of the Bathroom’ was considered too inappropriate.

Eve held up a sheet of parchment, signed, stamped, and dated. “This is a certificate of mental instability,” she said. “It is under the opinion of three consulting doctors that Death’s mental instability is harmful to himself, to others, to the realm, and most importantly to the running of this company. This is not a vote. I just need to see a raise of hands to see who agrees that Death is doing harm to this company, regardless of how small and insignificant that amount of harm appears to be.”

Some people raised their hands. Some did not.

Eve sighed, shook her head and muttered “That’s disappointing. Mister Fredricks?”

Mr Fredricks looked up, startled. “Yes?”

‘Yes ma’am,’ Mister Fredricks.”

“Uh, yes ma’am?”

“Are you unable to see that Death has threatened the lives of employees and that he is doing harm to the company?”

“It’s not that,” said Mr Fredricks. “It’s -”

“It is exactly that, Mister Fredricks. I asked a very simple question and you are trying to answer something else. It is obvious to everyone that Death has not considered the lives and well being of his employees, his board, or his shareholders. He has effectively shut down the running of the company. Now, Mister Fredricks, do you agree that Death has threatened the lives of employees and that he is doing harm to the company?”

“Look, I just want to be absolutely clear -”

Eve held up her hand again. “I was being absolutely clear, Mister Fredricks. Clearer than you have been. You know that you are under probation, don’t you?”

Mr Fredricks pulled his shoulders back. “I will not be threatened and I will take no part in this.”

“This is no threat, Mister Fredricks. You are under probation and your aforementioned refusal to take part in a critical issue affecting the future of the company is disheartening, so it pains me to ask for your immediate resignation.”

Mr Fredricks blinked and jolted back as though his brain had been shot out of a cannon and slammed into the back of his skull. “On what grounds?”

“Breach of probation and breach of contract, Mister Fredricks. You signed a renewed version of them both and the changes should be of no surprise to you.”

Mr Fredricks glared in response. “You’re running this realm into the ground.”

“I’m sure you can bring this matter up in the civil courts,” said Eve with a wry smile.

Mr Fredricks glared at her again. “We all know full well that you’ve clogged up the courts with unnecessary charges against the psychics claiming slander and improper use of information.”

“Why, I didn’t know you were such an advocate for the deranged,” said Eve.

“They are necessary to the stability of the realm.”

“Quite the opposite,” said Eve. “They instil fear and paranoia of the future without giving us better than a fifty/fifty chance. Nor can they answer a simple question when asked. Mr Wong?”

Mr Wong looked up. “Yes ma’am?”

“Please have security escort Mister Fredricks from the building and have someone clear out his office in his absence.”

“Yes ma’am.”

“And Mr Owens?”

“Yes ma’am?”

“Please inform Mr Kamir of the Executive Assistant’s Guild to join us. He has just been provisionally promoted to Mister Fredricks’ former position.”

“Yes ma’am.”

Ten minutes later, the issue regarding the removal of Death from the board and as CEO of Death Inc. was upheld in a landslide decision. The Meeting of the Sink was a success. Mr Tahaka was nominated as the acting Chief Executive Officer. The first directive allowed Satan’s former shares in the company to be redistributed among the eight hundred thousand employees, giving everyone a voting interest in the company, along with a new contract.

When Death was informed of the Meeting of the Sink he celebrated by visiting an apothecary to gain access to Hawaii.

 

 

Xin woke up with the distinct impression that there were three drunken strangers somewhere in his house. He crept out of his bedroom with a stinging headache and feared the worst.

The worst turned out to be John’s morning ritual of bellowing out a song for anyone in the town to hear.

“JOHN!”

“Well excuse me, but after a night of singing I think it’s only appropriate to start the day the same way.”

“It’s … too … early …”

Xin was frozen where he was, his hand still resting on his bedroom door. He was spotted by Catalina. She was groggy and did her best to smile.

“Morning Xin!”

Kingston and John peered around the corner and saw their tiny host start to shake. “See, you woke him,” said Kingston.

“People should be up when the birds are up, it’s only natural,” said John.

“Xin, will you join us?” Catalina asked, recognising that look on his face which told her he didn’t know whether to run for the guards or start screaming for help.

All Xin could think of was what his neighbours would say when they found out he had spent the night with three foreigners in his house, drinking everything in sight. The neighbours would be quick to tell his wife. Especially quick would be Mrs Zhang, the gossip queen of the street, always peering out her window to spy on everyone as though they were all misbehaving children playing with fireworks. Xin would have some explaining to do.

Kingston jumped into action. He recognised that look on Xin’s face as well. “Xin, do you remember what we talked about last night? We’re looking for a young boy, Aladdin, a ne’er-do-well, if you will. You said we could come to your shop. You said you would be able to send one of your shop boys with us to the markets to look for Aladdin. We would greatly appreciate that.”

Xin grunted. “Okay.” He looked over his guests and knew they had helped themselves to a shave and bathe while he slept. At least they smelled a lot nicer than when he first met them. Xin disappeared into his bedroom and quickly got dressed. “I’m ready.”

Catalina looked around. “What about breakfast?”

“No time for breakfast. Must get to work,” said Xin. He hurried them out of his house. He would have to run home just as quickly and tidy up before the maid arrived.

Soon enough, Xin had pushed one of the young shop boys, Jun, onto Kingston, John, and Catalina, and they were heading to the run down area of town. The four of them attracted a lot of attention but Jun knew of several short cuts and back alleys that would take them to the markets without coming across the guards or nosy neighbours.

Kingston and the gang were greeted with a vast and cramped market, full of stalls with rickety roofs, all tightly packed, with crowds of people walking through, bargaining, loitering, and eating, all looking through the home made clothes, home made pots and pans, and home made jewellery. John didn’t think he would be able to fit in such a tight and squashed area.

Jun helped Kingston and the others as best he could. He started asking some of the vendors if they knew of a young boy named Aladdin. Most of them ignored him or shook their heads, until someone finally pointed to a stall across the narrow pathway.

“That’s Aladdin’s mother,” said the vendor.

Kingston looked at the woman and did his best to figure her out before she saw him. She was definitely poor, but no worse off than everyone else in the crowd. The only difference was that she was selling a lavish silver plate, which was very out of place. She had a nervous smile as though she felt guilty about selling such an item. Kingston had no doubt this really was Aladdin’s mother, selling something the genie provided her with. He remembered that Aladdin had been wearing some very fine clothes that were a little worn and wrinkled, yet his mother was left wearing her regular rags.

Kingston thanked Jun and told him he could skedaddle. Kingston then told John and Catalina that he could probably handle this and John was to hold onto the scythe. Kingston then rolled his shoulders back, put on his best game face, and got into character. He strolled up to the woman’s stall and inhaled quickly at the sight of the silver plate.

The woman almost gasped at the sight of the tall white man and her hands trembled in response.

“That is a beautiful plate,” said Kingston.

“Thank you,” said the woman.

_ _
p<>. She’s definitely nervous. Not just of the plate, but of me, Kingston thought.

“How much?” Kingston asked.

“Six hundred wen,” said the woman.

“Only six hundred wen?” Kingston pulled out a bundle of notes he had swiped from Xin’s home and held the money in his hand for a while, allowing the woman to see it. “Hmm, it seems a little silly to buy just one plate. Do you have more, or just this one?”

The woman started to smile. “I have more.”

“You do? Excellent! My daughter will be so pleased. I’ve been looking for the perfect wedding gift for her and I may have just found it. You are a life saver.”

The woman smiled a little more.

“Okay, done,” said Kingston. “I will take eight silver plates.” He held out his hand with the money, ready for Aladdin’s mother to take it, knowing full well that she didn’t have eight plates with her. He guessed that at least seven were at home, ready to be sold whenever necessary, as selling eight in one go would have been far too outrageous for this small market. One at a time would be much more sensible.

The woman faltered and looked pained. “I’m sorry, I don’t have the plates here. But I can go and get them quickly,” she said.

“Hmm, how quickly? I have an appointment very soon with Xin at his shop. I can’t spend long dressed in a suit, obviously, and Xin doesn’t like it when people are late.”

“No, please, I will be quick!” said the woman.

“Are you going far?” Kingston asked. He pointed in one direction. “Are you going that way?”

“No, that way,” said the woman, pointing in the opposite direction.

“Over there? Excellent. That’s towards Xin’s shop.”

“I will be very quick,” said the woman.

_ _
p<>. Step it up, Kingston thought. “Wait … do you have any cups as well? Matching cups? It seems a little silly to buy only plates if I can get the whole set.”

“Yes! I have matching silver cups!” said the woman. It was now impossible to shake the smile off her face and whatever apprehension she felt over Kingston’s appearance quickly faded away.

“What do they look like?” Kingston asked.

“Like the plates, but like cups.”

“Hmm, yes, I would need to get some cups as well. How much are they?”

She clearly was not prepared with a figure in mind. “Cheap!”

“How cheap?”

“Four hundred wen,” the woman said, her lips trembling as she realised how crazy it was to sell a cup for as much as that.

“Four hundred wen, really?” Kingston started checking his pockets and pretended that he had more money stashed away. “You have eight cups as well?”

The woman thought for a moment, unsure of herself. The she decided that Kingston’s offer was far too good to pass up even if she only had two cups at home. “Yes!”

“So that would be three thousand two hundred for the cups …” Kingston paused, thinking it over. [_Will I buy them or will I not buy them … _]he obviously thought. He started leaning towards a ‘no’. “I would really need to see the cups before I make a decision. But the plates, certainly.”

“Okay.”
_ _
p<>. Seal the deal, Kingston thought. “But I would like to buy this plate now. Six hundred wen, you said?”

“Yes.”

Kingston peeled off six hundred wen and handed it over. Now that the woman finally had some money in her hand it seemed as though a great victory had swept in and hugged her. Kingston took the plate and smiled at himself in the reflection.

“Okay, you will come with me?” the woman asked.

“Of course,” said Kingston.

“Okay.”

Kingston nodded to John and Catalina. They were going to follow from a distance and hopefully keep out of sight, and Kingston liked how the woman latched onto his wrist and guided him through the crowded street. It gave Kingston the opportunity to start telling his fictional life story and find out a little about her. It turned out her name was Luli and her husband had died not too long ago. It also turned out that she had a son called Aladdin.

“Aladdin? I like that name,” said Kingston. “What does he do? Is he a merchant? A doctor? A builder?”

“No,” sighed Luli, “but he’s a good boy.”

She paused and looked Kingston up and down carefully.

“He was chased yesterday,” Luli said.

_ _
p<>. Oh crap.

“He said three white people attacked him in non-Chinese clothing. They knew his name.” She looked Kingston up and down suspiciously. “They also had weapons.”

Normally Kingston would have denied everything, but because he was eventually going to meet Aladdin again he had to charm Luli and the boy as best he could. Kingston was stuck.

_ _
p<>. When all else fails, go with the truth, he thought.

“Yes. I’ve come to apologise.”

Luli dropped Kingston’s hand and she backed away. “You chased my boy?”

Kingston had to regain control of the situation fast. “Your boy gets into trouble a lot, doesn’t he?”

Luli wasn’t going to let Kingston have it that easily. “You chased him with weapons!”

“He’s been chased by a lot of people, hasn’t he?” Kingston didn’t wait for an answer. “But I am different. I’m not angry with him. I don’t want to hurt him. I just want to talk to him and let him know that I am not angry with him. You said yourself that he is a good boy and I believe he can be a great man. But if he’s always running from people and never stops to listen to them he might just keep running for the rest of his life.”

Luli pursed her lips and jutted her jaw in and out, trying to hold her anger and wrestling with the desire to shout at Kingston.

Kingston dropped into a smooth and reassuring voice. “I’m here to apologise and I need his help. I can’t get anyone else’s help, it has to be his.”

Luli looked defeated and on the verge of crying. “You’re going to punish him.”

“No. But these plates? You know you shouldn’t be selling them.”

Her eyes fell to the side and Kingston had a good idea about why she looked upset. He removed the last of his money and handed it over. She stared at the vast sum of money, holding more than she had ever held in her life.

“I would like to speak to your son,” Kingston said.

“You tricked me.”

Kingston looked over the silver plate again. “Do you know how much this is worth?” He knew that Luli wouldn’t know the answer and it didn’t matter that Kingston didn’t know either. He just had to sound as though he did. “It’s worth at least two thousand wen. And your cups are probably worth a lot more than just four hundred.” He let the price settle for a moment and saw her eyes light up. “And you were trying to sell it for whatever you could get. So, I apologise to you for not being as honest as I should have been, and I will forget that this isn’t really yours to sell.”

Kingston hoped he had judged that last one well. There was a lingering guilt with Luli and he had seen it on plenty of people when they were in over their heads. The best thing to do in that situation was to calm them down.

“I just want to apologise to Aladdin,” said Kingston, hoping that it would be enough to convince Luli.

Luli looked doubtful with the money in her hand and she gave it back to Kingston. “You still want to buy the plates and cups?”

“Yes,” said Kingston, showing her the most winning of his smiles.

“Okay. You can meet him and you can apologise.”

“Thank you.”

She peered around Kingston’s shoulder. “What about your friends? Are they going to apologise as well?”

“I think they should,” said Kingston.

“Me too. And maybe he will apologise for running away.”

“That would be nice,” said Kingston. He looked over to John and Catalina and waved them over to join him. Luli took them to finally meet Aladdin.

 

 

Eve sat in her nice new office with a grand but respectful desk, along with a towering but well designed leather chair to support her. She wanted to stay away from Death’s former office and make this new area her own. And so on that morning she sat facing one of the bounty hunters with her fingers interlocked and resting peacefully on the desk. It was time to tidy up some loose ends. Unfortunately the bounty hunter didn’t seem to take her very seriously.

“How … did you manage to chase after a fictional character within his own realm?”

The bounty hunter, once referred to as Monty, struggled to deal with the incredible pain he was still in. It helped his stoic exterior when he held himself as still as possible, but after slamming into the ground thanks to Little John clobbering him all he wanted to do was curl up in bed with a stiff drink and a giant pack of chocolate pretzels until he healed. But, as long as Eve was busting his balls and threatening a review of his probation, he wouldn’t be able to rest. Instead, he just shrugged. “You ordered me to find him so I found him, didn’t I?”

Eve tapped her fingers together. “That was it? I ordered you to find him?”

“Yeah, that’s about it,” said the bounty hunter.

“But no one else could find him.”

“Well, they weren’t looking hard enough, were they?”

Eve looked over the bounty hunter, observing his every action and hesitation. Normally silence would work its wonders on someone being interrogated. Not so with this bounty hunter. He appreciated the silence and knew that it was his weapon of choice. But something about him made Eve smile. “You’re being a little conservative with the truth, aren’t you?”

The bounty hunter shrugged again and chose his words carefully. “You seem upset that I found him.”

“You got caught,” Eve said.

“It’s an easy way of finding someone, getting caught. Very easy. Helps me turn the tables.”

“But you didn’t.”

“But now I’m in their mind,” said the bounty hunter, with a quick tap to his temple. “They’ll be thinking about me, see? Always wondering if I’m just behind them, ready to strike again.”

Eve smiled at the bounty hunter and nodded. She leaned forward, her voice dropping lower and her eyes fixed upon her target. “I appreciate the tactics you are using against me might work on others, and they are good tactics, certainly.”

“I’m not using any tactics on you,” said the bounty hunter, keeping himself as still as possible.

“But you are,” said Eve. “You are deflecting my questions, steering me towards another line of thinking. I asked how you found Kingston Raine and you said ‘You seem upset that I found him.’ Then you started speaking about getting caught, while my original question was and still is: how did you find him? Don’t deflect again.”

Eve watched the bounty hunter’s eyes contract and widen. He slipped her out of focus and was using his peripheral vision to check out the room, to find a way to escape or something that could be used to his advantage. Eve snapped her fingers. “Your attention and your answer, please.”

“What does it matter? It’s my livelihood we’re talking about here, isn’t it? I can’t just go and tell everyone how I track some guy down when no one else seems to be able to. I have a sixth sense when it comes to these things, and no one is better at it than I am, are they?”

“There are twenty five human senses, not just five and a mystical sixth,” said Eve. She stared at the bounty hunter, thinking it over and working out how to break him. Whatever she did to him had to be manageable, as he was still essential in finding Kingston Raine and bringing him to justice. Kingston Raine had been on the run, flagrantly disregarding every rule he came across, and that infuriated Eve more than she imagined.

“I order you to tell me,” said Eve.

“That would be compromising my livelihood, and you still ain’t paid me for my efforts with this Kingston Raine fella, have you?”

Eve backtracked through everything the bounty hunter had said, knowing that he must have revealed something about himself and his actions. No matter how careful someone was, if they had a secret it was always possible to deduce the answer.

He mentioned a sixth sense, she thought.[_ Are outside forces helping him? No, he works alone._]

She reconsidered that. Wait, just because he travels alone doesn’t mean he works alone. Let’s find out.

Eve smiled graciously. “You’re right, we have been slow to pay you for your efforts with Kingston Raine.” She pulled out a sheet of parchment and started to scribble. “How much were you offered?”

“Fifteen gold pieces,” said the bounty hunter, leaning forward.

Eve shrugged and finished writing. She handed the parchment over to the bounty hunter. “Sign at the bottom, please.”

The bounty hunter smiled at Eve. “I prefer to not leave a paper trail wherever I go.”

Eve stiffened. “I prefer contracts.”

“Hmm. And what will happen if I sign that? Will something unexpected happen?”

“Not at all,” said Eve.

“What I mean is, will you find out how I am able to be an effective bounty hunter, if I sign that?”

Eve paused just a little too long.

“I see,” said the bounty hunter.

Eve dropped the parchment and pen on the desk and clasped her fingers together. “I will not be made a fool of by a bounty hunter,” she said.

“If I have made a fool of you it is because you are a fool, aren’t you?” said the bounty hunter.

“You will receive no money from this office unless you tell me how you do it,” said Eve.

“Then my services will be better suited elsewhere,” said the bounty hunter.

Eve sat very still. There was more than one way to break through a secret and it was usually best to let the secret holder believe that she had free access to the secret in question. Humans were renowned for revealing every detail to complete strangers, just because the complete stranger knew such a tiny portion of the truth.

Eve took out a second piece of parchment, scribbled a short note, and allowed it to disappear into the air. She sat and stared at the bounty hunter with a look as clear as day, saying: We’ll see how long your secret stays with only you.

They waited. The bounty hunter no longer bothered with civility in maintaining eye contact and started to look around the room, taking note of everything he could use in his escape. He turned to face the doors as a short little man with impossibly thick glasses burst inside and hurried towards the desk. The short man wore glasses resembling World War One pilot goggles. He was very out of breath. “Lord Henry Biggins at your service,” the short man said, bowing low to the ground.

“Mister Biggins,” said Eve.

“Lord Biggins, ma’am,” he said, with a twitch of his eye.

Eve clasped her hands together again and her face remained impassive. “Biggins. This is a bounty hunter. Find out how he is able to track down Kingston Raine when no one else can.”

Lord Biggins glanced from Eve to the bounty hunter and then back to Eve. “Uh … Kingston Raine?”

“That’s right.” Eve handed over a sheet of parchment. “These are the details of the case. You will find out when the bounty hunter was hired and where the meeting took place. I recommend following his movements from there.”

Biggins nodded, fixed his glasses, and hurried out the room.

Eve smiled at the bounty hunter.

The bounty hunter remained cold and calculating. “I’ll be off, then,” he said.

“Not so fast.”

“I think fast would be best,” said the bounty hunter.

“Then tell me the truth.”

The bounty hunter stood up and headed for the door.

“I will have the guards stop you.”

The bounty hunter said nothing and continued walking.

“You face several stern punishments. You and anyone else who helped you.”

The bounty hunter flinched and carried on walking.

“So you had help?” Eve said, smiling. “Interesting.”

The bounty hunter paused at the door. Eve was still sitting behind the colossal desk, her hands up in a steeple and her fingers tapping each other.

“Very interesting.”

The bounty hunter opened the door and was bowled over in an instant as Lord Biggins raced in. The two men collapsed on the ground in shock and discomfort and they staggered back to their feet.

“Mister Biggins, you have news for me?” Eve asked.

The bounty hunter hobbled towards the door and left as quickly as possible.

“Mister Biggins!” Eve shouted.

“He uh … he …” Biggins was still gasping for breath.

“I’m waiting!”

“He sends and receives notes, then he teleports,” gasped Biggins.

“Who’s helping him?” asked Eve.

“One of the seers,” said Biggins. “The seer tells the bounty hunter where to go and how to find Kingston Raine.”

Eve suppressed a shudder. One day she would be able to expel all mystics from Limbo but for now one of them had a use. Eve allowed herself to smile from ear to ear. “Bring me to this seer.”

XV

Luli told Kingston and the others to wait outside while she went and talked to Aladdin by herself. Kingston felt awkward about this, knowing that she wielded all of the power in this situation. If Aladdin didn’t like what his mother had to say then he had the power of two genii to escort Kingston, John, and Catalina to some far off place with no hope of escape.

Much to their surprise, Luli returned to them almost immediately. “He’s not home,” she said.

Kingston wasn’t sure if he believed her.

“You can come in and wait,” Luli said.

_ _
p<>. Okay, now I believe her, Kingston thought. He, John, and Catalina went inside. Luli made them some tea and rummaged around for the hidden silver plates and cups. Catalina and John weren’t quite sure what was going on.

“You will still buy the plates?”

“Of course,” said Kingston. He fished out more of Xin’s money. He saw Catalina eye him suspiciously but she didn’t blow his cover.

Luli smiled and placed the silverware carefully on the small rickety table in their two room house. John took up most of the front room just by sitting on the ground. Luli had a hard time looking at him, since he was still at her eye level while she stood and he sat.

John leaned over to Kingston. “Why are we buying plates?”

“Because we’ve run out of naked bounty hunters,” said Kingston.

“Oh.”

Luli smiled. “And the cups?”

“How many cups do you have?” Kingston asked.

“Two.”

“Not eight?”

“No. Only two.”

“Hmm, that might be awkward,” said Kingston. Then he decided that wasn’t awkward at all.

Luli tapped her fingers together nervously. There were, after all, three strangers and at least one liar in her house.

Kingston seemed to register that thought himself. “Okay, I will take the two cups.” He handed over the last of his money, much to the further curiosity of Catalina.

“When did you …”

Kingston quickly shook his head and Catalina glared furiously at him. She knew where the money must have come from and she couldn’t believe that Kingston would have done something so foul as to rob a poor drunken Chinese man whose only crime was being an excellent host.

“Perhaps we should give him the plates,” Catalina mumbled.

John looked over to her. “Then what about our naked bounty hunter expenses?”

“I think you two have a lot to learn about right and wrong in this world,” Catalina said.

Kingston kept Luli in his peripheral vision at all times. He guessed the lamp was still in the house still, hidden somewhere. Her mannerisms would likely point it out to him if she knew where Aladdin had stashed it. But, she glanced around just as often as the others did, leaving Kingston to accept that she didn’t know where the lamp was hiding.

“Mother! I sold a plate!” Aladdin shouted, as he bounded inside the house. He took one look at his mother and the three guests and a deep panic ripped through him. “Mother!”

“Aladdin, you will come in and sit down,” said Luli.

“No! They are the ones that chased me yesterday! They tried to hurt me!”

“Aladdin, listen to your mother!”

Aladdin fell quiet.

Kingston looked over the boy and saw him nudge towards a gem ring on one finger. The ring seemed very out of place and Kingston remembered seeing it on the boy yesterday. It would have been the only thing possible of hiding a genie inside. Kingston kept absolutely still and was as non-threatening as possible.

Luli still had a lot of sway over her boy. “Aladdin, these are our guests and you will behave yourself. This is Kingston, John, and Catalina. They have come to apologise.”

“Hello Aladdin,” said Kingston.

Aladdin rocked back and forth on his tiptoes, desperate to run away. “Apologise?”

Luli looked over to Kingston.

“Yes,” said Kingston. “We are sorry for chasing you yesterday. We didn’t wish to cause you any harm or fright. In fact, we need your help.”

That caught Aladdin by surprise. “You need my help?”

“Yes. We have spent some time looking for you to apologise. We now ask you to help us. You are a very fast runner, you know that?” Kingston hoped Aladdin would smile at the compliment but he was more afraid of being in trouble than accepting a white lie. “Anyway, my friends and I are, obviously, not Chinese. We were brought to China by mistake, through magic.” Aladdin raised his eyes at that last word. “We know that you have access to a genie with your lamp. We don’t want the lamp. The lamp is yours and will forever be yours. We just need the genie to grant us a wish, which is to get to Munich. Munich is a city very far away and we can’t get there without magic. That’s all we want, to get to Munich.”

Aladdin dropped his mouth open, unable to fully process what was happening. “How do you know about the lamp?”

“You are famous,” said Kingston.

Aladdin leaned back, dumbfounded by Kingston’s words. “I am?”

“Yes, but not a good kind of famous,” said Kingston, hoping that Aladdin had a guilty conscience. “Your mother tells me you don’t have a proper job. I know you have the genie now so you can make as many silver plates as you want … by the way, I bought eight plates and two cups. You and your mother now have a lot of money.”

“It’s true,” said Luli, holding out the mass of money. Aladdin finally looked impressed and relieved that some good fortune had come their way.

Kingston continued. “But so far in your life you haven’t done much, have you?”

Aladdin didn’t respond. Instead his eyes welled up with guilt.

“It is time for you to behave like a man and be generous. You have a remarkable gift with the lamp. You didn’t make it. You just found it. So if it’s okay with you my friends and I would like to leave China and get to Munich. You’ll still have the lamp.”

Aladdin was slow to answer.

“He gave us five thousand wen,” said Luli. “Look!”

John couldn’t help himself. “How much is five thousand wen?”

“John?” Kingston shook his head. Now was not the time to start asking cultural questions.

Luli smiled at John. “We live off ten wen a day.”

“Oh really?” said John, impressed by the large sum Kingston had handed over.

Catalina did not look amused, assuming that Xin had just lost an incomprehensible fortune.

“Are you a sorcerer?” Aladdin asked.

“No,” said Kingston.

“I don’t trust sorcerers,” said Aladdin.

Luli didn’t like what her son was saying and intervened. “Aladdin, you come in and be a good host. These are our guests and we should treat them well. You make some tea and I will go and fetch some cakes.”

Aladdin did as he was told and Luli went out into the street. The mood was fractured at best, but at least Aladdin hadn’t summoned a genie to throw them out into the street. John started humming to himself, hoping to lighten the mood. Catalina began talking to Aladdin, telling him of all the great and wonderful things she had seen since meeting Kingston and John. Even though Aladdin was probably bored by the story and barely listened to it, Catalina built Kingston and John up so high that even the two guys were impressed with their own feats of bravery and daring. Kingston smiled and was grateful to have Catalina with them. She had a way of charming people that Kingston couldn’t get away with.

“You three are a lot nicer than my fake uncle,” said Aladdin.

Catalina cocked her head to one side. “You have a fake uncle?”

“He wasn’t real. He betrayed me and left me to die in a cave,” said Aladdin.

“He did what?!” gasped Catalina. The look of outrage was genuine and Aladdin was grateful to see the fury in her eyes. “You poor boy!”

“I was in that cave with nothing to eat for days.”
_ _
p<>. “What?!”

“But I’m okay now,” said Aladdin.

“You poor, poor boy.” Catalina gave Aladdin a hug and didn’t let go of him. “You must have been so brave for going in there.”

“I was,” murmured Aladdin. “He promised me money as long as I got him the lamp. Then he shouted at me when I came back and he trapped me in the cave.”

“He didn’t take the lamp?” Kingston asked. “Your fake uncle seems kind of stupid.”

Aladdin explained his story, that over the last few days a man masquerading as his long lost uncle enticed Aladdin with new clothes and the promise of great wealth if Aladdin accompanied him on a dangerous journey to fetch the mysterious lamp in question. Catalina was enthralled and held on to every word Aladdin told her. He started to smile with such an attentive audience.

“Ay, such a brave young man,” Catalina said. “With bravery like that you could take your pick of any woman in the country.”

Aladdin perked up with that compliment.

Kingston smiled at the opportunity. “You could probably marry a princess.”

Aladdin went wide eyed with excitement. “Really?”

“Oh yes,” said Kingston. “And I’m not kidding either. I bet one day you will meet a princess and she will hear of your bravery.”

Catalina nodded. “Women and princesses like brave and generous men. And don’t worry about your fake uncle coming back. If he did he would be the most stupid man in the world, now that you have the two genies.”

Aladdin grinned from ear to ear and enjoyed his guests. They seemed like nice people and they didn’t try to rob him, or leave him for dead, which was something new. At long last Aladdin gave in. “I’ll go get the lamp,” he said. He went to the other room and closed the curtain door.

John leaned over to Kingston. “Does he even know where Munich or Bavaria is?”

“I don’t think so,” said Kingston.

“Because if this is a crazy version of China, then isn’t there a chance we’ll end up in a crazy version of Bavaria?”

“There is that,” said Kingston. “Now, the one thing I know about wishes and genii and devils is that you must be very clear and precise in what you ask for. They might like to trick the wisher.”

Catalina raised her eyes on that note. “They like to trick the wisher? We must be crazier than a she-goat.”

“Is that a real thing?” John asked.

Aladdin returned, clutching the lamp very tightly. “No one is to touch the lamp.”

“Agreed,” said Kingston.

“Because if you do I will get the genie to put you in the highest tower or the deepest dungeon and make sure you stay there.”

“I understand,” said Kingston.

John now echoed Catalina’s startled expression. “Can he really do that?”

“Yes, which is why we are going to talk to the genie before the wish so that we get exactly what we want.”

Aladdin was still a little suspicious, but he did have the ring and knew how to escape. He rubbed the lamp.

“YES MY MASTER!” boomed the genie of the lamp.

“These three people want to go to another city,” said Aladdin.

“Ah ah ah ah, wait, please …” said Kingston. “Not just any city.”

“I was getting to that,” said Aladdin.

The genie turned his attention from Aladdin to Kingston and back again. He floated in the air with his massive arms folded. He would have easily towered over John if the two were standing up against each other.

“I want you to try and help them and answer their questions,” said Aladdin.

The genie looked to Kingston and waited.

“Thank you,” said Kingston. “The three of us and our possessions and this scythe need to get to Munich, in Bavaria. Do you know where that is?”

The genie glared at Kingston. “I DO NOT!” he said, probably as quietly as he could manage.

“It’s a city in Germany, although these days it might be the Holy Roman Empire … I’m not actually sure what year we’re in.”

“IT IS THE YEAR TWO HUNDRED IN THE SONG DYNASTY!”

“Okay, can you get us to the twenty first century by my calendar?” Kingston asked.

“I CAN PUT YOU ALL IN A DEEP SLEEP SO THAT YOU ARE REVIVED AT THE REQUESTED TIME!”

John glanced over to Kingston with half a nod. It seemed reasonable to him, at least. Kingston, however, feared that the different calendars might screw him up and he preferred not to be asleep for a few hundred years while leaving the scythe unguarded.

“Can you put us into the Kingston Raine stories?”

“I CAN!”

Catalina clapped her hands quietly. It was a struggle to listen to the conversation without desperately wanting to cover her ears from the shouting genie.

Kingston had to make sure the genie knew what he was talking about. “Can you produce the six Kingston Raine books right now?”

“I CAN NOT!”

“Why not?”

“I DO NOT KNOW THE STORY!”

“Ah,” mumbled Kingston. In that case, there was no way he was going to let a genie blindly teleport him into some random book. “Okay, the city we want to get to is several thousand miles west of here, in the middle of Europe.”

The genie bobbed in the air.

Kingston realised that he had not asked a question. “Can you get us somewhere that will allow us to easily get to Munich?”

“I CAN GET YOU TO THE VERY OUTER REALM OF CIVILISATION!” boomed the genie.

“To a time when airplanes exist?”

“YES!”

“Okay then. That might help. That will certainly cut down the walking time if we can get on a plane.” Kingston looked to Catalina and John and they were clearly nervous about trusting the booming genie. “I think this is the best we can hope for,” said Kingston.

“The best you can hope rarely brings the greatest of joys,” said Catalina.

“I agree. But we can always leave if it’s too strange and different.”

“I have a request,” said Catalina. That earned her a few curious stares. “Aladdin, I want you to find Xin, the textiles merchant in the southern quarter. We have bought these plates and these cups and they rightfully belong to him. Please deliver them to him. And who knows, you might be able to go into business with him.”

Kingston wasn’t willing to argue with Catalina. He would just have to pick someone’s pocket the next time he needed some money.

Aladdin shrugged. “Oh … kay …”

Catalina smiled and nodded. “I’m ready.”

Kingston stood and held onto the scythe. John and Catalina stood and got into position, all holding onto Kingston. “We’re ready,” Kingston said to the genie.

The genie bobbed in the air, staring at Kingston.

“Can you take us to where we want to go?” Kingston asked.

“YES!” boomed the genie.

Kingston waited. “Now?”

“YES!” boomed the genie.

Aladdin sighed. “I wish for you to take them to where they want to go,” he said.

“YES MY MASTER!”

Kingston felt the familiar constricting of his chest and skull and this time he thought he really was about to burst open. Then he felt the unmistakable sensation of being blasted through space and stars, surrounded by silence and freezing air before an instant headache stabbed him in the forehead.

Kingston gasped and opened his eyes. All around him he saw yellow and a blue sky. The heat quickly whooshed around him and he broke out into a sweat. John and Catalina staggered back. That had been the worst teleport they had felt so far. As Kingston’s eyes re-adjusted to the sharp light he realised they were standing in the middle of a city, surrounded by tall buildings and lots of people walking around in hats.

The buildings were mostly a pale orangey yellow with some faded white thrown in to mix things up. Kingston ignored the architecture for a moment and focused on the people. The majority had olive skin, wore business suits and fezzes, while the Europeans walked around in suits and brimmed hats. The women wore white dresses and long cotton skirts that hugged their waists.

A car drove by, a Rolls Royce Phantom II, and Kingston immediately smiled. It was a beautiful classic car and he was sure they were in the pre-World War II era. Kingston caught sight of a flag, a white crescent next to a small white star against a red background. They were in a large Turkish city.

From the sunlight, architecture and the locals, Catalina started to hope that they were back in Spain. “Where are we?”

“Istanbul,” Kingston said.

John watched another car drive by and his jaw dropped open. “And this is the real Eastern-Bowl? Not a warped one like China?” John asked.

“Looks authentic enough,” said Kingston. He could smell the sea nearby and didn’t think much of it. At least that told him it was real.

In front of them was a large building and Kingston smiled when he recognised it as a train station.

John and Catalina both had their jaws hanging open, staring in utter amazement. Kingston laughed at their disbelief and tried to shake it off. “Lady, gentleman, welcome to the twentieth century.”

John saw an airplane fly overhead. “No …”

“John, can you hold this for a tick?” Kingston asked, handing the scythe over to John. “Don’t lose it.”

Catalina was still pointing everything out to John and he pretended to see it all for the first time again and be just as amazed as she was.

Kingston headed inside the train station and couldn’t help himself; what surrounded him was amazing. Above each of the many doors leading into the station were circular windows surrounded by white bricks set against a red background. After all the crap he had been through, to finally get on a train and head to Munich without any delays was going to be a relief. At least in Germany he could figure out what to do and trust himself with the scythe again. He saw a few businessmen and figured out where their wallets were, then he waited in line and finally got to the ticket booth.

“Three first-class tickets to Munich, please.”

Kingston returned to his friends. “Three tickets to Munich.”

John beamed with a smile. “We’re finally going?”

“Yeah, we’re finally going,” smiled Kingston.

_ _
p<>. “Por fin!” cried Catalina. She threw her arms around Kingston. “At last we’ll get to meet this enchanting woman of yours!”

“I certainly hope so.” Kingston sighed with relief. He had to admit that these two were great company, despite it being utterly ludicrous. “I want to thank you for your help.”

“You saved my life a couple of times,” said John.

“I think just once,” said Kingston.

“I almost drowned.”

“Yeah, that was my fault.”

John shrugged it off. “We almost died because of the bounty hunter in London.”

“Well …”

“And you did save my family,” said John.

Kingston didn’t quite know what to say. Catalina bounced on her feet with her hands together, barely able to contain the glee bursting inside her. Kingston held out his hand and John shook it.

Catalina stopped bouncing. “What was that?”

“A handshake,” said John, wondering if that was the right answer.

Catalina started tapping one foot and dropped her hands onto her hips. “A handshake? A single handshake? After all you two have been through … ay,” she threw her hands up in the air. “Ay, you English and your handshakes …” she threw one finger up at the both of them. “You two wouldn’t last ten minutes in Catalonia. They would kill you for being so insensitive.”

John did his best to smile. “My love?”

“No! You do not ‘my love’ me! Can’t you two idiots see you are pouring your hearts out to each other and yet you try to say it all with a handshake? Ay, Déu meu. You need to let your emotions and your passions out once in a while or else it will kill you. And if it doesn’t kill you, then I will kill you!” She thumped her foot on the ground and waited for Kingston and John to behave properly.

Kingston looked at John and felt the mutual awkwardness between them. Kingston held out his arms and John stepped in for a hug, though it was more for show than for brotherly bonding.

“There? Doesn’t that feel better?” Catalina asked.

Kingston and John didn’t say a word.

“Okay, you can let go now, people are staring,” said Catalina.

Kingston and John stepped back and fixed up their jackets.

“So, the train leaves in a little under two hours,” said Kingston. “We’re in first-class, by the way.” He expected another shriek of joy and another hug from Catalina. Instead, he received a pair of blank looks. “First-class is good.”

“Oh,” said John. “How good?”

“They’re the best seats on the train.”

“Does that mean no more walking?” John asked.

“Exactly,” said Kingston. “Finally, no more walking. We’re not getting off the train for any reason until we get to Munich.”

“Glad to hear it,” said John. He nodded, though he was still not quite getting it.

Catalina finally asked. “What is a train?”

“And how many seats are there?” asked John.

Kingston wasn’t prepared to be the eternal travel guide and he wondered if it was better just showing them a train or explaining.

He showed them. “That big metal thing is a train. It runs on those tracks there and it goes very fast.”

“Oh,” said Catalina. She was then stunned when she saw one move away all by itself.

John nodded enthusiastically. “Do they all go to Munich?”

“No, they go to other cities.”

“What about to Sherwood?” John asked.

Kingston decided not to spoil the fun by mentioning the Channel. “Eventually, yes.”

John nodded with approval. “Which one is ours?”

“We can wait around for an hour and a half or we could go and get a coffee. You two really have to try coffee.”

“Coffee is the Devil’s drink,” said Catalina.

First, Kingston was surprised that Catalina knew what coffee was. Second, he was surprised by what she had just said. “It’s actually quite good,” said Kingston.

Catalina shook her head. “No. My priest assured me that coffee is the drink of the Devil.”

Kingston opened his mouth and saw John quickly shake his head at him. Kingston closed his mouth and instead went with a nod. “Then maybe we could have a tea?”

Catalina eyed him up suspiciously. “A what?”

“Tea. It’s a hot drink.” Kingston knew that sounded a lot like coffee so he quickly added: “It’s not coffee. And it’s not the Devil’s drink. It’s just hot.”

“Why would anyone want a hot drink?” Catalina asked.

That puzzled John as well but he didn’t say anything.

“It’s … social,” said Kingston.

“And you drink it in this weather?” Catalina said.

“In every weather,” said Kingston, wondering if a scotch might suit him more.

An hour and a half later they boarded the train and found their compartment.

“Very nice, very nice indeed,” said John, looking around.

Kingston gave them all a broad smile. “Well? Your first train, what do you think?”

“It looks comfortable.”

“Smells nice,” said Catalina, and she gave it her nod of approval.

“Excellent. Well, sit down, this whole compartment is ours,” said Kingston. He stowed the scythe above their heads.

John and Catalina stared out the window. John looked back. “And we have the best seats?”

“We have some of the best seats,” said Kingston.

“So, we’re sharing best seats?”

“I believe there are three main classes; first, second, and third. Though there might not be a third-class, I’m not sure, I haven’t been on one of these before.”

“Not on a train?”

“I’ve been on lots of trains. Not in this style or this era, though.”

“But this is similar?” John asked.

“It’s about fifty years before I was born.”

John looked around in surprise. “These don’t last for fifty years?”

“No, technology improves.”

John shrugged. “I would have thought that technology would have kept these things going for longer, not shorter. Although it does seem nicer here than in Sherwood. How’s the mead situation?”

Kingston sighed. “We’ll have to wait until we get to Germany for more beer. We’ll get there soon enough.”

John tried to ease himself into relaxing, as though it was a distant memory and he was still trying to remember how to do it.

“Look at all the people wearing nice things,” said Catalina, staring out the window. “They all have hats.”

John grunted. “You should never trust a man in a hat.”

“I think it makes a man look very handsome.”

John nodded, acknowledging that he heard Catalina. He looked over to Kingston. “And you said these things are fast?”

“Very fast.”

“How fast?”

Once again, Kingston had to go to the source of a movie for his information and had no idea if it was accurate or not. “If you weren’t hauling any of those carriages behind you, had a straight track and got the fire hot enough then you might be able to get to ninety miles an hour.”

John still looked a little baffled, though Catalina spun around quickly. “Ninety miles an hour? Ninety?”

“Yeah. But we won’t go that fast.”

“How much is an hour?” John asked.

Kingston didn’t like where this conversation was going. “It’s one twenty fourth of a day.”

“That seems like an odd division,” said John.

Catalina was again shaking her head. “People are not supposed to go that fast.”

“Don’t worry, we’ll probably go at just half that speed.”

“How fast is that?” John asked.

“Probably a horse at full gallop,” said Kingston, wishing now more than ever they could just get a move on before John and Catalina had a chance to jump off.

John turned it over in his mind as he tried to piece it all together without looking like an idiot. “You said something about the train being on fire …”

Catalina spun around again. “What? The train is on fire?”

Kingston started to lose his cool. “The train moves thanks to fire.”

That received an interesting pair of looks, and much arguing and confusion was about to erupt. Kingston held up his hand as quickly as possible. “You two? Don’t worry. This train is very good. And our technology is very good as well. Why, in thirty nine years we’ll put a guy on the moon. Well, not us specifically. Mankind will build something so incredible that a guy walks along the surface of the moon and comes back alive.”

That too received an interesting pair of looks. For a moment John and Catalina were too stunned to even talk. Or blink. Or move. It allowed Kingston his first real moment of peace since coming back with three tickets to the Orient Express.

“By the way, there is an excellent chance that someone is going to be murdered on this train, possibly tonight, possibly before we get to Munich. If we are really lucky, and I mean really lucky, we are in a completely different story. If that’s the case then I have no idea what’s about to happen. Either way I’m going to be on the look out for a Belgian detective and hope like hell he’s not on board. I mean, if anyone attracts worse luck than us, it’s him.”

Kingston received his third pair of interesting looks in the space of a minute and decided not to push it any further by going for a fourth, since that would likely inspire John and Catalina to walk to Munich instead.

The train started to move, the cabins shook from side to side, and Catalina gripped John’s hand nervously as the train picked up speed.

 

 

No one spoke for several hours. Kingston hoped it was because John and Catalina were mesmerised by the passing landscape, shooting by at such impossible speeds that it warped their world. Kingston had a niggling doubt that they were angry with him. There was one way to make everything better and that was with food and alcohol.

Kingston clapped his hands together. “Who’s hungry?”

John grunted. Catalina stared out the window.

“Thirsty?”

No answer.

“I’m paying.”

Catalina turned and gave him a carefully blank look. “Would we be going towards the part of the train that is on fire, or away?”

“That is normal,” said Kingston.

“A train on fire should never be normal,” said Catalina.

“Yes, I agree on that point, but -”

“Good.” Catalina folded her arms and returned to looking at the scenery outside.

Kingston knew this was a losing battle, but if he could persuade John then he was sure that John could persuade Catalina. “John, there’s probably that beer you like.”

John shook his head. “Before we got on you said one important thing and that was you weren’t getting off the train for any reason until you got to Munich.”

“Yes,” said Kingston.

“And when we got on you said another important thing: that someone might die and I am led to believe that we might become involved in that. It seems to be a frequent thing with us; we get involved in some rough business that is really none of our concern.”

“Yes, but -”

“Would we be safer here in our compartment or out there where the food and beer is?” John asked.

Kingston sighed. “Probably in here.”

“Then it is probably in here where I would like to stay.”

 

 

The train started to slow. At first Kingston didn’t pay much attention to it, it was John’s interest in everything happening outside caught his attention.

“Are we here?” John asked.

“No, there are several more stops before we get to Munich,” said Kingston.

The three of them sat patiently as the train came to a halt. It piqued Kingston’s curiosity that they still hadn’t arrived at a platform or a station. Rather, they had stopped in the middle of nowhere. Then again this was the 1930s and even in his era there were plenty of unforeseen stops and delays.

John pressed his head against the window. “Uh … there are people out there. Out of place people.”

Catalina looked out and recognised one of them. “No!”

Kingston glanced out as well. The someone Catalina recognised was the bounty hunter. Standing next to him was a strange individual swaying in the breeze.

Kingston jumped to his feet and reached for the scythe. “We have to go!”

John and Catalina scrambled and all at once they realised how little room there was in the compartment with the three of them trying to move quickly.

Kingston heard the footfalls of someone walking through their carriage. She had the distinct stride of a short woman wearing high heels. John glanced out the window and saw the unusual swaying person pointing right at him. “They know where we are.”

“Okay,” said Kingston. He grabbed onto John and Catalina, then focussed on the scythe. “Take us to Munich. Take us to Munich.”

The door slid open. A short woman stared at the ludicrous sight in the compartment and held her voice steady. “Kingston Raine.”

“See you later!” said Kingston, with the slightest of grins.

Eve simply reached out and grabbed onto the scythe. Kingston, John, and Catalina froze.

Somehow, Kingston hadn’t considered that possibility, but he was certainly giving it a lot of thought right now.

Eve cocked an eyebrow at the escapee and allowed herself a moment to revel in the stand off. “I imagine anywhere you try to go, I will go as well.”

John flexed his arms. “I am not above hitting someone who deserves it.”

“Good idea,” said Catalina.

Eve finally smiled. “I wouldn’t try. I’m what Kingston has been running from.”

Kingston shifted, wondering what to do. He couldn’t teleport out of there without Eve coming with them and he knew that John wouldn’t stand a chance in a fight against an Eternal.

Eve yanked the scythe out of Kingston’s hand. “Thank you for this, it will make everything much easier when I get back to Limbo. And to think, you’ve been walking around with one of the most powerful items in all of time and space and you’ve been using it just to teleport.” Eve smiled. “This will restore order.”

Kingston held his breath. He was powerless. He had to be careful about what to say in front of John and Catalina. He couldn’t risk adding their lives to Eve’s leverage and arsenal. “All right, you got me. All I was doing was -”

“- Was causing problems, mayhem, and mischief. Yes, I’ve heard the updates,” said Eve. She reached out and laid the lightest touch on Kingston’s chest.
_ _
p<>. Pop!

Kingston and Eve were gone. John and Catalina remained on the train.

XVI

_ _
p<>. Pop!

Kingston heard a collective gasp from a hundred people surrounding him. He felt Eve step away and saw her triumphant smile as every pair of eyes in the area were fixed upon her, the scythe, and her prisoner. Kingston looked up and realised he was in the visitor’s entrance of Death Inc., with a dozen guards quickly approaching him.

Eve marvelled at her own brilliance towards theatrics. She held the scythe carefully in her hands to let everyone know what she had just accomplished. Money, threats, and power couldn’t buy that sort of publicity. News of her victory would speed through the employees within hours.

“Seize him,” Eve said gently. A dozen guards threw themselves on top of Kingston, pinning him down and lifting him up to his feet again in one swift move. Kingston didn’t bother to struggle. He had no intention of breaking his arm or dislocating a shoulder and he knew the situation now was hopeless. But he was back on his feet and that gave him some advantage if the opportunity to escape quickly arose.

“Have you got him?” Eve asked. She didn’t need to ask such an obvious question. She simply did it to let everyone know that she was calm and in charge.

“Yes ma’am,” came a dozen voices.

“Take him to a holding cell.”

Kingston was pushed forward through one of the doors, allowing Eve a moment to swivel in full view of the crowd with the mightiest weapon ever forged. She allowed everyone’s eyes to fall over her for a few seconds before she headed upstairs.

Kingston had not seen much of Death Inc., and he didn’t see much more this time around either. Six paces from the visitor’s entrance was a large solid door held in place by a horizontal beam the size of a battering ram. Kingston was unkindly escorted through the towering doors and everything went uniquely dark. He was inside a tunnel lit with faded sickly green light. The shadows and swathes of light started to swirl along the curved walls and ceiling, giving Kingston the sensation that he was about to lose his balance. He knew it was an ingenious method of stopping people from escaping quickly. People had a habit of tripping up on themselves even at home. Add a pinch of disorientation in a dark tunnel they wouldn’t make it to the door in a single burst of speed.

At the far end of the tunnel was a swivelling helix staircase. It was as wide as a house and revolved in one spot without going up or down, adding another element of disorientation as Kingston’s balance was again completely thrown with the gentle spin. He had a feeling the steps could quickly turn into a slide if he tried to escape. He wasn’t concentrating on the fear right now, he was doing his best to remember every little detail.

_ _
p<>. The tunnel is one hundred and sixteen compressed paces long. The staircase is moving clockwise. So far there are thirty two steps … thirty three … thirty four.

Sixty six steps later they finally came to the bottom. Kingston was sure that all of the guards were feeling a little groggy right now as well, so that was useful to remember later on. In front of them was a circular room with five arched doors pressed into the walls. One of the guards walked up to the first door on the left, held one hand against the wall to balance himself from the journey underground, and unlocked the door.

Kingston was pushed inside and released. The twelve guards stepped back and locked the door behind him. The holding cell was not as Kingston expected. He imagined seeing lots of bars, a beam of moonlight stretching across the floor, and nothing but black and grey. Instead, he was standing in a brightly lit living room with several sofas, a writing desk, a pool table, and four statues, all alert and watching everything within the room.

Two people looked up. One of them went wide eyed with surprise while the other had no idea what was going on.

“Kingston?”

Kingston blinked. “Michelle?”

Michelle jumped up and ran over to hug Kingston. Don Keaton stood up from the sofa and he felt his pulse lurch in surprise. No matter what had happened to him before, this was the single weirdest thing to have ever occurred. He was about to meet his protagonist, and not just some actor pretending to inhabit the clothes and philosophy of his mighty star, but the actual man himself.

Michelle wrapped her arms around Kingston and grabbed on as tightly as she could. “They caught you …”

“They did,” said Kingston. He was relieved when Michelle stopped squeezing his ribs into his vital organs. “Is this really a holding cell?”

“It is, yeah. So, what happened to you?”

Don stepped forward suspiciously. “Kingston?”

Kingston had already assessed Don’s appearance and mannerisms and deemed him as somewhat disappointing, even though he didn’t know who his gentleman was.

“Kingston Raine?”

Kingston noticed the look of impossibility in Don’s face.

Michelle sighed. “Don Keaton, Kingston Raine.”

Kingston knew his worst fears were coming true. “The author.”

Don nodded. “The character.”

Kingston felt the overwhelming urge to ignore Don and he wasn’t quite sure why. He looked to Michelle. “So how much of me is based on him?”

“As far as I can tell, nothing.”

Don glanced at the ground and no longer liked his favourite fan.

Michelle looked Kingston up and down. “You weren’t wearing that when you left.”

“No, I got these from Dracula.”

Michelle was hit by another round of surprise.

“From the story, not from the vampire,” said Kingston.

She cocked her head to one side. “You actually travelled to a different story?”

“Several, really. Macbeth, Robin Hood, Dracula, Don Quixote … but that doesn’t really concern me all that much, despite having been abducted from my friends, because … Don? What the hell have you done with my life?”

Don blinked nervously and shrugged. “Um, sorry?”

Kingston glared at his author and stepped forward. “Every miserable thing I’ve gone through has been for your entertainment. Every person I’ve seen die has been because of you. And right now Joanna is being held captive by Dr Menning and you better tell me that no harm comes to her.”

“I don’t know,” mumbled Don.

Kingston leaned back in surprise. “You … you’re not even going to lie about that?”

Don gave a feeble shrug and shook his head. “I don’t know how you two end up.”

“They’re going to get married,” said Michelle, as though it was the most obvious answer in the world.

“What? No!” cried Don. “Trust me, that option is long gone.”

Michelle glanced back at Kingston. “One of the first things you told me was that the woman you were going to marry had been drugged and abducted.”

Kingston breathed in deeply, glared at Don for continuing to ruin his life, then he tried to smile at Michelle. “I, uh …”

“Exaggerated?” asked Michelle.

“Perhaps. But I do love her.”

“You exaggerated so that I would help bust you out of Limbo?”

Kingston gave her a quick nod. “Exactly that.”

“You lied to me?”

Kingston reeled back in surprise. “Do you know nothing about me? Taking command of the situation has kept me alive for more than thirty years and sometimes I need to get a little creative with the truth so that everyone lives. I was up against a ticking clock.” He glared at Don again.

“It’s all a work in progress, you know,” said Don.

“‘Progress’ is not the word I’ve heard being bantered around by people who have met you.” Kingston turned to Michelle. “So, has anyone ever escaped from here?”

“Yes.”

“Really?” Kingston looked at the heavy duty door and the four statues. “I honestly wasn’t expecting that answer.”

Michelle shrugged. “This isn’t a police state. People can escape quite easily. The problem is there isn’t anywhere we can hide. Eve and her bounty hunters can go all over Limbo and find us in just a few minutes. Not even you were able to stay hidden for long.” She sighed and fell into a moment of silence. “Even those from Hell were caught for trespassing and they have more experience avoiding our bounty hunters than you. The only alternative is the wilderness.”

Don walked back to the sofa, his shoulders slumped forward, and he was irrevocably disappointed that he wasn’t more awe inspiring to Kingston.

“What about hiding in the other realms?” Kingston asked.

“Well, that’s the catch, isn’t it? If you break into North and try to hide there, that immediately bars you from ever entering again. It’s not exactly neutral in these matters, there’s a strict background check. So that leaves Hell, which is not the nicest place to hide in. So really, the best place to be right now in our situation is in one of the holding cells, on a sofa, under the watchful eye of four statues. And, by the way, they are listening to everything we say. They are better at lip reading than anyone else, they can hear the softest whisper, they can check our pulses from where they are to see if we are building up the adrenaline, readying ourselves to escape, they can also read notes and messages. So the best way to form an escape plan is to not tell anyone anything about it.”

Kingston nodded, locking that away for later. “You forgot one of the realms. Life.”

Michelle shrugged again. “Don, how long were you back in your apartment before Eve dragged you in for processing?”

“A couple of days,” said Don.

“Yeah, but, come on, that’s Don,” said Kingston.

Michelle wandered back to the sofa and sat down. “Honestly, we’ve been waiting for someone to rescue us. Satan went off to find Death and either he hasn’t found him yet, which I guess is possible, or Death can’t actually get to us. If he had his scythe he could sweep back in and take over in a matter of …” She glanced up at Kingston and they both realised that they now faced a greater problem.

“Yeah,” said Kingston. “I had the scythe. Eve took it from me.”

Michelle collapsed back into the sofa and grumbled. “Any Eternal with the scythe is the de facto ruler of Limbo. She can reinstate laws. She can make new ones. She can sort anyone she likes anywhere she wants.”

“And that would stop Death from coming back to Limbo?”

Michelle nodded. “She can make it illegal for him to come back. And we’re talking about Eternal law illegal. He could make an appeal to the chorus up North but you can bet your ass that Satan would be doing whatever he could to find an alternative way to beat Eve.”

“So there’s a chance?” asked Kingston.

Michelle raised her shoulders with uncertainty. “Death still has a lot of natural powers, it’s just that his scythe is powerful in Death as a concept, not so much as Death as a person.”

Kingston shook his head. “You lost me there.”

“Death without his scythe is like a retired general telling the local bar what he thinks should be done with the military. Death with his scythe is like a general in charge of millions of soldiers, weapons, and the legal power to do almost anything, just because he’s a general. It doesn’t really matter who’s wearing the uniform, just that they are recognised as being in charge. Any Eternal with the scythe has that power. For eons everyone was nervous whenever Satan came to visit because all he had to do was lay one hand on that scythe and no one would be able to stop him.”

Kingston arched an eyebrow in surprise. “Huh.”

“Yeah. How did you even get caught?”

“A bounty hunter had been following me for a while. I thought I gave him the slip but he came back again with a psychic and Eve.”

“A psychic found you?” Michelle asked. “I wouldn’t have thought that was possible. I mean, a scout, maybe, and then possibly a seer, but not a psychic.”

Kingston thought it over and remembered something in the paperwork that the bounty hunter had in his pockets back in Spain. “Angela, from department nineteen.”

“Ah,” Michelle said. “A seer, not a psychic. That makes a little more sense.” Then she looked up from under her eyebrows. “Wait, how did you know about department nineteen? And how do you know about Angela?”

“Powers of observation.” Kingston winked at Michelle. “So Eve came in, took the scythe and pop, here we came.”

“Great,” mumbled Michelle.

Kingston nodded and didn’t like his chances of getting out of there any more than Michelle and Don’s. He spared a thought for John and Catalina, now stuck on a train in the middle of a country and era they knew nothing about. They would cause so many problems in his absence and would never find a way back to their own stories. Kingston always expected he would feel guilty for inviting John along, but he never imagined John being stuck somewhere without Kingston to help him out.

_ _
p<>. I don’t even know what story they’re stuck in, Kingston thought. Without a seer to help me I have no way to get back to them.

The guilt rose through him. His friends were lost and trapped, all because he didn’t act in time. He imagined how afraid they would be without knowing what was about to happen. They might even be arrested and John wouldn’t go down without a fight. Even if they survived that they still had to endure the Second World War while in central Europe.

Despite that, Kingston felt Catalina and Joanna bearing down on him, watching from a distance. He knew this was something he had to deal with even if he didn’t want to. He had to take command of the situation. “How can I help?”

Michelle shrugged. “Honestly? I have no idea.”

Don looked over. “I can help as well.”

Kingston and Michelle weren’t so sure and the look on their faces was clear enough.

“I may not be able to save the entire realm but I can help a little!” said Don. “And look, I like you two. I’ve spent many years letting Kingston rise to any challenge and ultimately, even if he is defeated a little, he never gives up. And you, Michelle, you are the brave real life version of Joanna.”

Michelle wheezed a little and her mouth dropped open.

“Or the real version of Kingston,” Don said quickly.

“No, I like Joanna. She’s awesome,” said Michelle.

“Okay, well, you’re like her,” said Don.

Kingston looked Michelle up and down. He wasn’t so sure that she was the real version of Joanna. Joanna was the real version of Joanna. Then again, Kingston was sure that Don was capable of lying to inspire people and lying had its benefits.

“He’s right,” Kingston said. “You really are brave, knowledgeable, and feisty.”

Michelle arched an eyebrow at him. “Feisty?”

“Sassy.”

“I’m not familiar with ‘sassy.’”

“Smoky.”

Michelle nodded. “I’m okay with smoky.”

“Good,” said Kingston. He clapped his hands together and regained control of the situation. “Okay. Everyone, Eternals included, have some serious flaws. No plan is ever perfect because it requires everyone to act how they should, rather than how they will. So first of all, who would be better in charge? Death or Eve?”

“Death,” said Michelle.

“Loyalties aside, is he really the best?”

“Yes, and oh, hell, yes,” said Michelle. “You always know where you stand with him. Eve is just a manipulative bitch trying to force everyone to behave the way she wants, while Death allows people to relive their human side, which is why he accepts restaurants and libraries and bars. He lets people do whatever it is that makes them happy and he only cares when it starts to interfere with their job. Eve, though, doesn’t tolerate the extracurricular activities. She would force people to have fun under her definition of the word. She wants to break people and have them act like little puppets so they obey her every word. Some people think that Death doesn’t give a rat’s ass about them. Really he’s giving them full control and freedom over their own lives.”

“Okay,” said Kingston. “Then we need to lure Eve away from Limbo. As long as she has the scythe she’ll be strongest here, right?”

“I believe so,” said Michelle.

“Then where would she be weakest?”

“Certainly not in Life. And I wouldn’t recommend fighting her for the scythe, either. Whether you are actually mortal or not, you wouldn’t stand a chance against her.”

“Then we steal it from her by being sneaky,” said Kingston. “Then we find Death and return his scythe.”

“Okay,” said Michelle. “How do we do that?”

“First we get to the surface,” said Kingston.

“And how are we going to get out of here?”

“Apparently we can just leave through the front door, right?”

“It will be locked,” said Michelle.

“Can you teleport us out?”

“I’ve tried. The room is locked as well, preventing anyone from popping in for a visit.”

Kingston glanced to the statues. “We could ask them for help.”

“I’ve tried that as well.”

“Then do you have any allies in department nineteen?”

“Some,” nodded Michelle. “But it won’t get us out of this room.”

“Then we’re going to have to sit back and wait until someone comes to see us, perhaps for an interrogation.” He glanced over and stared at the statues. “And believe me, the secrets I’ve been dying to get off my chest …”

“Does that really work?” asked Don.

“Of course,” said Kingston. “You have to be sorted into Hell. Michelle knows the ins and outs of running this place and there will come a problem that only she can solve. And I need to jump back to John and Catalina, then rescue Joanna. Trust me, someone has to come and get at least one of us.”

Michelle glanced over in surprise. “Who’s John and Catalina?”

“Friends of mine,” said Kingston.

“You … made friends?”

“Yeah. Two of them.”

“Huh,” said Don. “You … trust them?”

Kingston smiled back at his author. “They come from a different era and I am absolutely certain that they have not been introduced into my life by Bridgeworks to sabotage me. Speaking of which, tell me everything you know about how to take down Bridgework, because when I get back to Joanna I’m going to bring that stupid company crashing to the ground.”

“Okay,” said Don. “The CEO is about to be assassinated and it’s made to look like a suicide. Kitchinger is going to be more ruthless as a boss and has most of the legal system bought and controlled. You really pissed him off in book four when you used his nephew as a decoy for yourself, and Kitchinger ordered the hit on his nephew thinking he was you, so you’re not in a strong position, really.”

“Right,” said Kingston, his eyes going wide, remembering that every miserable moment of his life was because of Don. He had to remind himself that every good moment was also because of Don. He focused on Joanna as the prime example. “What else?”

 

 

Mr Wong sat behind two hundred books, researching and checking over the finest of details. He was sure he was onto something important and that would encourage Eve to look upon him favourably. It appeared that Death had made one critical error when establishing the company – he neglected to write a mission statement. This was Mr Wong’s ticket to greatness. He could see it now, those giant gold letters fixed high onto the wall proclaiming the very words that he was writing now, the mission statement that would be seen for years, centuries, even millennia. He just had to get it perfect so that no one, not even Eve, would see a need to improve or change his wording. For the first time in his unlife Mr Wong was euphoric.

That was until a letter appeared out of thin air, surrounded by a puff of smoke and flames. It fell onto his mountain of books and Mr Wong scrambled forward to make sure that it wasn’t going to burn anything important. It didn’t, but it still left Mr Wong swearing to the gods that his blood pressure could only take so much.

“I’m too busy to read letters!” he shouted. He knocked the envelope to the ground.

Half an hour later, Eve started to hear the first of the discomforting reports. Most of the new arrivals were being processed and then refused entry into Hell. Eve fired off a quick letter to the Satan office demanding an explanation and warning him of the consequences of his petty squabbles. It was a lengthy letter, very wordy, using lots of unnecessary syllables. Satan’s response was a little more concise. He drew a picture of a middle finger in crayon.

Eve almost tore her hair out in frustration. “How dare he! How [_dare _]he! He has no control over who goes in and out of his realm! He should be grateful that he’s even acknowledged, since no one wants to go there anyway! Ivan!”

Ivan hurried in to see Eve. “Yes ma’am?”

“Find out what Satan is playing at!”

“Yes ma’am.”

It took three days before Ivan was able to get to the bottom of it, and that was mostly by accident. For those three days the newly departed were unable to move on to Hell and they piled up in Limbo like it was the plague all over again. The sudden influx numbered seven hundred and thirty thousand people. They were two hours away from out numbering the residents of Limbo.

“Mr Wong?”

Mr Wong quickly covered his books and notes and wished he had a lock on his door. “Mr Vaaner?” His attitude was clear: shut up and leave me alone.

“Mr Wong, I’m going over all the correspondence and letters over the last few days. Surely you’ve noticed the problems we’re having with Hell.”

Mr Wong leaned back in his chair and kept his face very stiff. “No. I have not.”

“Really? Well, the Satan office insists that they’ve communicated with Limbo and to an official in the building. Now, knowing the Satan office, they’ve taken the scenic route to inform us. So it’s entirely possible that one letter was inside another letter inside another letter, bouncing from one person to the next until the official letter was finally sent to a random official, if you’re able to follow …”

Mr Wong gave no indication whether he followed or not.

“Anyway … the letter may have come from within Limbo and I must check the letter you received three days ago at fourteen minutes past two in the afternoon.

Mr Wong’s eyes flicked to the ground. Something about that time and date seemed familiar. He shook it from his mind and knew it must have been a mistake. “I am hardly the representative of Limbo. No letter from Hell would have come to me.”

Ivan sighed. “Actually, it’s entirely possible. Even a janitor is an official of Death Inc., so I really must check the letter you received.”

Mr Wong felt a tad nervous. He looked at the ground and saw an envelope poking out from under his desk. “That might be it.”

Ivan also started to feel nervous, now that Mr Wong had not even opened the letter in question. “Would you please fetch it for me?”

Mr Wong did so. “I think I’ll read it first,” said Mr Wong.

Ivan felt himself start to panic and he did not envy Mr Wong’s position at all.

Mr Wong’s eyes glanced down to the first line of the letter and an unusual wheeze escaped him as his whole face contorted into absolute horror. He read the whole thing twice and glanced up to Ivan as though it was an order to have Mr Wong executed.

Ivan went bright red and felt his chest heave with nerves. He extended a shaky hand. “May I see the letter, Mr Wong?”

Mr Wong’s jaw had dropped open and Ivan could see all of the metal fillings Mr Wong had received during his life time. Apparently Mr Wong had something of a sweet tooth.

Ivan took the letter and saw the signature at the bottom. It caused his hands to shake beyond control. As he glanced over the words he started thinking about the nearest open roof top so he could consider his next career move.

 

Regarding the re-appropriation of stock and the undignified exit of the Grim Reaper himself, Hell and all of its subsidiaries are currently investigating the legalities of the puppet regime in place. Due to the illegal atmosphere now in place within Limbo, we advise Limbo and Death Incorporated that all access to Hell and her subsidiaries are henceforth denied.
[_ _
__]
p<>. Yours respectfully, Satan

 

Mr Wong’s dream of the mission statement evaporated as he was busted down to the role of janitor. Curiously, the head janitor was promoted and now resided in Mr Wong’s former office.

Eve had every last union working around the clock to break open the teleport lock between Hell and Limbo. She was going to force the recently departed into Hell even if Satan refused.

Curiously, breaking through to the other realm required her to drop all teleport locks within Limbo, including the ones keeping the holding cells secure.

XVII

Michelle climbed quickly to her feet.

“Did anyone else feel that?”

“Yes,” said Kingston, and he rose to join her.

Don looked around, having felt nothing at all.

“It was like someone opened a window,” said Kingston.

Michelle smiled to herself and knew that they were no longer held prisoner. She closed her eyes and concentrated. Then she opened them again and shook her head. “They’ve suspended my teleportation license.”

“Then we need to get an ally in here fast,” said Kingston.

Michelle nodded and called out into the air. “Lord Henry Biggins? Please, we need your help.”

There was no answer.

“Please? You really are the best scout in the realm and you can always refuse once you hear us out. I just really need a friend to give us a favour.”

Lord Henry Biggins, scout extraordinaire, appeared out of thin air. It was unusual to see him not out of breath. It was doubly unusual to see him dripping wet and wearing just a bathrobe. He bowed towards Michelle. “At your service.”

“Thank you Biggins,” Michelle said.

Biggins glanced at Don and Kingston. “Ah, the hack and the con man. Of course.”

The sight of the little man who had just stepped out of the shower was peculiar, but also peculiar was his complete change in personality. “Be quick.”

“I’m sorry if we’ve bothered you,” said Michelle.

“Be quicker than that.”

Kingston stepped forward. “A bounty hunter found me three days ago. He was with Eve and someone I presume to be a seer by the name of Angela. I need to find her.”

Biggins rolled his eyes. “Why don’t you try the classifieds?”

“Biggins, are you okay?” Michelle asked.

“I’ve been put on probation and had my privileges revoked,” said Biggins. “Apparently I have let a few trips go unreported and I have been accused of back door dealing! And spying! What nerve. And … AND … I heard from Eve that Kingston Raine is supposed to die at the end of the series of books.”

All eyes fell upon Kingston and then onto Don.

“Exactly!” muttered Biggins. “I used to like those stories and now? Nothing! She destroyed all the build up and hope. There’s no point reading any more!”

Kingston stepped towards Don. “You were going to kill me off?”

“It was a possibility,” spluttered Don.

“You told Eve that you would?”

“At the time I thought it was a good idea! But I’ve had a change of heart.”

Biggins waved his hand in the air. “And poisoning Joanna like that! How could you?”

Kingston reeled back onto Don, and through gritted teeth he asked: “What is he talking about?”

“It’s a story!” cried Don.

“You poisoned my girlfriend?”

Kingston turned his back on Don and his whole body shuddered with anger.

Michelle looked back to Biggins. “So, can you help us?”

Biggins sighed. “I should tell you that Death has gone.”

“I know. The statues have kept us up to date,” said Michelle.

“Oh good. So Eve is in charge and everything has to be done by the book, you know. ‘Rules are our friends’, apparently.” Biggins grumbled in frustration. “I gave her that phrase as well.”

“Please Biggins, you can get us out of here.”

“Well, I don’t know about that. There are plenty of scouts, some who aren’t on probation even,” said Biggins.

“But you’re the best.”

“Yeah, there is that,” said Biggins. He focused on Don with such contempt that Don thought the room was about to burst into flames.

“I promise,” said Don, “I absolutely promise that I will not kill off Kingston.”

“Or Joanna,” said Kingston.

“She was never in any real danger,” said Don.

Michelle looked back to Biggins with the utmost hope.

Biggins sighed. “Okay, I’ll help. But I just want you to think about what will happen if they catch me.”

“We will,” said Michelle.

“Good. Now, what am I supposed to do with Angela?”

Michelle and Don glanced over to Kingston, waiting for his brainwave. “Take us to her,” he said.

“Oh, is that all? Just teleporting three -”

“Biggins?” said Michelle.

Biggins fell quiet. “All right. Come on in.” He fixed his bathrobe to made sure it wasn’t going to fall open. Kingston and Don walked up and Biggins stepped back. “What are you two doing?”

Kingston and Don looked at each other and then glanced back to Biggins. “Coming to hold on to you?”

Biggins scoffed. “I’m flattered you think that’s how we scouts do things, but this isn’t a conga line.”

“Sorry,” said Kingston. “It’s just that you’re my first scout.”

“Well you might as well start with the best,” said Biggins. He gave a slight nod and they all teleported away.

They reappeared on a small rocky island, surrounded by mist and a cold lake. Biggins took a step back. “Welcome to the training rock. Believe it or not we are actually indoors. I’m going to go and change before introducing myself to a seer while half naked. While I’m gone, do you need anything else?”

“Actually, yes,” said Kingston. “Can you find a copy of book six from the Kingston Raine series and bring it to me?”

“Very well,” said Biggins. He snapped out of reality and disappeared from the island.

Michelle stared at Kingston. “We still need to bring down Eve.”

“Of course. But John can handle any bounty hunter she sends our way. Joanna can work a crowd into sympathy like you wouldn’t believe. She can overthrow a revolution. And in order to get to her I need John to smash his way through half of Munich.”

Don nodded. “Eve will have to divide her forces; some to chase us, others to maintain control over Limbo. Our odds of beating them are better when they’re divided.”

Michelle stared back at Don in surprise.

“I didn’t want to say anything in front of the statues,” said Don.

“Thanks,” said Kingston. He was one step closer to Joanna.

Biggins teleported back, this time in his full uniform with his thick glasses and long tan trench coat. “Right, it took a while, sorry for the delay. There were a couple of dogs. I hate dogs. They make me sneeze like you wouldn’t believe.” He handed a copy of the Curse of the Shanghai Werewolf to Kingston. “There’s your book. I had to get it from Raquel in Accounts Receivable. I, uh, had to promise that you would sign it.”

Don shrugged. “Okay.”

“And Kingston as well.”

Kingston shrugged. He had never been asked for his autograph before but it was the least he could do given the dire situation.

“Now then, I took the liberty of looking into your seer. She was something of a psychic in Life and a pretty good one at that. Have you ever tried chasing a seer? Not at all easy. Anyway, she has a brother. Big ugly guy.”

“The bounty hunter?” asked Kingston.

“The one and only. They were sending letters back and forth and she was the one mentally tracking you. She told her brother where to look and how to find you.”

“Okay,” said Kingston. “How did he teleport into Fiction?”

“Ah!” said Biggins, smiling and raising a finger as though this was the most important thing he would ever tell Kingston. “Bounty hunters can teleport, they’ve been given limited permission to do that. Into the fiction part … well … Death killed you while he was in office 173 in Inhuman Resources. There’s still a lot of power lingering in that room. The bounty hunter put his sister there and she was channelling all of the echoes and what have you and got a pretty good lock on you through the twisted world of make believe. So her letters to her brother were charged with Death’s energy and all of the crazy reverberations that psychics and seers pick up on. It’s really quite clever.”

Don looked bewildered. Absolutely none of that made sense to him. Luckily, it made perfect sense to Kingston and Michelle.

“So, if I wanted to get back to John and Catalina, how would I do it?” Kingston asked.

“In theory, go to office 173 with a good psychic or seer and someone who can teleport, then off you go. Of course, travelling from one book to another might be quite difficult. Every time the bounty hunter wanted to travel by his own he had to jump back into Limbo and then jump out again. I bet that gave him a headache and a half,” said Biggins.

“Is there any chance you could teleport us to office 173?”

“I might as well try.” With another slight nod he teleported everyone in the room to office 173 of Inhuman Resources.

Kingston braced himself for a headache and a gasp, but it didn’t come. “That didn’t feel too bad.”

Biggins held his eyes on Kingston’s. “I’m glad you think so. The next time I have a performance review maybe I’ll get a ‘Smooth and effortless journey’ tick instead of being ignored for my efforts. Now, you wanted a seer that had experience in tracking down fictional characters, didn’t you?”

“Ye -”

Biggins popped out of the room and popped back in again.

“ -s.”

There was a petrified woman with long silver hair swaying by his side. Kingston recognised her from the Orient Express.

“This, my fellow escapees, is Angela.”

They all took one look at her and realised that she wasn’t all … there … mentally speaking.

Biggins looked back to the crowd. “I guess this is the part where you convince me to break even more rules and regulations. I have, by the way, just abducted someone against their will. A bounty hunter will be after me very soon, so let’s make sure your powers of reasoning are beyond brilliant, okay?”

While Michelle and Don struggled to find some way to convince Biggins to break even more rules, Kingston went straight to the seer. “You knew Biggins was coming for you, didn’t you?”

“I knew,” said the seer.

“And you chose to come with him?”

“I chose,” said the seer.

Kingston looked back to Biggins. “She therefore was not abducted.”

“Yeah, the bounty hunter will not see it like that,” said Biggins. “He might like to see my feet removed from my legs and fed to African fire ants. I’ve heard those bounty hunters can be kind of bitter when you do things to their somewhat challenged sisters.”

Kingston looked to the seer. “Hi there, my name’s Kingston.”

“I know,” said the seer.

“I’m looking for Little John and his girlfriend Catalina on the Orient Express. Can you see them?”

“I can see,” said the seer.

“Excellent.” Kingston looked over to Biggins. “Take us there.”

 

 

With the sudden disappearance of Kingston Raine and no way of returning home, Little John and Catalina were stuck. Catalina spent the next couple of days on the Orient Express sobbing while John did his best to console her. Things took a turn for the worse when Catalina got her hands on a newspaper and found that there was a lot of trouble brewing in Spain.

Things then took an even more unfortunate turn when they were denied entry into Germany because they did not have the proper paperwork. They were stuck in Vienna and had no idea what sort of papers they were expected to need. Things became even more bizarre when John found a cinema showing Robin Hood. Catalina spent the whole time muttering that this Douglas Fairbanks actor wasn’t how she imagined Robin Hood to behave. Then, John got to see his screen double, Alan Hale as Little John. The real Little John was so stunned by the performance that he wasn’t able to speak for some time. He and Catalina hobbled out of the cinema and wondered if the crazy China was better and more sane than the mild mid-Europe in the 1930s. Either way, they knew they wondered if Kingston would ever find them again.

Catalina squeezed John and told him to never leave her. John promised and then asked the same in return.

“Aw, did you miss me?”

John and Catalina yelped and spun around. Kingston and four other people were standing around him.

“You!” shouted John. He ran in and pulled Kingston into a bear hug that threatened several of Kingston’s ribs.

“Yes, yes it’s me,” winced Kingston. “Please put me down.”

John let him go and it was Catalina’s turn to hug Kingston.

John was aghast to see everyone there. “But, how did you get here without the scythe? Did you lose it?”

“Yeah, we lost it,” said Kingston. “But first: introductions. Little John, Catalina, this is Michelle … I’m sorry I don’t think I know your last name.”

“I don’t have one,” said Michelle. She smiled at John and Catalina and waved a hand at them.

“Okay, then we have Don Keaton, he’s a writer, this is Lord Henry Biggins -”

“How do you do?” Biggins said with a deep bow.

“And that is Angela the seer.”

“Why does she look familiar?” John asked.

“We’re here to rescue you,” said Kingston, quickly.

“YAY!” screamed Catalina.

“Biggins, will you do the honours?”

Catalina stepped in to hold onto Biggins.

“Catalina? You don’t really need to do that,” said Kingston.

“Don’t be stupid boy, of course she needs to do that,” said Biggins. He gripped onto Catalina tightly and smiled at her.

Michelle did not look impressed.

“Where to?” Biggins asked.

“Munich,” said Kingston.

Biggins sighed at the obvious answer. “What part of the story do you want to appear in?”

“Somewhere in the middle of book six.”

Don shook his head. “No good. Something important happens in the second half.”

“Yeah,” said Michelle. “And you can’t just jump over you abandoning Joanna and rescuing her before it happens.”

“They have a point,” said Biggins.

“I’m not going in at the very end!” said Kingston. “I need to rescue her when I am able to and I can’t if she’s facing off Dr Menning while he’s just down the street from Bridgeworks headquarters!”

“You want to change the whole story?” Michelle asked.

“Yes!” shouted Kingston. “If I can, I will.”

John rolled his eyes at Kingston. “You don’t remember much of Macbeth, do you?”

Kingston turned to John and remembered that John wasn’t even there at the time.

“You said Macbeth was mad and that his wife would be worse. If he had access to that book of yours, the one about him, he would have gone full blown insane trying to control his future. You’re doing the same,” said John.

“Biggins? Take us to Munich,” said Kingston.

Biggins glanced to Michelle, then Don, and finally nodded. “Okay. Going to Munich.”

Everyone moved in close to Biggins.

Biggins looked over to Angela. “I need her to lock in on the location or else I’m going in blind.”

Kingston stood in front of Angela. “Angela? Can you see Munich at all?”

“I see its name,” said the seer.

Michelle shook her head. “No good, we need something more concrete than that.”

Kingston held up the book. “What about the end of the Curse of the Shanghai Werewolf?”

John smiled. “Hey, you found another one!”

Kingston focused on Angela. “Can you get us into this book?”

Angela swayed and smiled. “My brother’s looking for me.”

“Yes, and the book? Right here … page four hundred and …” He trailed off with his eyes fixed on one word within the text.

Cerintol.

The poison.

Dr Menning’s favourite torture of choice, and the one thing Kingston knew about the drug was that it caused untold paranoia. He turned to face Don as a distant impossibility started to surface.

John stepped forward and ducked down to see what was going on. “Kingston? Everything okay?”

“Cerintol?” Kingston mumbled.

Biggins glanced from Kingston to Don. “You didn’t tell him?”

Don looked around nervously. “Now, the thing is …”

“How long has she been drugged up on this stuff?” Kingston asked. He looked as though he was about to punch Don’s lights out.

“For most of the book,” mumbled Don.

“And you didn’t tell me?”

The group trailed off into silence, while Angela swayed peacefully in the wind. “Michelle will speak,” said the seer.

Michelle rolled her eyes. “Fine. Kingston, sweetie? You were probably drugged with it as well.”

“She speaks the truth,” said the seer.

It took a moment for it to sink in and Kingston quickly shook his head. “Okay, I was drugged. Angela? We need to get to the end of the Curse of the Shanghai Werewolf. Right here,” he said. He pushed the book in front of her face.

Angela swayed and opened her eyes wide. “Eve knows,” she said.

The group fell quiet and everyone looked from one nervous face to the other. “She knows we escaped?” Kingston asked.

“She knows.”

“Does she know where we are?”

“She will know.”

“Okay, then we’re going to get a move on,” said Kingston. He pushed the open page back in front of Angela’s face. “Ready?”

I am,” said the seer.

John drew in a sharp breath and stared at Angela. “I don’t like the way she said that.”

Biggins gasped and clutched his chest.

“Are you okay?” Michelle asked. “Is Eve calling you?”

Biggins winced and looked as though he was about to gag. “No … I think I’ve just been fired.” He looked around quickly, grabbed onto Catalina’s hand and focussed intently on Angela, and remained exactly where he stood. “Oh no …”

Kingston glanced back to Biggins and felt the fear rising in his chest. “We’re stuck?”

“No, no! This can’t happen to me!” cried Biggins. He scrunched up his face with all of his concentration but nothing worked. “I can’t teleport. I can’t do anything! I’m no longer a scout.” He staggered backwards and clutched his chest in shock. “I’ve lost my job … I’m going to be sorted in Hell!”

Michelle tapped him on the shoulder. “We won’t let that happen. As soon as Eve is gone we’ll get you back.”

“But it will be a permanent blemish on my record!” said Biggins. “No amount of overthrowing the government will change a blemish! I’ll have to start in the lower ranks again … do a traineeship …” Biggins shuddered at the idea. “And that’s if we win!”

Kingston glanced back to the seer. “Angela, will I actually see Joanna again?”

“Don is working on it,” said Angela.

Kingston glanced over to Don. “What does that mean?”

“Yeah, what does that mean?” asked Don. He raised his eyebrows in surprise as an idea came to him.

Catalina glanced from one face to another. “Who’s Eve?”

Michelle took a moment to form the most succinct answer she could. She had it in three words. “The bad guy.”

“Oh,” said Catalina.

Kingston looked back to Angela. “So will Eve find us again?”

“That is certain,” said the seer.

“Then what’s the best way to get rid of her?”

Angela swayed idly from side to side.

Kingston looked to Michelle. “What does that mean?”

“It means she has no idea. And since Eternals really do live forever, getting rid of Eve for a day is different than forever.”

“Okay, Angela? How can we get rid of Eve so that she’s gone for the next hundred years?”

Angela swayed idly from side to side.

“Angela? This is important.”

“Kingston?” Michelle shook her head. “You won’t get any more of a detailed answer than that. I’ve dealt with psychics before.”

“I’m a seer,” said Angela.

Michelle shrugged. “They’re slightly more lucid but too busy watching everything else in the world.” Even as she said that, she was sure that Angela was the least lucid seer of them all.

“So, this girl is like my niece,” said John. “She sees the future?”

“The present,” said Kingston.

“And her brother has been chasing us …”

“That’s right,” said Kingston. Something occurred to him.

Michelle recognised that look. “What is it?”

“We need to inspire him to teleport us into Munich.”

“She’s not a muse,” said Michelle.

“But he needs her to know where to teleport to,” said Kingston.

“She’s angry,” said the seer.

“Great,” said Kingston. He glanced over to Don, who had a peculiar smile creep across his face. “Don, you okay?”

“Hang on,” mumbled Don. His eyes looked up as though trying to burrow through his eyebrows. He was deep in thought. Then, he finally looked back to the crowd and grinned. “I didn’t realise it until now, but the whole ‘You’re the one for her, she’s the one for you’ thing. I just figured out the ending to the series.”

“Well that’s nice, but does this happen only in fiction or will we be able to save her by the end of the day?”

“Fiction,” said Don.

Kingston sighed and shook his head. “So what’s the idea?”

“I can’t say, not until I’ve finished writing it.”

Kingston turned back to Angela. “What’s his great idea?”

“Kingston and Joanna meet on the top of the -”

“AH! Stop her talking!” cried Don. “Seriously! It’s a great idea and no one is supposed to ruin it!”

“They are coming,” said the seer.

Kingston glanced over his shoulder and pulled them away. “It’s time to walk away and hide,” he said.

John rolled his shoulders back and flexed his arms. “I’m ready.”

“We’re escaping, not fighting.”

“Better safe than sorry,” said John.

Biggins looked around and fixed his glasses around his eyes. “We’re being watched.”

Everyone froze.

“By whom?” Kingston asked.

“I can’t say exactly,” said Biggins. “I can see the distortions. They’re watching us. It’s another scout. Clifton? Reinard? Phyllis? There! I just saw the distortions move! It’s Phyllis! Phyllis, you have to help us! Find Death! Find Satan even! Get them to help us! I know I already owe you a favour but please help us out!” The distortions moved slightly and disappeared. “She’s gone. I hope that meant a ‘yes’ or else we’re screwed.”

John was wide eyed and leaned over to Kingston. “Was he just talking to the wall over there?”

“Not quite,” said Kingston.

“She’s in office 173,” said the seer.

“Well, she’s coming,” said Kingston. He checked up and down the street and knew they were drawing a lot of attention from the public, since they were as strangely dressed as possible. “I was hoping that Monty would get to us first, not Eve.”

Kingston peered around one building to make sure the coast was clear. He saw an elderly man staggering around in his pyjamas. That certainly caught his attention. Kingston glanced back to Angela. “What’s happening?”

“Eve is laughing,” said Angela.

“About what?”

“She’s thanking you.”

Everyone stared at Kingston and no one had any idea why Eve would ever want to thank Kingston. He tried to put that visual out of his head.

Angela stared off into space. “I see seven hundred and sixty thousand faces.”

“It’s all the people not being sent to Hell,” said Michelle. Then it dawned on her. “Is … Is Eve trying to send the new arrivals here?”

“Yes,” said Angela.

“She can’t do that!” shouted Michelle. “She can’t! That’s … it’s … but … No! Those people are supposed to go to Hell, not here!”

“Huh,” mumbled Don. “That’s actually a good idea.”

“No, it’s not!” shouted Michelle. “She could seal off all access to Hell and just dump everyone in Fiction. It’s so very wrong!”

John leaned over to Kingston. “I missed something there.”

“There was severe overcrowding in Limbo,” said Kingston. “Satan no doubt blocked off all access to Hell and Eve needed to put the dead somewhere, so why not put them here?”

Catalina shook her head. “The dead are walking among the living? No. You can’t do that.”

“He’s coming,” said Angela.

John looked over the top of everyone’s head and grimaced. “Lots of people in black jackets.”

Kingston looked around. “Is Monty among them?”

“Nope.” John flexed his arms again. “I can take them.”

Biggins leaned back in surprise as he counted off the number of bounty hunters. “There are eight of them,” said Biggins.

“That’s going to be tough,” said Michelle.

John’s smile broadened at the prospect. “Just watch me.”

“Limbo has a hundred more,” said Michelle.

John fell into a broad smile. “Send them to me.”

Kingston stepped into John’s line of sight. “We can still use Monty to bring us to Joanna.”

“She’s in Munich,” said Angela.

“Yes, she is,” said Kingston. He glanced back to Angela as though the wind in his sails had just dissipated. “Who are we talking about?”

“Eve is in Munich,” said Angela.

Don and Kingston exchanged a worrying glance. “Can you be any more specific?” Kingston asked.

“Eve is looking for Joanna,” said Angela.

Kingston felt an overwhelming thump in his chest as he realised that Eve was now setting a trap and using Joanna as the bait. “Of course,” he mumbled. “She’s going to make me go to her.”

“Us,” said Catalina, and she smiled at Kingston.

Kingston feigned a smile in return, but deep down he knew that Joanna was in a world of trouble and it was all his fault.

“So what’s the plan?” asked John.

“He’s here,” said Angela.

“Monty’s arrived,” said Kingston. “We grab him. He teleports us to Munich. That’s our plan.”

John looked over the crowd and locked in on the ugliest of bounty hunters. “Oh yeah, there he is. He’s limping.”

“He’s angry,” said Angela.

“He looks like he’s smiling.” John squinted, trying to figure out his opponent. “Wait, now I see it. He’s frowning. I can take him.”

“Be careful,” said Catalina.

Kingston turned to Angela. “Can you convince your brother to take us to Munich? To the Kingston Raine stories?”

Angela smiled up at the sky.

“I think she’s broken,” said Catalina, looking Angela up and down carefully.

Kingston tapped Angela on the wrist. “Angela? Can you just focus on Munich? And Kingston Raine? Munich and Kingston Raine, Munich and Kingston Raine.”

“He’s coming,” said Angela.

Kingston looked over at Monty and saw him running at full speed. John stood up with his shoulders back and his fists primed, eyes fixed on Monty.

“Everyone hold on!” cried Kingston. They all grabbed onto each other. “Remember Angela: Kingston Raine, Munich, Kingston Raine, Munich.”

“He missed me,” said Angela with a smile.

“Please just concentrate on Kingston Raine and Munich!”

“BALLS!” shouted John.

“John! Grab him! Don’t punch him!”
_ _
p<>. “Mi amor!”

Monty launched himself over the rabble. In mid air John reached out and grabbed onto the bounty hunter, swung him down and thumped him against the pavement. Monty recoiled off the ground and reached out to his sister. Angela smiled at her brother and felt every pair of hands grip onto each other at once.

Kingston saw the look in Monty’s eyes as he concentrated to teleport himself and his sister out of harm’s way. Kingston thumped Monty in the ribs and winded him, taking his concentration away from wherever he had intended for them to go.

“Munich!” shouted Kingston.

They disappeared from Vienna.

XVIII

Kingston landed awkwardly on the ground. Monty took his best shot and punched Kingston in the solar plexus, winding him and knocking him over. Monty wasn’t going to try anything stupid with John, who was only just realising what Monty had done to his friend. John’s eyes roared with flames and fury and he was about to scream a war cry again. Monty grabbed onto Angela and teleported the pair of them out of there.

John punched the empty air where Monty’s face would have been. “Coward!”

“John, it’s okay,” gasped Kingston, lying on the ground.

“My arse it is! He should come back and fight like a proper man! Who -”

“Shhh, mi amor,” said Catalina.

“Who attacks twice when we’ve just teleported?” John asked.

“Yeah,” said Kingston, pushing himself off the ground. “We should have expected that.”

John helped Kingston up and patted him on his back. He then looked around at the towering buildings and the nearby street lights. “Wow. This is Munich?”

Kingston and Don nodded. “Yeah,” said Kingston. “This is what I remember.”

“There’s a sign for Heßstraße.”

John smiled and clapped Kingston over the back. “We finally made it?”

Kingston wanted to smile but he was too bruised to fully appreciate it.

“How long has this taken?” John asked.

“It’s been about eight days since I was last here. Hopefully for Joanna it’s been just a couple of minutes since I left. We’ll have to drive. I have two cars parked nearby.”

Don shook his head. “They’re booby trapped.”

John strained a look at Don. “Booby …?”

Don shrugged. “Yeah. I originally wrote them to explode but my publisher told me to leave it ambiguous, so they might detonate or they might not.”

Kingston pulled his shoulders back and adopted his game face. “All right. Here’s the plan. Michelle? Biggins? Are we technically still in Limbo?”

Biggins glanced up at Michelle and shrugged. “I think we might be in Fiction.”

“Okay, we’ve created a fifth realm. Good. That means Eve is not in Limbo anymore, right?”

Michelle stood up taller. “Possibly …”

Kingston pulled open the Curse of the Shanghai Werewolf and opened it up to the address where Joanna was currently being held. He ripped out the page and handed it over to Michelle. “This was printed in Limbo, right?”

“Yeah.”

“Use it to send a message to Death. He can either overthrow Eve here or he can move back into Limbo and keep her from returning.”

Michelle looked up in surprise. Then she grabbed the sheet of paper and patted herself down. “I need a pen.”

“Here,” said Biggins. He pulled one out from his pocket.

Michelle quickly scribbled out a note, addressed it to Death, and dropped it into the air. It disappeared in a puff of smoke before touching the ground.

“Wow,” said Catalina, as she stared at ground.

“Good,” said Kingston. “Now we need to keep Eve distracted for as long as possible. She’s no doubt on her way to find Joanna to lure me to her. John and I will go and meet her there. I will talk to Eve but I don’t expect to keep her entertained for long. If I fail and something tragic happens to me then Eve will have no need to stay in this story and she will go back to Limbo. If that happens then the rest of you need to get to Joanna and free her. She’s smarter than me so she will keep you all safe within Fiction. And with Don’s help you will avoid a lot of booby traps and whims of an author.” Kingston handed the book over to Michelle. “You’ll have another couple of hundred attempts to contact someone from Limbo.”

“Okay,” said Michelle. She took the book from Kingston.

Kingston glanced around the crowd and smiled at them once more. “I honestly haven’t had any friends in years. Don had made me so paranoid about meeting a Bridgeworks spy that I treated everyone far too suspiciously to ever really trust them, even when they were innocent. I am confident that none of you are actually out to get me, so from the bottom of my heart: thank you. It’s been a relief to finally have someone looking out for me.”

John shrugged. “You stopped me from drowning.”

“You introduced me to John,” said Catalina.

“You made me stinking rich,” said Don.

Kingston laughed at that one and looked back to Don. “Do you know how to lead them to Joanna’s location?”

“Yes. I’ve been staring at that map for years trying to find a way to get you two in and out of trouble.”

“Good. Keep each other safe.”

“Will do,” said Biggins.

“I can’t leave John,” said Catalina.

“He’ll be okay, sweetie,” said Michelle. “Biggins and I won’t let anything happen to either of you.”

John wrapped his arms around Catalina and squeezed her tightly. “This is why I joined up with Kingston in the first place. It’s to rescue his girlfriend. You and I will see each other again, I promise.”

“But you don’t know that.”

“Sure I do,” said John. “Nothing in this universe will stop me from tracking you down again. You know that.”

“We really have to go,” said Kingston. He looked up to the group. “Keep her safe.”

“We will,” said Michelle.

“Then good luck,” said Catalina. She squeezed John. “Bona sort, mi amor.”
_ _
p<>. [_“Sóc d’Angletera,” _]John said in response.

Kingston gave a quick nod to the crowd. “Let’s go.”

Don and Biggins led Michelle and Catalina away from trouble, leaving Kingston and John to face Eve and Bridgeworks Corporation by themselves.

“So this is where you live,” said John.

“This is my world, yeah,” said Kingston.

“Is there anything I should be cautious about?”

“There are probably a couple of assassins looking for me right now. They’ll be expecting me to return to the safe house where Joanna is being held captive.” Kingston led the way.

John glanced up the street and soon became mesmerised by the street lights, the passing cars, the billboards, and the sights and sounds of Munich. There was so much to see that John started to look bewildered and didn’t know where to turn. He also looked very out of place in his pre-Edwardian suit, which showed off his hairy ankles. Then he focussed across the street and glared.

“We’re being watched,” said John.

Kingston did his best not to draw too much attention to himself. “There are a lot of people on the street.”

“Yeah, I grew up in the forest. I know when someone is hiding and watching me,” said John.

Kingston felt it as well, the prickly feeling along the back of his neck that Don had given him as an extra sense for when he was walking into trouble. “We’ll have to take the scenic route,” said Kingston, and they slipped into the darkness.

Half an hour later they came upon Bridgeworks HQ. It was a towering cylindrical glass building on top of a three storey granite cube. Kingston stared down the street.

“They use safe houses for the dirty work. The CEO can look out onto the street whenever he wants to see if there is a break in or a break out. Joanna was last down there.”

“I’m ready,” said John. He glared at the passing traffic and wondered how far he could throw one of the cars. “Just so we’re clear, I’m about to risk my life to keep you and Joanna together. One day I might need you to do the same for me and Catalina.”

“I will,” said Kingston. He shook John’s hand to confirm.

“Good,” said John. He stared at Kingston to make sure they understood each other.

Kingston led them along the road to a new wave building that styled itself as a photo studio for the glamorous, with several make up rooms and computer labs to airbrush the natural beauty away. It afforded the company the luxury of eccentricity, as strange people in all sorts of outfits could come and go through the back alleys in all sorts of cars with all sorts of equipment. It also meant they didn’t have to bother with so many pesky windows and prying eyes.

“That’s where she was,” said Kingston. “Me too, actually. I kneed one guy in the side of the face and hurried out of the room. I saw Joanna gagged and bound being dunked in cold water. Someone charged at me and I dodged down the corridor. I tried to find another way in but every time I moved I became farther and farther away, until eventually I reached the exit and knew I couldn’t do it alone.” Kingston grimaced at himself and knew that life would have been so much easier if Joanna had been with him the whole time.

John patted his friend on the shoulder. “If she’s as tough as you or Catalina then she will find a way to stay alive long enough for help to come.”

Kingston nodded. It was only a nod to register that he heard John. The closer he got the more he realised that some part of him feared that Joanna was, in fact, dead.

Then John said the thing that gave Kingston more hope than he realised: “Don kept her alive for another book, right? So no matter what happened in there she’s going to be okay. You’re supposed to rescue her.”

Kingston smiled at that. “Then it’s now our moment of truth.” He glanced up to the safe house. There was the same black car parked in the alley behind a thick iron gate.

_ _
p<>. They’re still in there, Kingston told himself. He looked around for a clock. It’s been an hour since I left.

Kingston held back for a moment as he tried to remember the night he disappeared. He looked out at the thick black gate and saw someone step into view, staring Kingston down.

“They know we’re here,” Kingston said.

John looked around. “I don’t see anyone else.”

“You wouldn’t. These guys like to sneak up on people and keep your attention on just one person. That guy won’t attack us, the others will.”

John squinted across the road. “What if I attack him first?”

“He wouldn’t expect it,” said Kingston.

“And Joanna is in that building?” John asked.

“She was and still might be.”

John breathed in deeply. He looked as though his fury would rip the black gate off its hinges without him having to flex a single muscle. Kingston stepped away and saw John roll his shoulders back and forth.

“I’m ready,” said John, his eyes fixed with might and power.

The well dressed assassin reached into his pocket for his phone.

“Be careful of the cars,” Kingston said.

“Tell me when.”

The lights went red and the traffic stopped.

“Go. Now!”

John burst into a war cry. “FWAAAAAH!” He bounded across the narrow road at full speed, much to the startled look of the assassin. John slammed into the reinforced black gates and pulled back on them in a fit of insane strength. “FWAAAAAH!”

The gates held up to their reputation and didn’t break, bend, or buckle. Unfortunately the bricks and concrete the gates were attached to were not Little John proof and they broke apart in a cloud of exploding dust. John swung the gates over his head and threw them at the assassin, knocking him down and pinning him under their immense weight.

Kingston hurried after John as the giant charged down the alley, past the unconscious German. John smashed open the side door and barrelled inside. He was met by two more henchmen with Glocks pointing at him. Behind those two stood the sadistic doctor Heinrich Menning. The three men were startled at the sight of a seven foot enraged barbarian as he was certainly not who they were expecting. In the tiniest fraction of a second John recognised their fear and weakness. He grabbed one of the gunmen by the wrist, jamming the Glock, and punched him in the side of the face, knocking him into his ally.

Dr Menning saw Kingston peer through the door and he staggered back in fright. “He’s here! Kingston Raine is here!”

Kingston faced Menning and his fury crescendoed instantly. Here was the psychopath responsible for torturing himself and Joanna, the one quietly talking to them both in a nurturing kind of way while he jabbed them with needles to make them scream.

John had taken care of the two henchmen, now lying unconscious on the ground. He turned and saw a dishevelled but beautiful woman tied to a chair after suffering hours of alternative interrogation. Her hair was the colour of finely aged port and her eyes were a chestnut brown. She locked onto Kingston. John saw the look of hope spread across her exhausted face.

“Kingston!” she screamed.

Kingston turned and saw Joanna. Dr Menning made a run for it. Something in the back of Kingston’s mind told him there were others in that building that Menning had called to. He heard the distinct footfalls of a woman in high heels. Then, with a twinkling of the light he saw the white scythe appear around the corner.

Eve smiled at Kingston and mocked him for his human stupidity.

John recognised her from the Orient Express and charged.

“John! No!” Kingston ran in and saw Eve shift her balance as she swung out with the scythe. She clubbed John in the chest and the giant disappeared from the Curse of the Shanghai Werewolf.

She swung around again and clubbed the side of Kingston’s head. In a flash Kingston felt his insides pinch themselves into oblivion.

The room fell quiet, leaving only Joanna gasping into the empty space, struggling with her restraints. Kingston was gone. Eve was gone. John was gone.

XIX

Kingston had no idea where he was, except that it was dark, dank, and musty. He felt a powerful hand clamp around his throat as it lifted him into the air.

The effect was not how Eve had imagined it to be, considering how much taller Kingston was than her, and Kingston was still able to hold his feet on the ground. Nevertheless, she had him by the throat and could crush his windpipe at any moment.

“Look around, Kingston. This is where you deserve to be.”

He appeared to be stuck in a monstrous and unending cave with dripping stalactites and protruding stalagmites. Nearby were crags and ridges, boulders and ditches. In the distance was a Roman man guiding a Renaissance gentleman through the rocks.

Eve’s smile stretched from ear to ear, exposing all of her fine white teeth. “Welcome to the Inferno. The First Circle of Hell – Limbo.”

John, barely ten yards away, climbed to his feet, saw his friend in trouble and saw the prize of all prizes – Death’s scythe gripped firmly in Eve’s hand. John silently raged and charged.

“You’ll be buried somewhere deeper than just here,” said Eve, then she uttered a surprised “Ooomf!” as John crashed into her.

Kingston fell. Eve was sprawled out with her hands and legs in the air as John pinned her to the rocky ground. “FWAAAAAAH!” John roared, staring Eve down. He picked up the scythe and threw it to Kingston.

Kingston scrambled away from the sharp and spinning blade. “Got it!”

Eve smacked John out of the way and he tumbled to the side. She rose to her feet. “Morons! I am stronger and faster than the both of you,” she said.

“But we’re not in your realm anymore, you’re in ours,” said Kingston. “So you’re not as strong as you could be.”

Eve charged at Kingston but he was ready for it. The moment she came within range Kingston swung the scythe around and zapped her away, just like he did to the Sherwood riders when he first met John. Eve dropped out of the air twenty yards to the side and landed on a ledge, coughing and wheezing. She yelped and only just held off from sliding down the edge and into a ravine.

Far into the distance Dante and Virgil were watching the action, surprised by what they saw.

“John, you okay?” Kingston asked.

“Yeah. I’m starting to hate that woman,” John said. He staggered to his feet and Kingston clamped a hand down on his shoulder. Then he saw Eve burst towards them with Eternal speed.

Kingston gripped the scythe, closed his eyes, and focussed on Joanna.

_ _
p<>. Pop.

Munich. Kingston felt a tremendous weight drive him into the pavement of the busy street in front of the Bridgeworks headquarters. He hit his face on the ground and felt Eve hold him down.

“No!” Eve shouted. “You belong in Hell and in Hell you will stay!” She reached out and grabbed the scythe, transporting the three of them back to the Inferno.

_ _
p<>. Pop.

They were back inside the monstrous cavern with the howling black wind and dust stinging their eyes. Kingston looked up and saw a terrible creature slithering towards him. Eve grinned from ear to ear and stepped back with the scythe safely in her hands again.

The great half-serpent, half-man Minos appeared. He had the head and torso of a man but the rest of him was all snake. He hissed at Kingston and grunted at John like a bull. Kingston hoped like hell this creature wasn’t supposed to eat either of them.

John took one look at the half-man, half-snake, and jumped to his feet.

_ _
p<>. WHAM!

John punched Minos in the face as hard as he could. Minos staggered back and looked around in shock, wondering what the hell had just happened.

“Time to go!” Kingston shouted. He pulled John away.

“Seize them!” shouted Eve. Minos lunged forward, picking up speed as he darted through the broken and crumbling ground.

Kingston did his best to keep up with John but the giant out paced him easily. Neither of them knew where they were going or how to get out of Dante’s Limbo.

Kingston’s right leg was giving out on him after the latest fall, but he wasn’t about to let Eve get away with abandoning him in the Inferno. He followed John through the boulders and knew the giant snake was gaining on them.

“John! If we get separated, there are two people you need to find! Dante and a Roman! They can lead you out!”

“Dante and a Roman, got it!” John shouted back. “I think we have bad news,” said John.

“Don’t say it!”

“The snake man is getting closer!”

“Damn it, John!”

John scooped up a rock, spun around, and threw it at the creature. “Yep, it’s definitely getting closer!”

Kingston looked over his shoulder. They were now far away from Eve and, if they stood their ground, they might actually stand a chance. “John! We might have to fight the snake!”

“Oh … bloody hell!” John slowed down, much to Kingston’s horror. Saying it was one thing, actually facing a monstrous creature and avoiding those great arms was something else. John scooped up another couple of rocks and hurled them at Minos, missing him but fuelling the creature’s wrath.

John focused on the Minos’ eyes and roared again.

_ _
p<>. WHAM!

John scored a direct hit. Minos buckled and fell to the ground. His tail snapped around towards John’s legs, knocking him off balance.

Kingston threw off his jacket and wrapped it around Minos’ head, pulling him down as his jacket was ripped to shreds.

Minos fought his way through, biting and snapping and pulling at the jacket until he ripped his head through it. Kingston gasped and staggered back. John jumped on top of the snake and bear hugged it as best he could. Minos began to wrap his tail around John’s body and he squeezed. John gasped in fright as the snake whispered, “Violence.” John screamed as the squeeze became too much, and in an instant, in an unbelievable and impossible instant, John vanished.

Minos turned on Kingston and his shabby jacket.

In the distance, Kingston saw Dante and Virgil running for cover. “Help!” Kingston shouted. Dante glanced over at Kingston but kept on running. Kingston chased after them, hoping they would draw the snake away from him. His vision started to narrow and he knew he was not getting enough air into his lungs. He could see a great cliff in front of him and he started to slow. Then he felt the air around him shift and he knew what was coming.

_ _
p<>. Pop.

Kingston braced himself and shoulder slammed Eve off the edge of the cliff. She shrieked and lost her balance. Kingston scrambled to the side and watched with incredible delight as Eve tumbled down to the first circle of Hell. But she fell with the scythe clasped firmly in her hand.

A head poked out from behind a nearby rock. Kingston was sure it was the Roman poet Virgil.

“Help!” cried Kingston.

_ _
p<>. Pop.

Eve appeared right next to Kingston. She grabbed onto his throat and held him still. The momentum of Kingston running caused his legs to swing up in the air, and Eve simply held him in place. Kingston gasped and tried to call out, but it was no good.

Even glanced over to the approaching snake. “Minos? If you would be so kind as to take this troublesome man?”

Kingston struggled to free himself from Eve’s grip but it was impossible. He heard the slithering monster dart forward. Minos wrapped his long tail around Kingston’s torso and he felt the pinch and constriction almost break his bones. Minos continued to wrap and squeeze as Eve held Kingston in place, smiling.

“No one will ever find you,” she said, smiling at her enemy.

Minos squeezed again and whispered “Fraud.”

“Perfect,” said Eve. She released Kingston’s throat and with a shuddering gasp, Kingston disappeared.

 

 

Through the darkness, Kingston heard something approaching. He struggled to get back to his feet, convinced that a few of his ribs had just popped out of place. He was sure that his whole body had just been beaten beyond recognition. Kingston also heard the slithering of snakes and the gentle tap of lizards running around him.

He looked up and was baffled by the creature that loomed overhead. Still half dazed, Kingston gave it his best to sweet talk his way out of here. “My name is Kingston Raine and I need your help.”

The creature in front of Kingston did not help Kingston at all. It simply stared at him. Kingston was trying to work out what sort of creature it was but in the low light it was difficult. He saw hoven feet and the torso of a man.

“Are you a centaur?” Kingston asked.

The centaur nodded. “I am Cacus. You are a thief.”

Kingston shook his head. “I’m not here on purpose, I was sent here by an evil woman.”

“You were judged by Minos. You belong here,” said Cacus.

Now that Kingston got a better look at the centaur he saw a number of snakes had wrapped themselves around Cacus’s body, lingering mostly along his back. The snakes and lizards on the ground looked as though they were ready to snap and bite at Kingston’s legs.

“We both know I’m not supposed to be here,” said Kingston. “So which way is the exit?”

“There is no escape,” said the centaur.

“You know, I’ve heard that a hundred times in my life, and so far I have proved them all wrong. So let me present something to you.” Kingston had to think hard, trying to talk his way out of Hell. “Please, the woman I am supposed to marry has been drugged and kidnapped and I will not stop until I have rescued her.”

“You have already stopped,” said Cacus. He flipped his tail from side to side in annoyance.

“I’m just catching my breath,” said Kingston, as he kept an eye on the approaching snakes.

“A great cliff separates us from the other circles,” said Cacus. “No one ever escapes.”

“See, that’s where you’re wrong. I’m pretty sure that two people are about to join us, Dante and Virgil. Do you know them?”

Cacus gave no indication to show if he knew them or not.

“They’re on their way. They’re going to want to know about me. See, I’m quite famous.”

“Not down here you’re not,” said Cacus.

Kingston grimaced. “When Virgil and Dante come I will convince them to rescue me.”

“There is no rescue,” said Cacus.

“I bet you a hundred pounds they will do just that. By the way, which circle of Hell are we on?”

“The eighth.”

“Oh, so pretty far down, then?”

They were disturbed by an increasing cry of agony and desperation. The snakes, lizards, centaur, and Kingston all looked over to one side as a man dropped from the top of the darkened sky and fell several hundred metres, landing with a terrible splat. He did not die, however. This was Hell and no one could die again.

A terrible three-headed winged creature flew down, found the man in question, and scooped him up.

Cacus became intrigued by the arrival of his old acquaintance. “Problems, Geryon?”

“Someone’s challenging everyone in Violence to a fight,” said the terrible creature. “And winning.” Geryon took to the skies again and disappeared from view.

Cacus looked back at Kingston.

Kingston smiled. “See? That’s my friend doing all that mischief.”

There was a burst of anger and commotion near where Geryon had landed. For a moment Kingston was sure another body was falling from the sky. Instead he saw what looked like three people fighting. One was wearing a toga, the others …

Dante and Virgil were fighting Eve, and she was exhausted.

“Excuse me,” Kingston said to Cacus. He hurried into the fray.

Dante and Virgil tumbled and twisted with Eve, wrestling her to the ground. Whenever Virgil tried to reach for the scythe Eve was able to pull herself away and roll back into a position of power. Dante did his best to wrestle for the scythe once more.

“Let go! Let go, you mortal creatures!” shouted Eve.

Kingston ran in, happier at seeing two strangers coming to his rescue than he could have imagined. A few of the local prisoners fought off the biting snakes and lizards just to watch the fight.

Eve saw Kingston just in time. She threw Dante off to the side and swung the scythe around, clubbing Virgil in the head as she swung for Kingston. Kingston came to a halt just out of Eve’s range but she was ready for combat. Dante and Virgil were gasping for air, as was Eve.

Kingston pulled his shoulders back and smirked at the short woman. “Can’t get enough of me, can you?”

“You’ve been sorted. This is where you now belong,” said Eve. “And now these two can stay here as well, so there will be no one to lead you out alive.”

Cacus rode up next to Kingston and stared at Eve. “You do not belong here.”

“I’m an Eternal, horseyman,” said Eve. “I could crush you before you even raised a hoof.”

“You weren’t able to crush Dante or Virgil,” said Kingston, curious by that. Something was sapping Eve’s powers.

“Throw down the weapon,” said Dante.

Eve swung the scythe around and pointed it at Dante. “Your time is at an end.”

Virgil rose to his feet. “I will stop you,” he said.

Eve snorted. “We’re standing so close to the edge, Roman, and nothing will stop you from ever getting out.”

Kingston stepped forward. “It’s hard to believe that your love of rules would tolerate this, leaving me here where I don’t belong.”

“It’s Hell,” snapped Eve. “It doesn’t matter which Hell. Since you are fictional you belong in a fictional Hell, not a real Hell where you would be treated like a celebrity.”

Kingston shrugged. “And what about all of the thousands of real people stuck in Fiction?”

“It’s the fault of Satan and Satan alone,” said Eve. “He has too much influence over Limbo and Death has allowed the realm to fall to human greed. Both sides play to the fears of the dying, those who will do anything to be spared an eternity of grief. And what do the thieves of both realms do? Like you they make idle promises to anyone desperate enough to beg for an audience, then they take what they can and leave the poor to fend for themselves.” She looked back to the centaur and regained her breath. “You can take Kingston here and do whatever it was that you were going to do to him.”

“He was going to release me,” said Kingston. Kingston smiled at Cacus and Cacus didn’t respond with anything other than a stare of intense loathing.

“Seven layers of Hell will stop you from escaping,” said Eve.

Kingston spun around to the other prisoners. There were hundreds of people being bitten by snakes and fighting off lizards, but they had become so inured to the pain and misery that the brief distraction of Eve, Virgil, and Dante gave them some strength. Kingston drew their attention and allowed his skills to run wild.

“My friends! I beg for your help against this crazy beast! I beg you to help me rescue the woman of my dreams, the woman that this one here ignored as she was being tortured!”

Eve sneered at the crowd. “They wouldn’t dare.”

Some of the faces glared back at Eve.

“It’s true!” shouted Kingston. “My love was tied up and tortured and this woman allowed it to continue.”

Cacus cocked his head to one side. “Is that true?”

“She’s fake, as are you,” said Eve. She saw the hundreds of faces follow her as she backed away. She readied the scythe and knew all she had to do was dispatch Virgil and then do the same to Dante.

Virgil looked over to Kingston. “He’s coming with me. He’s under my protection.” Virgil nodded to Cacus and Cacus nodded in return. He then stepped back and the snakes and lizards gave Virgil some space.

“What? NO!” screamed Eve. “He’s not under your protection! Seize him! Seize all three of them!”

“These two are under my protection,” said Virgil. “I believe this man. He doesn’t belong here, but you might.”

Eve watched as all of Hell’s elements pulled back for their own safety. Her eyes shifted from Kingston and landed on Virgil, the hate and fury within her fired beyond all reason. “You can’t protect him! He has already been sentenced to Hell!”

“And I will lead him out,” said Virgil.

Eve lunged forward and swiped at Virgil. He in turn grabbed onto the scythe and Eve spun around with such speed that it threw him off balance. Eve finished it off by clubbing Virgil in the head, knocking him down. She was too fast for Kingston to see what was happening. Before Virgil even hit the ground Eve kicked him with as much force as she could and Virgil’s body flew into the air and fell, beyond the great cliff, down into the lower circles of Hell.

Virgil was gone.

Eve spun around and focused on Kingston. “You have no way out of here.”

Dante hurried over to the cliff face and looked down, trying to see what had happened to Virgil.

Kingston looked around, trying to find anything that could inspire him[_. Okay, what would the muse tell me … what would Joanna say … Joanna … _]he thought of her, her smile and her laugh, and it filled Kingston with pride and the strength to fight on no matter what was going to happen to him.

“I will see her again,” he said, and he stood his ground.

“Maybe I should bring her to you,” said Eve, with a sneer.

Cacus glared. “I’ve seen your soul and I’ve seen his. He does not belong here.”

“I don’t care what you think, centaur.” Eve turned to face Dante. She would have to kill him, there was no other way. No one could be permitted to free Kingston.

There was a faint beating of wings nearby. Kingston thought that another body was about to fall out of the sky, or even that winged creature would pick a fight with Eve … in fact, that’s what Kingston wished would happen. Instead, an angel rose up from the darkness, his large white wings flapping and holding him steady in the air.

Kingston’s jaw involuntarily dropped open. As did Eve’s.

“I said he was under my protection,” said Virgil, holding still in the air.

Kingston murmured in surprise. “Virgil’s a Roman angel …?”

Virgil smirked and looked down on Eve. “My dear, you’ve attacked an angel, tried to kill an angel, and there is no way to shrug off that guilt.”

Eve reeled around in disbelief. “Virgil was never an angel.”

Before she could even move, Virgil dropped in and dive bombed the Eternal. He knocked her down and sent her sprawling across the ground. Eve howled in anger as Virgil shot back into the air again, now with the scythe in his hands. Then he grinned back at his opponent. “You should have been nicer to me,” said Virgil.

Eve snapped her arm out and grabbed Kingston by the throat. “I will kill him if you don’t give that back to me.”

Kingston gasped in surprise and hoped like hell Virgil had a way of breaking him free.

Virgil shrugged in response. “Well, if you must.” He started to fly towards the cavern roof.

Dante growled at Virgil and cleared his throat.

Eve shot a look between Dante and Virgil and glared. “I will break his neck.”

“And I will revive him,” said Virgil. He smirked at Eve.

_ _
p<>. Crick.

Kingston felt the explosion of agony run through his body, then it all slipped into darkness. He fell to the ground, unconscious.

In a flash, Virgil and Dante shot out to Eve. She saw the blade coming but at the last moment Virgil spun around and kicked her off the edge of the rock, sending her tumbling into the abyss, where she fell to the lowest ring of Hell.

Dante hurried over to Kingston and Virgil landed next to him. “Take this,” Virgil said, handing the scythe over to Dante. Virgil laid his hands around Kingston’s neck and drew in a deep breath.

Kingston gasped and opened his eyes. He spluttered at the sight of Dante and Virgil staring over him.

Dante glared at his friend. “You called her bluff.”

“I couldn’t let her get in range of the scythe, you know that. Besides, he’s fine.”

“He doesn’t look fine.”

“Sure he is.” Virgil looked down at Kingston and prodded him. “Tell him you’re fine.”

Kingston blinked a couple of times at Virgil and Dante. “What’s going on?”

Dante pulled out a sheet of paper. It was one of the pages from the Curse of the Shanghai Werewolf and scrawled on top was Michelle’s handwriting. “We got the message.”

“Yeah,” said Virgil. “And for the last couple of days I’ve been disguising myself as every stupid lawyer in Eve’s council, which wasn’t easy with all of the seers and psychics wandering around the place. Thankfully Eve avoided them at all costs and I was able to slip in as many references to Dante’s Inferno as possible, hoping to make her believe it was her idea to send you here. Besides, you’re in Hell. No one stays dead down here because that just wouldn’t be any fun.”

“Oh,” mumbled Kingston. Then he looked over Virgil carefully. “You’re Lucifer.”

“This is no doubt quite a thrill for you,” said Satan, still under Virgil’s disguise. “I mean, how many people can honestly say that Satan has saved their life?”

“Don Keaton can,” said Kingston.

Satan grinned and looked over to Dante. “And you swore I would never meet him.”

“It’s like you have a schoolgirl crush on the man,” said Death, disguised as Dante.

“I have a thing for smartarses,” said Satan. “Next up, Joanna!”

Kingston did his best to sit up. He then realised he had been lying on a pile of writhing lizards the whole time. “So you two tricked Eve into coming to Hell.”

“Of course,” said Satan. “This is where I’m strongest. And it was your idea. I heard you and Michelle talking it over while you were prisoners. The statues like me a lot more than they like Eve. You should thank them for letting me listen in.”

“I will,” said Kingston, though he was only vaguely aware of what was happening.

Satan smiled and stepped away. “Now, if you don’t mind, I have a compatriot down below who will watch over Eve for the next … eternity. Will you two be okay getting back to the surface?”

“We need to get Little John,” said Kingston.

“Of course you do,” said Satan. He whistled above and Geryon flew down to greet him.

“What is it?”

“Take these two up to the seventh circle. They have a friend up there who clearly doesn’t deserve to be in Hell.”

“The brawler?” asked Geryon.

“That’s him,” said Kingston.

“Then get them to the surface,” said Satan.

Geryon grunted. Death and Kingston climbed onto his back. Geryon pushed himself off the ground and sluggishly flew up to the seventh level. Kingston made the mistake of looking up and then down. Even though he didn’t suffer from vertigo, just the sight of the many layers of Hell made him dizzy. Each level was at least a mile high with many caverns and pits sprawled about, all shaped like a corkscrew. A dim, cold glow came from the deepest layer, causing Kingston to shiver. Geryon shuddered as he flew against the weight. With every flap of his wings it felt as though they pushed higher and dropped lower.

“Thank you for your help,” said Death.

“You’re welcome,” said Kingston, though he was sure it was an automatic response. Now that he had some time to actually think about it, he wasn’t sure what kind of answer he could offer.

“I hear Michelle and Lord Biggins are wandering about Munich,” said Death.

“Yeah, I guess they are,” said Kingston.

They reached the seventh level. At least fifty violent men surrounded John and were making a move on him, and yet John stood in the middle with his fists up and shouting at them all.

“I can take you on! I will not rest! I will not give up because I am Little John from Sherwood Forest!”

Three men charged him and John threw his mighty fists into their faces, knocking them out in one punch each.

“Next!” shouted John.

Geryon hovered overhead.

“Ha! Back with more bodies!” shouted John.

“John!” Kingston called out.

“Who wants a go at me?” John shouted.

“John! Up here!”

John looked up and saw Kingston and Dante with the scythe. A strained look of curiosity spread across his face. “What are you doing up there?”

“We’re getting out of here!” shouted Kingston.

“Oh. Fair enough.”

Geryon landed for only a second. John climbed onto the creature’s back and held on tightly, pinning Kingston and Dante to Geryon’s back and making it very awkward to breathe. Geryon grunted and rose up into the air, narrowly missing the remaining forty seven men trying to fight John.

“I was getting worried,” shouted John. “I was running out of opponents. Feels good to be back in action, though.”

“I’m glad to hear,” said Kingston.

“You must have a way with words if you managed to hire a dragon,” said John.

Geryon grunted in disgust.

“It’s not a dragon, it’s a … Death, what is it?”

“Geryon!” shouted Death.

Kingston was relieved that John was quiet for the rest of the flight up to the surface. In that time they saw more nauseating sights and smelt more disgusting smells than they cared to have ever imagined. At long last they reached the first circle of Hell and Geryon glided towards the dark crevice that Dante and Virgil had climbed through.

Geryon landed and said, “I can go no farther.”

Kingston, John, and Death climbed off. “Thank you for your help,” said Kingston.

Geryon grunted. “Be quick,” he said, and he took to the air again.

Kingston took in the final horrific sight of Hell, and was somehow grateful that Death was there beside him.

John looked over at Death and extended one hand. “John Little.”

They shook hands and Death nodded. “I am the Grim Reaper. That’s quite a powerful grip you have.”

John nodded. “You can measure a lot about a man by the way he shakes your hand.”

“Indeed you can,” said Death. He shifted his form out of Dante and back into his more usual guise.

John blinked a couple of times as he processed what had just happened. “Okay then.”

“Let’s go before that snake comes back,” said Kingston. He hurried them towards the opening of Hell. After a few minutes of scaling sharp and uneven walls, Kingston felt a breeze across his face and he felt the moment of hope reach him. They finally reached the surface and they crawled out into a forest. Surrounding them was a dark wilderness with a single stretch of a harsh and wooded path. Nearby was a disconcerting sign. ‘I AM THE WAY INTO THE CITY OF WOE.’ Kingston did not read the rest.

 

 

Miles below the surface, surrounded by the faintest glow of cold ice, Satan glided to a stop. Eve struggled to pick herself up off the jagged ice from the soul shattering fall, and under the aura of the Devil her powers were quelled. Eve heard Satan’s mythical counterpart shift beyond as the chains rattled against the walls of the impossible cavern. She lifted her head and, at last, she saw the creature.

Dante’s Satan was a huge, monstrous beast with three foul heads and six wings, beating and struggling against the frozen lake that held him within. He roared in frustration, the agony of being trapped and the fury of being unable to even shift his body to earn him some kind of comfort among his surroundings. The creature saw the winged Roman fly forward and the three headed beast looked puzzled as it recognised something about the aura surrounding Satan.

As Satan gave his instructions to his ally, both Satans looked down at Eve. She staggered to her feet, slipped on the ice, and tried to teleport away, but the combined power of two Satans and the lowest point of Hell prevented her from even flicking her hair with her native power.

“You will release me this instant!” shouted Eve at the not-quite Virgil.

“Now, now, Eve, let’s not be rude.”

Eve tried again. “Angels can’t block an Eternal.”

“Really? Wow, you have been gone for a long time. Who were you originally? Loki? One of the Norse Gods? Who? Please tell me, I’ve been itching to know.”

Eve spat at Virgil’s face. “You are just a lowly fictional angel.”

“Ah! Your words! They sting!” Satan chuckled to himself and he lowered himself to the icy floor. “Seriously, though, if you actually had wings right now you would be something of a threat. You could fly out of here. It turns out, I’m the only one who can.”

“I will find a way out!” snapped Eve.

Virgil shrugged and shifted back into his native form, still that of an angel and one with a handsome and charismatic face.

Eve’s stomach gave way and her mouth dropped open.

“Ohhhh, you recognise me, don’t you?” said Satan.

Eve’s knees buckled as the reality fell upon her. All she could do then was mumble. “Lucifer.”

Satan smiled. “I don’t get to use this form much anymore, but given the location and the good deed I’m performing I thought I would brush off the old cobwebs and surprise you with just what a lowly angel can accomplish. And by the way, you’re eternally screwed down here. As long as you’re in my realm you won’t be able to teleport, not even with someone helping you. They’ll disappear and you’ll be left behind like dead weight.”

Eve shuddered and looked around in a terror. Then her eyes fell upon the large Devil in the distance.

Satan smiled. “Not only that, but you’ll have an excellent guardian and custodian of your time here. You can do whatever you want to try and escape but I’m leaving you in the very best of care. The one, the only, the magnificent: Satan.” He spread his hands out wide and dropped into a deep grin.

Eve looked away from the beast held together in chains.

“The Dante version, of course. The real me will be back in the real Hell where I have real things to deal with. You tried to overthrow my friend. That is something I won’t forget about.”

“Your realms have been corrupted by greed,” spat Eve.

“Yeah, that does tend to happen, but so what?”

Eve gritted her teeth and wasn’t going to give Satan the pleasure of seeing her beg for her release. “I’ll find a way out.”

“See, that’s the thing about Hell, it gives you a lot of hope to try the impossible, and all the time in the universe to make it happen … but the other nasty thing is that you really are within my realm and as soon as I leave there will be no teleporting in or out of here. It will be locked off forever.” Satan drew himself into the most satisfying smile he had felt in decades. “You had years of planning and it all fell to pieces because you had to chase the one person breaking all the rules, and he was the one who gave me the idea to put you here.” He smirked at Eve, knowing that she would remember that titbit for the rest of eternity.

Eve fell back in a daze, then lost her balance on the ice and fell on her side. She looked up with her hair matted over her face, as though the stress of reality finally collapsed around her and it popped her mind out of her body, leaving it somewhere cold and unpleasant.

The angelic Satan smiled at Eve and waved. “Make sure you behave yourself here. You won’t be able to escape. This is Hell, after all, and I am sealing your right to leave. I’m sure you’ll appreciate some kind of irony in that this is the perfect location for trouble makers, it’s just a shame when you realise which side of trouble you are actually on. Take care!”

Satan bid a farewell nod to the three headed beast and rose into the air. He flew higher and faster, past the many layers of the ninth circle and soared to the outer ring of Limbo. He pulled his wings back in and climbed through the narrow crevice guarding the entrance to Hell.

“Is everything sorted?” Death asked.

“Of course,” said Satan. “And if she ever escapes she’ll come after me before you, so you’ll have a fair amount of warning.”

“Lovely!” said Death.

Satan looked back over his shoulder. “You know, after so many thousands of years you still haven’t visited me in Hell.”

“This counts,” said Death.

“No it doesn’t! My Hell is nothing like this!”

“This counts.”

“I’ve just saved your entire realm and you won’t even come to mine for a visit?”

“There is no one dead or alive who will say that after today I have never visited Hell.”

Satan pleaded again. “Just a coffee is all I’m saying.”

“I prefer Limbo,” said Death.

“Dante has his own Limbo, you know?”

“My version is better.” Death gripped his scythe. “Ready?”

Satan grumbled. Death turned to Kingston and John, grabbed onto them, and reappeared in the visitor’s entrance of Death Inc.

XX

Death, Satan, Kingston, and John reappeared in Limbo to a scene of utter silence. There were a few people standing in the entrance with their jaws dropped open and unable to move. All faces were locked onto Death, breaking only to glance at the incredibly sharp scythe in his hand. Some whimpered as they stared back at their usurped boss.

Satan glanced over the faces of everyone surrounding him and he smiled to himself. “You know that phrase, ‘When Hell freezes over’? I’m getting that chill right now.”

John stared at the entrance of Death Inc. and couldn’t believe the sight that lay before him. The entire building was bigger than anything he had ever seen before. Everyone in sight wore suits and ties, a look that he was still not entirely comfortable with.

Death glanced up to the ceiling and noted that it was depressingly bare. “Send a message to everyone: The coup is over, the republic is back, and Eve will not return.” There were a few nods and a moment later the wisps of darkness were reborn and shot through the building and realm.

Death looked over to Satan. “Do you want to stay for a coffee?”

“Maybe something stronger. I’d like to make sure my twenty percent of the company is still valid,” said Satan.

Death nodded and looked his friend up and down. “You know Luc, you don’t need to be topless and winged for this, it’s a fine opportunity for business attire.”

“My wings, my rules,” said Satan. He then looked over at John and shook his head. “I don’t know who this is.”

John buffed himself up. “John. John Little. You’re an angel?”

“And an Eternal,” said Satan.

John held out his hand. Surprised by the gesture, Satan took it.

“I’m the Devil.”

“I bet you like telling people that,” said John.

“I do!” Satan smiled and looked back to Death. “So what do we do about these two?”

Death looked over to the main desk. “Department nineteen. There’s a seer by the name of Angela. Send her down immediately.”

“Yes, sir.”

An eager voice called from down the corridor. “Excuse me! Make way!” There was a momentary pause followed by a burst of anger. “I said make way!”

Satan knew that voice and grimaced.

Ezekiel ran in. “My lord! You rescued me!”

Satan glanced at Death and Death whispered, “I sent a message while you were gone to release him.”

“Why?” asked Satan.

“My lord! Thank you, thank you, a thousand thank yous for allowing me to leave,” said Ezekiel, stepping forward.

Death rolled his shoulders back. “Is something wrong with my realm?” Death asked.

Ezekiel faltered and spluttered. “No, no! Sir, no, not at all. It’s just … you know … being locked away …”

Death and Satan stared at one of Hell’s finest agents and gave him no comfort at all.

“It’s really good to see you again, sire,” said Ezekiel, to Satan.

Death cleared his voice.

“Oh, and you too sir, that goes without saying,” said Ezekiel. He glanced over Kingston and John with no idea who they were and he marvelled at John. “You’re very tall.”

“Yep,” said John.

Death and Satan continued to stare.

“May I be excused?” asked Ezekiel. “I just haven’t been home in a long time, I think I left the stove on, or the projector, and … what with power bills these days …”

Death and Satan continued to stare.

“I’ll just go,” said Ezekiel.

“Wait,” said Death, and he glanced over to Satan. “Could Ezekiel take the author home?”

“I find that appropriate,” said Satan. He looked back to Ezekiel and glared. “Stay for a moment, would you?”

“Yes, my lord.”

“And will someone get him to finish that damn story?” asked Satan.

“We met a muse he could borrow,” said Kingston.

Satan arched an eyebrow and ruffled his wings. “I already asked if he would like a muse. Didn’t I?” he said, glaring at Ezekiel.

“Yes, and look how well that went for everyone,” said Death.

Angela sauntered back in. “My lord?”

“We’re going to retrieve Michelle and Biggins,” said Death. “You’re going to help us.”

Angela bobbed her head.

“Can I come?” asked Satan.

“That’s not necessary,” said Death.

“Oh come on! I should at least thank Michelle for not losing her mind during the crisis.”

Death squinted at Satan and wondered if there was an ulterior motive for him wanting to get into the Curse of the Shanghai Werewolf, but he allowed that to pass. “Perhaps you can take Ezekiel upstairs and help yourself to a scotch? There are, I imagine, plenty of lawyers up there who would be terrified to meet you.”

Satan sighed and shrugged. “Fine. Yeah. Don’t take too long or else I’ll drink everything in your cabinet.” He glanced back at Kingston and John, and walked away. Ezekiel followed.

Kingston leaned forward to Death. “He seemed rather eager to come to Munich.”

“And at one time he was very eager to meet you. Now? Not so much.” Death looked over to Angela. “Have you found Biggins?”

“Yes, my lord.”

“Good.” Death swung his scythe around and the foursome teleported to Munich.

 

 

“Gah!” cried Biggins. He fell back, clutching his chest. Then he realised who had actually appeared in front of him. “My lord! Oh, it’s you! I saw the scythe swing around and I thought it was Eve coming to get us.”

“She’s been taken care of,” said Death. They were standing on the street in front of the safe house, and yet Biggins was all alone. “Where’s everyone else?”

“Ah! They’re inside. I’m on guard. The Spanish girl knocked out a German doctor as he tried to run away. They’re interrogating him now. Reinforcements are expected any moment.”

Kingston stepped forward. “Is Joanna safe?”

Biggins nodded. “She’ll have to work through some of the nasty moments of a drug that has caused her to hallucinate with paranoia. The author assures me that it will be completely out of her system in a couple of days with no lasting damage.”

Kingston glanced back to Death. “Thank you for your help, but the love of my life is expecting me.”

“One second,” said Death. He swung his scythe into a combat ready move. “Lord Biggins?”

“Yes, sir?”

“In this time of transition out of a crisis I would appreciate your assistance as a scout.”

“Happy to help, sir,” said Biggins. “I’ll need to be reinstated.”

“Of course.” Death tapped Biggins with the butt of his scythe. “Now, very quickly, I would like you to bring out Michelle and Don. Leave the fictional people behind.”

“Yes, sir!” And Biggins teleported back inside.

Death looked over to Kingston. “So what’s your plan? Send Catalina back to Spain, John to England, and let you and Joanna stay here so you can continue with your lives like before?”

Kingston shifted and held his eyes steadily on Death. He could see John beside him had lowered his head and was doing his best look of puppy dog eyes to try and help Kingston make the right decision, but this was something Kingston would have to figure out on his own. He opened his mouth, was about to say something, and Death beat him to it.

“It’s unethical if we bring Joanna out of the story,” said Death.

Kingston glanced over John and saw a look of worry creep over him. “I’d like John and Catalina to stay here, with us, if they agree.”

“We do,” said John, quickly. He then looked from Death to Kingston and shrugged. “We talked about it. I don’t belong in Spain, she doesn’t belong in Sherwood, and we’d be completely lost without a couple of friends watching our backs.”

Death hesitated. “Ethically …”

Kingston looked to the seer. “Angela? What’s going to happen?”

“Death agrees that you four belong together,” said the seer.

Death rolled his eyes at her. “I’m not entirely sure about that.”

Angela continued. “Two black cars come this way, full of gunmen.”

Kingston glanced over his shoulder and braced himself. He couldn’t see where the cars were coming from. He looked across the street and expected something of an apocalypse to descend upon them, with Bridgeworks agents and executives fighting amongst themselves to see who got to lynch Kingston first. And yet the street remained the same as ever, leaving Kingston to smile to himself as he realised that everyone in that damn company would wake up in the morning to an untold crisis that he was responsible for.

Biggins hurried back onto the street with Don and Michelle following close behind.

“You’re back!” cried Michelle, the moment she saw Death and the scythe.

“Of course,” said Death. “I got to spend a few days in Hawaii, stomping around the old haunt.”

Kingston cocked his head to one side. “You used to live in Hawaii?”

“I used to live in Life,” said Death.

Biggins glanced over his shoulder and bounced on his tiptoes. “Two cars are coming this way. They’ll be here in forty five seconds.”

Death looked back to Don. “Ezekiel will take you back to Melbourne. Don’t tell anyone that in the last few days you’ve been to Hell, Limbo, the wilderness, illegally dead, a fugitive, or anything else. I’m sure if you do they will find you a fascinating character study and you will attract the wrong sort of media attention. Also remember that one day you will have to face myself and quite likely Lucifer as well, so be mindful of what you say.”

Don nodded and hid behind John.

“Now then, Michelle and Don will come with me. Angela, go with Biggins and help him get Kingston, John, Catalina, and Joanna to safety.”

Angela nodded as she swayed in the wind.

“Ten seconds,” said Biggins.

Kingston looked over and he saw the two black cars barrelling through the traffic lights. By the time he looked back, Death, Michelle, and Don had disappeared.

“Let’s go!” cried Biggins. With a quick nod he teleported them all into the safe house.

 

 

Catalina looked up in surprise. “Ay! Mi amor! You escaped!”

John ran forward and gave Catalina a mighty bear hug.

Standing in the middle of the room, worn and ragged, with one hand covering her mouth from the shock of seeing people teleport right in front of her, was Joanna York. She was tall, brunette, and lithe. She was also groggy from Dr Menning’s interrogation. Kingston crossed the room in two strides and swept her into his arms. “You wouldn’t believe how much I missed you.”

Joanna smiled and fell into his hug. “It took you long enough to come and get me!”

Kingston stepped back and shrugged. “I had things to do.”

“More important things than me?” Joanna asked, feigning contempt.

“Well, you know, pick up the dry cleaning, fix that rattling sound in our oven.”

“I don’t suppose you did the dishes as well,” said Joanna.

“No, I think from now on we’ll just throw them out and buy a new set whenever we need them.”

Joanna fell into a deep smile as she wrapped her arms around Kingston.

Catalina stared at the pair and shook her head. “English people.”

Angela stared at the couple and smiled. “If he was caught up in fright it meant she was about to die.”

Joanna pulled back and stared at Angela. “Who’s this?”

“They’re here,” said Biggins. He nodded and disappeared, then reappeared in a flash. “They’re gone.”

“Are they going to be a problem?” asked Kingston.

“Oh no. Everyone in the two cars has now mysteriously appeared elsewhere. Cuba, I believe. I can go and get them if necessary.” He saw Joanna’s stunned expression and he smiled at her. “Hello again.”

“Hello?”

“She seems nice,” said Biggins.

“She is,” said Kingston.

Joanna glanced over to Kingston. “Is he a time traveller, or did he just teleport you all in here?”

“Teleport.”

“Oh. Because I was kinda hoping I imagined it all from the amount of drugs this arsewipe has been injecting me with.” She pointed at Dr Menning, who was tied up to a chair.

Kingston pulled Joanna around so that they were face to face. “I’ve had some time to think about this and I have three things to tell you. First, I love you, more than I can ever tell you, and believe me: I’ve gone through Hell and fire and raging seas and I’ve had more people try to kill me than I care to admit, and all I could think of was that I had to do it to see you again. No matter what you feel, I love you.”

Joanna saw an old spark of flame behind Kingston’s eyes, one that she hadn’t seen in years as their obsessions worked to drive them apart. There was a calm and a warmth there that she had missed and still dreamed about. His eyes alone were enough to ease the pain from hours of being tied to a chair.

“Second, I’ve made a few friends and we’ve come to rescue you. John, Catalina, the Grim Reaper, and even Satan all helped to get you to safety.” Kingston nodded at John and Catalina.

Joanna went wide eyed with surprise and blamed the drugs for what she heard. “Riiiight. And third?”

“Third? I know how to bring down Bridgeworks.” He tapped his jacket pocket to the cheat sheet he had been compiling since he arrived in Limbo. “Three days of being locked in a room with an author has given me just about every clue we will ever need.”

Joanna didn’t look convinced, but she saw a familiar twinkle in Kingston’s eyes and knew that he, at least, was sure of himself. She glanced around the room and her eyes landed on Little John.

He smiled at her and held out one hand. “I’m John, by the way.”

She nervously shook his hand. “Joanna York.”

“I hear you’re famous.”

“I hear you’re from Robin Hood,” said Joanna, in complete disbelief.

John smiled and looked over to Catalina.

Catalina shrugged. “We rescued her half an hour ago! The first thing she wanted to know? Where’s Kingston? After that, who are we, then what are we talking about? I still don’t think she really believes us.”

“Not entirely, no,” said Joanna.

Kingston smiled at his girlfriend and glanced towards Dr Menning. “Did you get everything you needed out of him?”

Dr Menning spat at them. John flared his nostrils in surprise and glanced over to Kingston. Kingston nodded in approval and John back handed Menning across the jaw. Menning was thrown clear of the room and landed in the alley.

Joanna nearly spluttered. “John’s just earned himself an admirer.”

John grinned and gave her an appreciative nod. “You should see what I can do with a fence.”

Kingston stepped in close to Joanna and whispered in her ear. “I always promised to take you to Florence.”

“Yeah, I’m pretty sure I’ve been hallucinating for the last couple of hours, so I don’t know what you’re really saying,” said Joanna.

Kingston looked over to Angela. “We’d like to go to Florence. And, as a formal invitation, I’d like John and Catalina to come with us for as long as they like.”

“Certainly,” said John. He then leaned over to Catalina. “Where’s Florence?”

“It’s in Italy.”

John lowered his head and sighed.

Joanna smiled at Kingston. “Really? We’re going to Florence?”

“Too much?”

“It’s a start, I guess.”

Biggins looked from Angela and then back to Kingston. “Ready?”

Kingston held onto Joanna’s hand and smiled. “Ready.”
[_
p<>. Pop.

_] p.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

From the beginning of the first draft to the end of the last, I have bored many, many people with the trivial world of Kingston Raine and his friends. Most of their eyes glazed over as I gave them a riveting update on my progress, but some proved to have more patience with me than just about anyone else I have ever met.

 

To Andrea, who was the first to hear about the confusing mess of a dead fictional character running amok through famous stories, I say: thank you. And you were right, four chapters of Macbeth was far too much.

 

To Amanda, who is the best editor in the world and who can pick out an error better than Robin Hood can shoot a bullseye, I say: many thanks indeed. If it wasn’t for your input I’m sure most readers wouldn’t have made it past the first chapter.

 

To Chris, who is always there as a sounding board to point out every bad idea I make: cheers. One day I hope to return the favour.

 

To Deirdre, who points out my favourite phrases, thank you.

 

To Karen, who helped me make the book even better: I probably owe you a case or two of shiraz for your efforts.

 

To the countless people I have hassled and pestered over the years: I also say a big thank you for allowing me to ramble on. You probably had better things to do than to listen to me talk about some story that I still hadn’t finished yet, but it was nice to have an audience.

 

And finally to my computer: you almost died on me at the end of the first draft, you son of a bitch. Don’t ever do that to me again.

_ _
[_ _]
p.

Kingston Raine and the Bank of Limbo

When one of Life’s most despicable businessmen is found murdered in Limbo all suspicions point to Hell. When Satan assures Death that such a thing is impossible within either realm they settle on a truce by hiring an outside investigator: Kingston Raine.

 

As soon as Kingston and his friends take the job they realise that they are being spied upon by a secret organisation working within the Bank of Limbo, and that this group routinely assists the rich and corrupt in Life. What troubles Kingston is that the bank is not at all concerned about being run by blackmailers and murderers, instead they seem to be focussed on how Kingston and his friends can benefit them and their diabolical schemes.

 

Now he and his friends stand in immortal peril.

 

Kingston Raine and the Arena of Chaos

Spending an eternity in the afterlife can be pretty dull, so in order to prevent the population of Limbo from going mad Death has introduced an inter-realm battle royale in a tournament designed to reward ingenuity and integrity. But deep down The XIX Games are about cheating as much as possible without getting caught, and where winning is simply an after thought.

 

Kingston Raine and his friends sponsor a team in the hope of out-thinking, out-stealing, and out-cheating everyone around them. And while they certainly have a few tricks up their sleeves none of that will do them any good if they can’t get their master builder to play along and actually build the golem that is supposed to win them fame and money.

 

Kingston Raine and the Starlight Muse

Kingston Raine is at his wits’ end as he tries to protect the most dangerous prisoner to have ever escaped from Hell: a Scottish muse driven mad by one of Satan’s devils.

 

The muse has been chased across the realms by millions of bounty hunters, leaving Satan and Death to decide her fate in a political tug of war. Kingston and his friends do their best to track down the devil responsible for driving her insane while also keeping the muse far out of harm’s way, but they soon realise just how supernaturally persuasive she can be, which becomes tricky when Kingston is expected to keep her in his sights at all times.

 

Kingston Raine and the Lost Angel

Inevitability, Kingston learns that Satan has an illegitimate child on Earth, and the mere existence of this kid is likely to cause the apocalypse. Right now the child remains hidden in secrecy, but it’s only a matter of time before Satan learns of his offspring in Life.

 

Can Satan be distracted long enough so that everyone else can figure out what to do about hiding his kid? Can the afterlife survive the great unravelling of its origin? And can Kingston ever enjoy a quiet moment where the fate of Limbo does not rest on his shoulders?

 

 

Coming soon!
_ _
p.

Copyright © 2014 Jackson Lear

All rights reserved.

 

ISBN 978-0-9924320-1-0

Thank you for reading!

 

 

Share your thoughts and reactions

 

 

www.jacksonlear.com

 

 

 

 


Kingston Raine and the Grim Reaper

  • ISBN: 9780992432010
  • Author: Jackson Lear
  • Published: 2015-11-24 06:05:17
  • Words: 107663
Kingston Raine and the Grim Reaper Kingston Raine and the Grim Reaper