The Business of Life and Death
My work took me to the old Viking city of the north, York. I had been there many times before and each time I always struggled to decide whether it was better or worse. I sipped my hot cappuccino in Starbucks and crossed off another name on my quota. I heard the radio in the corner announce that a serious car crash had occurred on the A64, east of York, and the road would be closed for at least four hours. I wondered which of my colleagues had performed well this time.
I gazed out through the open door and into the street. I observed tourists, teenagers and families, who passed by going left, carried no bags but the necessaries. The rest of the crowd, going right, held several bags from a variety of stores. York was always good at selling. It was a renowned trading centre in the old days and I am pleased it still is.
A shadow came over me as Kate joined me for our first coffee break of the day. A silver torque bracelet, the trade mark of our group, dangled around her slender right wrist. She took off her large, yet oddly stylish hat, as she sat down, revealing her always shimmering corn blonde hair.
“Just like the weather back home isn’t it?” She placed hat and bag under the table. She noticed my quota out before me and clearly struggled with the temptation to look closer. Her eyes switching from me and the list until she sat down and finally met my gaze.
“It is indeed. How many have you got left to visit today?” I always found it funny at how competitive we all were, to finish our work and return home first. In our line of business we had to be competitive, otherwise the few clients we can catch would be absorbed into the massive giant corporations we constantly struggle against.
“Have about, ten, maybe eight left. How about you?”
“Same, more or less. Would you like a coffee?” My hand already reaching into my bag for my purse and also putting my quota away.
“Oh no thanks, Jenny, perhaps once today is done. I don’t feel I’ve worked hard enough for one yet.” She fiddled with the drinks menu, looking around the coffee shop and watching the other customers’ que up for their hit of hot caffeine or sweet overdose of sugar from the cakes and pastries.
The radio’s voice just about dominating the mix of conversations informed any who were listening about the sixth soldier to die in Iraq in as many days.
“I can’t believe the Boss chose Alison and Joanne to go to Iraq, of all places.” She complained suddenly to my surprise, her hands folding the menu into even more tighter squares.
“Are you saying you would have liked to go there?” This was the first sign of any interest in the jobs in Iraq she had shown, at least before me.
She looked at me with a small, sheepish smile. “Well, it would be nice to do a job abroad for a change. I’m getting bored of Europe that’s all. I’ve been working this area for too long.”
“You should have nominated yourself if you’re that bored of this place.”
“So, where is your next visit of the day?” She opted to change the subject avoiding my rather accurate comment, refusing to blame anyone or anything but herself for this missed opportunity. I let her do so with a sly smirk.
“Great, I have a child to visit there as well.” It would mean one more child to add to her vast flock of orphans that she brings to our fold.
I glanced through the windows, turning in my chair so I could see the now familiar towers of York Minster. My mind changed focus, from the present to the past. I could remember when the Minster’s great towers didn’t dominate the sky. Even when Clifford’s Tower was made of wood.
Landmarks, structures and even town names always reminded me about how much time has truly passed. In each case I remember how I came to be in the position I am now, and all I’ve done since. All the women on the team, like me, live a torn existence between what was, what is and what can never be.
“That night in March, I think it was, when all those Jews were trapped inside and the tower was set alight. That was my first job with you and the girls.” My voice became distant as memories drifted around me. I found my gaze had returned to my half empty cappuccino. I didn’t see the warm liquid but all the faces of those I had saved and lost, swirling in the froth and rising in the steam.
“We had a challenge that night. What with the children and women crying and the men, well they weren’t being much help to anyone.”
“Oh Kate, have you forgotten how you felt when you discovered the truth?”
She paused, I could see the answer in her eyes. The endless battle to control the memories, the sights, the sounds, the faces, the emotions. She couldn’t have forgotten, no one ever does. The truth is the truth, unavoidable and undeniable. It is now a part of us we can never escape nor forget.
“OK, I admit it; if you weren’t there we wouldn’t have been able to escort so many to Valhalla safely. It was unfortunate that we had to lose so many of the men, but Hel must always claim some, we can never save everyone. Besides it’s not our fault that the powers that be took so long arguing over who should be allocated where. Lucky for them we don’t turn away suicides. We weren’t the Angels they were all hoping for but, after more than a century in purgatory they wanted peace with anyone.”
I chose to allow this change of subject. She was my elder in more ways than would appear in this light of day. She has seen and witnessed far greater change in the world than I had during my time with the team. I owed her a lot of respect for the way she aided my own conversion to this new life.
“Our methods have changed a lot since then. Now we have to copy what the Angels do. It is not the most effective way of selecting worthy warriors.”
“I agree. Things worked better the way they used to be. I miss the old days when it was all decided by the way you died, not by the way you lived. If you died bravely or by the sword you go up, if you die of old age or illness you go down. It was so much simpler back then.” She sighed, finally releasing the bent and worn menu to slowly unfold from the creases Kate had inflicted upon it.
The Bitfrost test is a method we now use to determine what afterlife a soul deserves. It is a method my Elders hate using but the traditional methods can only ever be applied in areas of war and civil conflict. I realised then that was the reason why Kate was jealous of Alice and Joanne. She missed the old days and its old ways. To go to Iraq would be to relive their glorious memories of centuries gone by. To perform their role in life the way they were mean tot, not the way human development and technological advances have forced them to. So many things had been twisted besides our method of selecting clients in order to survive such a secular world that the twentieth century was creating. We all feared the day where our original values would be so diluted that our society would be barely recognisable, to the strong, proud and wealthy society we were over ten centuries ago. As Kate once described to me, we were a small pebble in the river of time, trying not to be swept away with the ever changing current, struggling for our values not to be worn away into the dust of the river bed.
She glanced at her watch. “Anyway, as much as I would enjoy chatting all day, we have still got work to do.”
“Ok, let’s go.”
With that we left Starbucks and made our way through the throbbing streets towards the York District hospital.
At the York District hospital car park we walked to a shaded corner away from curious eyes. Upon Kate’s nod we both took out a handful of crushed leaves from our sacred Ash tree. Once we had a good handful we blew them into the air. The fragments immediately glided out in a large radius on a powerful and silent wind. We had evoked the spiritual plane of the earth around us. Only spiritual beings, such as ourselves and those that have passed from the physical plane into this would exist, everything else became a background of statues. We both unfolded our bags into our luscious white swan feather cloaks. The contents of which were kept in special pockets so in either form nothing was lost. We strapped around our waists a leather belt with several sheathed daggers hanging from it. Every job has its dangers.
“Mine is on the second floor, where is yours?” Kate asked after checking her own quota.
“On the fourth floor. Wait for me here when you are done, I don’t know how long I am going to be with this one.”
With a final nod to each other we strode back round the corner, across the car park and into the building. No one gave us a glance as we walked around the motionless people inside.
I found the man I sought in a room at the far end of the ward. He lay still in his bed, his drips and monitor leads hung loose on the floor. The woman who sat beside him was milk white with red eyes from tears.
“Mr. Garret?” I said softly, sitting at the end of his bed, watching his eyes flutter open.
“Huh? Yes?” He became wary once he noticed me. “Who are you? What do you want?”
“There’s, no easy way of saying this, Mr. Garret, but you have, just died.” It was inevitable that he wouldn’t believe me. After all, a woman in a white feathered cloak, against a skirt and blouse, and holding a tall spear, promote the signs of a deluded mind. “Welcome to the next life!”
“Preposterous! I’m sat here talking to you aren’t I? Tell her Laura, you can see I’m quite alive can’t you?” He turned to the pale faced woman sat beside him. She didn’t blink. She didn’t say a word.
“If you are alive, give your daughter a hug. Prove me wrong.” The only way for the deceased to believe me was if they discovered it the hard way.
He shot me an angry glare and got out of his bed, unaware yet that his pain had vanished and leaned in towards his daughter. He passed straight through her and her chair, landing on all fours on the floor. Panic in his eyes, his breath quickening with fear, disbelief freezing his senses. I stepped towards him and offered him my hand.
“It’s ok, you can touch me. You can even hit me if it makes you feel any better.”
“But how? Why? I...I...was sleeping...only sleeping...I felt so tired...I...”
“I know it’s hard to accept. I went through the same thing. Now can I talk to you about what happens next?”
“Next?” The puzzlement and possible curiosity seemed to calm him down a bit as I walked him slowly towards the window.
“Yes, the small matter of life after death.”
“Oh, I never really believed in that kind of thing.” He reflected quite openly.
“Yes, I know that Mr. Garret. Now, as you are not a follower of any faith for that matter, my Boss has decided to lay claim on your soul.”
“Yes, the deity I work for.”
“Are you an Angel?”
I laughed. “My job is similar to that of Angels but I am not one of them. My Boss is of an older faith. He has many names but you may refer to him as Odin. His followers once ruled this place when it was known as Jorvik. You will know them as Vikings.” We stopped at the window. “Before you begin your afterlife there is a test you must do first.”
“Am I being judged?”
“In a way, it tests the person you have become, not the way you lived. We don’t judge everyone by their mistakes, only by the way they atone for them.” I gave a comforting smile, opening the window that looked out across a still and silent city. I pointed my spear downwards and engraved runes onto the floor with its silver tip. A rainbow bridge appeared linking our window to the ground below.
“What do I have to do?” he asked, staring suspiciously at my runes and the rainbow.
“You must simply walk along this bridge. If you are worthy you will reach the other end and live happily in Asgard, if not, well....”
He knew what my silence meant. Even in death he knew that there was always a deep, dark and dangerous place to any heavenly abode. “Will it hold me?” he asked, shaking as I urged him forward.
“It’s perfectly safe. Trust me, that’s it... steady ...see its fine.” Watching him stand for the first time on his own upon the colours. “Now face forward and walk, reach the end and all will be well. I hope to see you at the other side.”
He was doing well at first, five steps in and it seemed he might make it, but then the true test of his soul began. Visions of those he had wronged in life appeared before him asking for answers, explanations and apologies. All asking for one thing before he departed. David was too set on self preservation to care about appeasing these spirits. He waved them away, pushed past their pleading faces and ignored their words. Then he came face to face with the vision of his wife. It certainly made him pause. Her lips moved silently with her spiritual plea to him and whatever she said he didn’t like.
“It wasn’t exactly stealing Margery.” He mumbled thrusting his hands into his hospital gown pockets. “It paid for your new car didn’t it?”
The vision of Margery paled and began to sob and yell at him.
“Yes, yes I should have told you the bank was a bit tight but didn’t want you to worry. And my Mum was never going to use all she had whilst in a care home now was she? I mean, she had dementia Margery, she wasn’t aware of anything anymore.”
His wife asked him something.
“No, we won’t get done by the police, whose going to report us? I’m the person who has legal rights to sign over her money. If I didn’t do it then who knows what mess my Mum would get into. We might find out she has signed away her savings to some scam if I didn’t take control of it all.” He stepped a bit closer to his wife. “Look, I know it may seem what I’ve done is morally wrong but the way I see it is this. My Mum would want us to use her money to make us happy. We’d get it all when she passes on anyway.”
At that remark the vision of Margery sobbed even harder, turning her back on her deceased husband.
“Oh, Margery, don’t get so upset. It was only a few grand. Nothing more. I haven’t touched it for the past few months.”
The vision of Margery spun back round on him with an angry glare and spat something at him.
“What about the golf weekend? No, no that was paid for as a collective, I and the lads all chipped in for that. None of Mum’s money funded it at all, Margery.”
That seemed to appease the vision a bit.
“Come now, Margery, can we get past this if I promise not to touch Mum’s account again?”
The vision made another claim on him.
“The children? Yes, I guess we can save the lot for them, it would please Mum to help fund their education and the grandchildren. And yes, we have already had our fair share but I wouldn’t say I’ve robbed her before she’s in the grave. Now can you please forgive me? I am sorry that you had to find out this way.”
The vision of Margery gave him a smile and opened her arms for a hug. Upon their embrace all the spirits vanished, leaving Mr. Garret alone on the rainbow bridge.
I gathered my cloak and glided down to join him.
“Success Mr. Garrett, you have proved yourself worthy.”
“That was all a test? Does Margery truly know what I did?” The runic magic of the test fading from this vision, awakening him to the truth of the scene.
“No, but the scenario had to take place to allow you to acknowledge what you had done and accept the responsibility of betraying both your Mum and your wife’s trust.”
“What? So that was all unreal? That wasn’t really Margery?”
“It was her essence…”
“So I’m off the hook. She doesn’t know.” He smiled with visible relief.
“Oh Mr. Garret that isn’t how you’re meant to react to this experience. You’re meant to join us enlightened, not relieved at avoiding such an opportunity for understanding.”
“How enlightened can I get? I’m dead and I discover there are more than Angels in this world.” His sarcasm and frustration at the test revealing his true qualities.
I sighed wearily, jumping up to hover a few feet above him and the bridge. “And now there are a lot more than Angels after your soul Mr. Garret. I must say I’m not disappointed, your life credentials didn’t bode well for you.”
“Huh? What do you mean after my soul? Thought I was going somewhere with you. I passed didn’t I?” Panic trembled his voice as he stumbled around beneath me.
“You were until a minute ago. You clearly didn’t genuinely accept the fact that you betrayed a loved one’s trust. Goodbye Mr. Garret, it’s been nice doing business with you.”
The rainbow bridge had begun to shake, cracks fracturing the colours beneath his feet. A vivid red light glowed through the cracks as they crumbled away and opened up. Mr. Garret tried his best by running back up the bridge to the Hospital floor but within a few steps that end was already receding towards him in pieces. He turned to go the opposite way but that was also falling towards him. Screams began to echo from the blotch of magma red pulsating on the piece he was left standing on.
“Wait! Please! Help me? I don’t deserve this! I want to live!”
“The afterlife has no place for those that deceive. No matter the reason.” I replied to him just before he fell into the gathering abyss and the rainbow bridge promptly faded in shattered pieces.
“Awwwww no demons in the show!” A voice called up from far beneath me. It was Kate, leaning against a tree in the odd piece of vegetation in the large car park surrounding the hospital building.
I laughed as I flew down to join her. “No, not this time, he wasn’t that bad but he had the potential to be.”
“What did he do?”
“Not accept when he did wrong. He’d rather live whatever life he can get without ever confessing up to it. Even to himself.”
“He should count himself lucky he’s only going to be a snack for Hel then. I hear the Angels cut out liar’s tongues and make them pronounce ‘Thou Shalt Not Lie’ until the Apocalypse.”
“Who have you got to visit next?” I asked shrugging away that gruesome image of eternal punishment.
She took out her list from her bag. “A Lieutenant Matthews, a World War Two veteran.”
“He’ll get the special treatment then?”
“Yep, the whole silver jar and youth restoration treatment. I might even throw in an old flame to escort him over the bridge if he tells us a good battle story.”
“Can I join you?”
“Sure. But you have others to visit?”
“Yeah, but I enjoy a good story as much as you. Besides, you know as well as I, a Valkyries work is never done.”