Young woman with dark hair and eyes, wearing dark clothes.

Deputy Death

A tingle started in the middle of Liz’s head, spreading down into her teeth. It was an odd sensation, but not unpleasant. She thought of it as her death sense, because when it kicked in, she was sure to find the body of some dead animal. The bizarre ability had yet to prove remotely useful, though it put her social life in critical condition. She looked up from her six-page, AP English paper, due tomorrow. Her eyes went to the window just as the sunshine-yellow Pontiac Aztek slowed, then stopped across the street. It was a weird looking car, not the sort of thing that belonged in this neighborhood with its green carpet lawns, evenly manicured hedges, and sport utility vehicles in the fashionable colors of hunter and maple. Each house was painted one of three approved shades of beige. Fortunately spring was far enough along that the landscape wasn’t completely bland, despite the developers’ best efforts.

It was sheer luck that she’d felt something dead in time to see this outsider, though she’d have to find whatever had died nearby before continuing to work on her paper. She could only ignore the tingling for so long before it became too distracting.

The driver’s side door swung open, and a tall thin man stepped out. He was pale, with light brown hair, and there wasn’t so much as a hint of khaki about him. He wore a shiny metallic blue, long sleeved shirt, tucked into snug black jeans. Liz briefly wondered if he might be gay, what with all the color, but decided he was probably just from the city. She’d heard urban people were flamboyant, and only the usual percentage of them were gay. He looked sort of like the people in her German textbook, foreign, so maybe that was his deal.

The man turned toward the window of the first story study where she sat. For a moment she was certain he was looking directly at her, though he was on the bright side of the window and couldn’t possibly be able to see her. He nodded his head once, as if in acknowledgment or greeting, then strolled toward the front walk. With her curiosity over-clocked, she rose to her feet and inched across the carpet to the closed study door, near the entry. The gap at the threshold would let her hear everything. The door chimed, sounding like a miniature church carillon.

“I’ll get it,” her father called. He’d been totally obsessive about homework time since Liz hit the seventh grade. If anything, he was worse now that she was in high school and her brother was in junior high. “Coming!” His footsteps sounded from the kitchen through the hall to the entry. “Hello, may I help you?”

Liz covered a smirk with her hand, though no one was there to see it. She could imagine her father attempting to greet the stranger appropriately. In Minnesota, there were strict rules, however unspoken, regarding acceptable forms of rudeness.

“Hello,” the man said in a light tenor voice that carried directly to Liz’s ears. “You must be Mr. Deneen, Elizabeth’s father.” He had no obvious accent.

“Yes.” The word was long and drawn out. “I am.” He was clearly stumped by the stranger’s presence.

“I need to speak with her, if I may,” the man said. “It’s a matter of some urgency.”

In the silence, indignation enveloped Liz. Who was this man, who knew her name and where she lived? What must her father think? There’d just been another exposé about pervy chat rooms and blog code words on the news, and she could feel her access privileges slipping away. She scowled and blew at the lock of boring brown hair that hung down her forehead into her right eye. How could she spin this to keep her parents from freaking? They were so protective that she’d be more closely monitored for the next few weeks, even if she convinced them she wasn’t some trashy net slut. If she got the chance, she’d have to thank Mr. Fashionable for giving her parents cause for mistrust. Dropping a dead bird down the back of his ridiculous shirt might settle the score.

“I can’t say Elizabeth has mentioned anyone like you,” her father finally said. “What’s your name?”

“I’m sorry.” The man sounded sheepish. “I’m Dando Pauahtun, and there’s no reason she would have mentioned me. We’ve never met.”

There was another silence. “I’m sure you’ll understand my apprehension over a grown man asking after my sixteen-year-old daughter as if he knows her, then admitting they’ve never met.”

“I can see your point,” the man said, his voice calm.

Liz’s concern over her father’s possible reactions faded. She felt oddly unruffled, and she wondered if it was the sensation people referred to as time slowing down.

“I assure you,” the man went on, “I have valid reasons for being here.”

“Suppose you explain them to me,” her father suggested in his don’t-even-dream-of-compromise tone.

“I’ve heard of your daughter’s gift for releasing the earthbound spirits of deceased animals,” the man said, reminding Liz of her history teacher. He used long sentences with big words, even if he was merely granting a hall pass so that a student might ‘avail herself of the lavatory.’

“Her what?” her father demanded.

“Her ability to find dead animals,” the stranger said. “Surely you’re aware of it?”

“Who do you think you are?” She almost didn’t recognize her father’s voice. She’d rarely made him so angry herself. “What kind of sick twisted joke is this?”

“It’s not a joke…”

“I don’t know who sent you, but you ought to be ashamed of yourself. An adult, going out of his way to pick on a child.” Her father’s tone was scathing and she wished she could see his expression. With his blood pressure, his whole head would be bright red. It was nice of him to stand up for her, but she could do it herself. “Isn’t it enough that the other kids torment her? Do you think it’s funny that they leave dead animals around the school for her to find?”

Liz rolled her eyes. The corpse scavenger hunts had been held a couple times a month since September, despite the administration’s ‘best efforts.’ She’d hoped high school would be different, that the other kids would be too mature for stupid pranks. It turned out to be much the same as junior high but in a bigger setting. She dealt with it as best she could, finding her own way of retaliating. The expression on some jock’s face when she suggested that his locker contained a nasty surprise was truly priceless.

“You’ve got this all wrong,” the stranger insisted. “There’s an Amur tiger at the zoo who needs her.” Something in his voice caught her attention. He almost sounded desperate, and her instinct was to believe him. There was little an adult or stranger would gain from teasing her, and the idea that she might be needed by someone or something was novel.

“Stay away from my daughter,” her father ordered.

She was startled to hear the door slam. She crept back toward her chair and watched as the man moved down the front walk. His motion seemed reluctant. Before he reached the street, he paused and looked over his shoulder in her direction. Despite the lighting, and the fact that he couldn’t know she was there, their eyes met. The tension drained out of her, and her mind grew clear, her thoughts organized and focused. There was a subtle entreaty on his face. Then he looked away and continued to his car.

There was a single knock at the door, and it opened enough for her father to poke his head through. “Are you all right?” he asked, wearing his concerned-father expression.

She nodded, feeling a bit numb, which made it easier to ignore the tingle in her teeth. It was obvious he knew she’d overheard, but he wasn’t going to talk about it. Her death sense wasn’t easy to live with. Like many families with disturbing conditions, hers had adopted an implied policy not to discuss the weird thing that only made them all uncomfortable. It couldn’t be explained, and it didn’t seem likely to go away, so discussion would serve no purpose.

“How’s that paper coming?” he asked.

She picked up the handwritten page of key points she’d jotted down earlier, and held it out so he could see it. Her new and sudden mental clarity made the direction of her paper obvious. Writing it would be a snap. “I’m just finishing the outline.” Out of the corner of her eye she saw the yellow Aztek pull a u-turn in the middle of the street and head back the way it had come.

“Well, you keep at it, then,” he said, vanishing behind the door and pulling it closed. “I’ll let you know when it’s time for supper.” With everyone’s schedules and activities, supper had gradually migrated to eight o’clock, more than two hours away yet. Her mom and brother were at soccer practice and wouldn’t be home until seven-thirty.

Liz looked out the window, leaning against the glass so she could see better. The Aztek had stopped a few houses down on her side of the street. He was waiting for her, then. It would be stupid to go out and talk to him, a complete stranger who knew more about her than he had any right to. But he’d been to the house and talked to her father, and he was distinctive enough to be easily remembered and described. If he was one of those creeps she’d learned about in her self-defense class, he was awfully dumb about it.

She chewed on her lip for a moment, thinking. He’d said something about a tiger at the zoo. She wondered how it could possibly need her, and she wondered why she believed it. She couldn’t shake the feeling that something important had happened to her when their eyes met. True, some kids her age made dumb decisions and caved to phenomenally stupid peer pressure, but in their guts they never claimed to be choosing on instinct. She picked up her key chain, a fat aluminum rod about the length of a gel pen and slightly rounded on the end away from the key ring. It was a kubotan, something the self-defense instructor called a weapon of compliance, and Liz had been impressed with how much pain could be inflicted by something so small.

She twisted the latch on the window, then slid it up. She hid the screen behind the desk so it wouldn’t be obvious where she’d gone. That would end her independent roaming faster than strep had spread through the cool clique last winter. She dangled her right leg out the window and ducked through. She had her favorite jeans on, mid-blue low riders with a hint of a flare at the ankle. They weren’t ideal for climbing out of windows, and she bumped her spine on the frame. Though she hadn’t moved much, the tingle of death got stronger, as it did when she got closer to a corpse. She closed the window, and checked to see if the man was still waiting up the block.

Cutting across the corner of the lot, Liz’s eyes darted around, watching for neighbors. When her white canvas sneakers reached the sidewalk, she looked more closely at the yellow Aztek. The license plate read 1STGOTH. She snorted. He was pale, but he needed to dye his hair and change his style before he could call himself goth. A few piercings wouldn’t hurt the look, either. At the beginning of the school year, she’d found herself unexpectedly hanging with a group of goth chicks. Because of her ‘connection with death,’ they’d made a pretty good effort to accept her. Unfortunately, real death proved more than they could handle.

The man was alone, probably watching her in his rearview mirror. She self-consciously tugged a little on the hem of her red baby T, which barely covered the clip-on navel ring she wore. Her parents wouldn’t let her get a real piercing, which was unbearably lame. She’d seen the cutest barbell with little silver skulls dangling off both ends, but there was no point in spending money on it if she couldn’t wear it.

As she reached the back bumper of the Aztek, the front passenger door opened. She paused, but didn’t stop until she reached it. With one arm on the top of the door and the other leaning against the car, she bent down to look at him. He had pale blue eyes, and his hair wasn’t brown like her own after all. Streaks of blond provided texture. She wondered how she might get her hair to do that.

“Hello Liz,” he said.

When he’d asked for her at the house, she’d been Elizabeth Deneen, but now she was Liz, her preferred nickname, which her parents refused to use. “What do you want?” Again, she felt calm, like she could say or do just about anything she wanted, and it was wonderfully liberating.

“I want to see what you can do for an Amur tiger at the zoo,” he said. He had big hands, with long fingers, and he kept them on the steering wheel.

“What do you think I can do for this tiger?” she asked. She was unsure what an Amur tiger was, but it didn’t much matter. Tigers were tigers; great big cats with loads of pointy bits.

“He’s dying,” the man said. “He’s lived well past his natural age, because that’s what happens to animals in captivity. But it’s time for him to go, and he deserves a proper release.”

“You want to release him in Minnesota?” The DNR would pitch the biggest fit. Now that would be an exotic species to watch out for, nothing like the invader lake weeds the public service messages warned of.

“That would be about the stupidest thing we could do,” he replied, rolling his eyes. “That’s not the kind of release I’m talking about.” He shook his head. “I need you to set his spirit free, so he can die properly.”

It almost made sense. “I don’t know how to do… that.”

“You do it all the time,” he said. “Call it instinctual.”

She thought for a moment. “So, why can’t you do it yourself?”

He shrugged. “Not my job.” He met her eyes again. “I’d be happy to explain on the way.” He looked pointedly at the passenger seat.

“Are you kidnapping me?” she asked. Going someplace with a stranger could get her killed, which was one of the points her defense teacher had made repeatedly.

“No. I’m asking you to come with me,” he said. “But if it worries you so much, why don’t you go get your father? The two of you can follow me in his car.” His expression suggested this was a reasonable alternative.

She almost laughed out loud. “Oh, yeah. ‘Cause my dad would totally go for that.”

He smiled, and it was friendly, not creepy. “I didn’t think so, but I want to make it clear that you have a choice.” He dropped his right hand to the key in the ignition and turned it. “Come on Liz. Get in the car. I want to show you what that death sense of yours actually does.”

“It lets me find dead animals.” Perhaps lets wasn’t quite the right word. Makes or compels might have been more accurate.

“No,” he said confidently. “It tells you where they are. It leads you to them. But that’s only the smallest part of it.”

She’d always wanted there to be more to it, something that made it useful. Something that made her special. This guy was offering her the keys and she was afraid the chance might not come again. Without time for second thoughts, she eased into the passenger seat and closed the door. “Who are you?” she asked. “How do you know about what I do? It’s my death sense. Not yours or anybody else’s.” Her teeth were buzzing, and she wondered if he could hear it.

“My name is Dando Pauahtun, and you’ll find I know a great deal about you and your death sense,” he said as he put the car into drive. “Please fasten your seat belt.”

Liz drew the safety restraint across her body and latched it. She squirmed in her seat to adjust the brass belt buckle that was poking at the soft part of her stomach.

“Humans and animals each have a spirit that’s tied to their bodies during life,” he explained as he drove toward the interstate. “If the spirit isn’t separated from the body at death, it stays bound to the Earth until someone notices it and sets it free.”

“That’s gotta totally blow,” Liz said.

“Yes,” Dando agreed. “It does… totally. It doesn’t happen very often with humans, but it frequently happens with animals, specifically those whose lives are greatly impacted by humans. Their deaths go unnoticed, unrecognized, and so their spirits languish here.”

“So if people would just notice the dead animals, they’d be free?”

Dando shook his head. “It takes a special kind of person. Like you.” He was silent for a moment. “You’re not the only one.”

“There are others with the same wicked death sense?” she asked in surprise. It was disappointing to cease to be unique. It also meant she wasn’t some sort of chosen one, destined to lead an exciting life and save the world, or at least get a hot guy. “We should have a picnic or something.”

“That could be arranged,” he said with a shrug. He smiled and shook his head slightly as if unexpectedly amused. “Most of the folks who work for the county or state picking up road kill have the same gift. And many of the old people you see collecting aluminum cans or garbage on the side of the road provide the same much-needed service.” He looked at her for a moment. “The fact that you aren’t the only one doesn’t make you any less important.”

Her future had never looked so bleak before. “My parents will be so proud,” she said with excessive earnestness. “I mean, not every family has a corpse collector.”

Dando looked at her, all trace of humor gone.

She could feel his irritation. It was way too weird. “I’m just saying,” she said quickly, her eyes going back to her hands and her belt buckle. “The college classes for the dead animal major will be easy As.”

“You’re very young,” he said after a long silence. “You have no concept of scope. I can only hope that changes.”

“Young?” she demanded, annoyed, and this time it was her own emotion.

“Very.” His tone made it clear that his opinion was unshakable.

When she glanced up, his eyes were on the road. A brown sign hanging over the freeway indicated that they were heading for the Minnesota Zoo, which her parents still called the New Zoo, even though it was like thirty years old.

“The zoo used to have someone on staff, who took care of the animals there,” he said quietly. “He was a veterinarian, and he helped the animals’ spirits pass when the time had come.” He looked at her out of the corner of his eye. “Not everyone with this gift takes low-brow work.”

Feeling well and truly told off, she was annoyed. “Why didn’t you get one of those other people to take care of this tiger?” she asked. “Someone whose dad isn’t going to open a wig factory when he finds her gone might have been a better choice.” Was there a snowflake’s chance in hell she’d get home before her dad noticed she wasn’t there? What excuse would he possibly buy? She might have to try the hormonal teen thing and play up her reaction to what she’d overheard, but she hated using that trump card any more than necessary.

“None of them were near enough.”

“And you can’t do it yourself,” she added. She looked out the window at the blur of passing scenery and cars.

“I didn’t say that.”

She turned back to him, confused. “But you said…”

“It’s not my job. There’s a difference.” He kept his eyes on the road. “Besides, it’s time and past for you to learn who you truly are inside.”

That was too serious. “I’m Liz, inside and out,” she insisted. “All Liz, all the time.”

He seemed to ignore her comment. “I should have come to you before this, but I’ve been too busy to set aside the time. Still, you’ve managed very well on your own.” He sounded pleased, and it had the same effect as praise from someone who really mattered; she felt a mixture of pride and suspicion. “I don’t think anyone else has found a way to make people bring dead animals to them. That will cut down on your work.”

She realized he was talking about the corpse scavenger hunts. “You do realize I didn’t plan that, don’t you? It’s just their way of showing how different I am. You know that, right?”

“Of course, but you’ve handled it well.”

“Thanks,” she said, loading on the sarcasm. “People suck and I deal with it. Glad you approve of my methods.” They were both silent for the next couple miles. “So what do I need to do with this tiger, anyway?” she finally asked, irritated that he hadn’t at least acknowledged his lack of tact. She suspected he didn’t apologize very often, and she wondered where he got off thinking that the rules of polite behavior didn’t apply to him.

“That part is simple,” he assured her. “All you have to do is really look at him. You don’t even need to touch him.”

Half listening, she rubbed at her jaw. She could no longer ignore the fact that her teeth were practically rattling. In fact, her death sense hadn’t stopped since it first distracted her from her homework. It was often triggered on car rides, but it generally didn’t take long to get far enough away from the body that it stopped. She’d been able to determine that her range was about a block and a half, but she’d kept it to herself. Every once in a while, the kids at school put their collected carcasses too far apart for her to go directly from one to another, and she had to be careful or they’d catch on. She looked around the car, craning her head to see into the back seat.

“What’s the matter?” Dando asked.

“You must have hit a bird and it’s stuck to your bumper or something,” she said, puzzled because she couldn’t pinpoint the location. It was almost as if there were dead things all around her, which was a disgusting thought.

“Sorry about that,” he said, surprising her with an apology that sounded sincere. “I didn’t hit anything. I’m what’s tripping your alarm.”

“What, are you dead?” she asked with a grin. “I know for a fact that my death sense only works on animals.”

“It also works on me.” Dando turned toward her again, holding her eyes for a long time.

She felt calm and strangely reassured. Then she realized that the car was staying in its lane without him watching where it was going. Her earlier mental clarity hadn’t diminished and she put together the pieces of the puzzle her life had suddenly become. “You saw me from the front walk, even though you shouldn’t have been able to. You knew I’d follow you.”

He nodded once. “You can’t ignore me when I call you, but you have a will of your own. I’d hoped you would respond to my request, even if it seemed out of the ordinary.”

“Who are you, really?” He could do things that weren’t quite human, things that surpassed even her own weird ability. Everything about him suggested a power beyond anything she’d imagined was real. It was cool and creepy at the same time. “What’s your job?”

His lips twitched into a smile. “I’m your boss.”

“My boss?” She smirked and didn’t bother to hide it. “I suppose you don’t have to worry about child labor laws, or minimum wage.”

His smile widened, showing his teeth, white and perfect. “Nope.” He shook his head. “I chose you a long time ago, Liz. There are very few laws that bind me, and none of them were penned by a human.”

Perhaps the laws of physics. She looked at him more carefully. Perhaps not. “And do you have a job title?” She thought for a moment. “Hey, do I have a job title?”

He laughed and turned back to the road. “As a matter of fact we both have job titles.” He hit his turn signal for the exit. “I’m Death.” He faced her again. “To be entirely accurate, I’m the god of death.”

“You’re a god?” It would allow for the strange things he’d done, the things he knew, but she was too accustomed to weirdness to buy it. “Sorry, Dando, but you don’t seem the god type.”

“If you need proof, I can provide it,” he offered.

“What, do you have some sort of god identification card?” Liz asked. “Like a supernatural acts license or something?” That would be cool. “Or a family portrait, where you can show me all the other gods, in case I ever meet them?” They were almost to the zoo.

“No, actually,” he said, sounding as though he were trying not to laugh, “I was thinking more along the lines of a demonstration of my power.”

“You honestly don’t need to kill anyone to prove who you are,” she said quickly. It would be just her luck that he would decide to off her family to make a point. “If there’s one thing you should know about me, it’s that fear inspires faith.”

“That’s not what I meant.” He reached for the rearview mirror, pivoting it toward her. When he dropped his hand back to the steering wheel, Liz could see herself and the shadow of someone in the back seat. She glanced over her shoulder, but there was no one behind her. She looked back at the reflection. The shadow was growing steadily more solid. Dando ran a finger along the bottom of the mirror, and Liz’s aunt Lynette came into clear focus. She wore a smile, and there was a mischievous glint in her eyes.

“Liz, this is Lynette Reece,” he said. “It’s been a few years since you last saw her, but she won’t have changed as much as you have.”

She flashed him a quick glare. How could he suggest she’d be unable to recognize her own aunt. “Auntie Lynn, is that really you?”

“Of course it’s me.” Aunt Lynette’s voice was perfectly clear, coming from the back seat.

Her aunt had gone through the ice on her snowmobile two years ago. Liz had been to the funeral and seen the body. That was when she found out her death sense didn’t work on people, and it was really a relief. “How can you be here?”

Aunt Lynette looked straight at Dando before turning back to Liz. “You don’t need me to explain what you already know, pumpkin.”

“Are you trapped?” Liz asked, suddenly worried that she was about to learn what Dando’s dark side was really like. He’d been entirely too lighthearted to be Death.

Aunt Lynette shook her head. “I’m more free than you.” She smiled. “You’ll learn all about it. And I should let you get back to work now so you can. We’ll catch up later,” she promised. She held up one hand, wiggling her fingers in familiar farewell as she faded from the reflection.

Liz sat in silence for a moment. His proof was pretty impressive. “So if you’re Death, what am I?” she asked. “A minion? Oooh, that’d be so cool. And won’t it burn the goths, with their black clothes and ‘I embrace death’ ‘tude.” Though really, they couldn’t handle it.

“You’re a deputy,” he corrected, still smiling. “I’m too busy with all the humans to tend to animals as well, and they deserve to be released when the time has come. Humans are very needy. You wouldn’t believe how difficult they can get when they’re dying.” He parked the car.

“I’m a deputy of death?” Her voice squeaked in her excitement. “I suppose I can’t tell anyone, can I?”

He shook his head. “Afraid not. As you pointed out earlier, people suck. And if you think you get treated badly now, it’s nothing compared to what could happen.”

She followed as he walked through the entrance without anyone seeming to notice them. She paused, expecting him to buy tickets or flash a badge of some sort, but he kept going and she jogged to catch up.

“Let’s see,” Dando said, looking around. “We need the Tiger Lair Exhibit, part of the Northern Trail.”

“That way,” Liz said, pointing to the correct road. “So I’m a deputy of death. This job is gonna get in the way of my whole life, isn’t it?” Not that boys were exactly lining up at her door, but she imagined she’d eventually go on dates. And dead things were so not dateworthy.

“It’s really more of a calling than a job.”

“Name it what you want, it’s still work,” she said. “So what’s the going wage for a deputy?” She didn’t want to sound ungrateful, but he hadn’t mentioned payment, which meant there probably wasn’t any. While it was sort of cool on one hand, hanging out with Death and working for him and all, the compensation seemed awfully light.

“After today, your death sense will be enhanced.” He looked back at her as she struggled to keep up with his long strides. “There are a couple of other perks, as well.”

“Enhanced?” A new and improved death sense was a perk?

He nodded. “You’ll get a visual element, a dream component, the ability to speak with the dead, that kind of thing.” He stopped.

“Wait a minute,” she said, nearly colliding with him. “Visions and bad dreams? Don’t you think my life is already complicated enough?” She could imagine what the other kids would say if they found out she was chatting up dead things, though she liked the idea of talking to dead people. Which OD-ed rocker should she try after her visit with Auntie Lynn?

“You’re stronger than you give yourself credit for,” Dando said. He started walking again. “I wouldn’t have chosen you if you couldn’t handle it.”

“Chosen?” she demanded. It wasn’t the first time he’d said that, but it was only starting to make sense now. “You made me the way I am.” It wasn’t a question.

“Yes. I did.” He didn’t sound the slightest bit apologetic. “I need help, Liz. And there aren’t a lot of people for me to choose from, despite the constant turnover in population.”

“Well how about you un-choose me,” she suggested. “Let me lead a normal life.”

Dando shook his head. “I’ve had my hand on you since before you were born, and I’m not about to give you up.” He looked at her, holding her eyes with his. “I’ve invested a lot in you, and you’ve incorporated what I’ve given you into yourself. If I were to take it away, there would be very little of Liz left. You would always have a profound sense of loss. It might kill you.”

“Never mind then,” she said quickly. It wasn’t worth the price. She didn’t think he was lying, but she wasn’t willing to take that risk.

“Now I believe we were discussing your benefits package,” he said after a silence.

“Yeah,” she said absently.

“I’ve given you a few extra abilities to help you in your work. I’ll teach you how to use them when we get back to your house, where you’ll be a bit more relaxed.” He slowed down as they started the Northern Trail section of the zoo. “You shouldn’t have to pay zoo admission if you’re here for me, but I expect you to use your invisibility in a way that will leave me pleased.”

“Invisibility? Excellent!” She could hardly wait to give it a try.

“If I find out you’re using any of your gifts to harm other people, I will be displeased.”

“Check.” She was pretty sure she didn’t want him displeased with her. Ever.

“I think the other deputies enjoy our quarterly parties and retreats,” he said. “You’ll get to meet some close to your age, and some who might live in your area, though they come from all over the world.”

“Office parties?”

“They’re more like mixers, since I don’t have an office.” He smiled. “They’re at my house. My wife and dogs love to entertain.”

She stared at him. “You’re married?”

“Does that surprise you?” He paused and looked at her.

Liz shrugged. “I guess not.” An enhanced death sense plus the extras and death parties… he’d opened up whole new opportunities in her life. She wasn’t usually invited to parties. She wondered how she was going to come up with all the excuses she’d need to make to her parents. Dando better include something to cover those in her new skills.

She paused in front of the plaque for the Amur tiger, also known as the Siberian tiger. Well why hadn’t Dando just called it by its right name? It was the largest of all cats and an inefficient hunter. She looked out into the enclosure, but couldn’t see anything in all the green.

“Sometimes it’s easier if you don’t use your eyes,” Dando said in a whisper.

It was probably a roundabout way of telling her to close her eyes. She shrugged and followed the recommendation. She felt something like her death sense, only different, a feather light touch in her mind. She turned her face one way and it lessened, then the other and it intensified. She’d found the old tiger. She smiled and opened her eyes.

She saw beyond the leaves and exotic tree trunks, past boulders and young tigers wrestling in the grass. She saw him as clearly as if she stood ten feet from him. His gait was stiff, and gray flecked the hair around his eyes and mouth. He was weary beyond anything she’d imagined, and it was more than physical exhaustion. His life was spent, yet he still took breath. His body was failing, yet it continued to function. He stopped suddenly and turned to look at her. With a tiger sized sigh, he lay down. He started to glow golden, sparkly like magic in a cartoon. There were two of him now, his empty body and his spirit, which stood up and bounded off beyond the enclosure.

Liz blinked a couple of times to hold back tears and found herself standing beside Dando, her hands pressed against the glass. She’d never realized how beautiful death really was. Maybe it was okay that she wasn’t remotely like other kids.

This story originally appeared in Tales of the Unanticipated #28, edited by Eric M. Heideman and published by TOTU Ink in October 2005.

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Author of adult and young adult speculative fiction (fantasy, science fiction, dark fiction)

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