Checkmate

A beach on the northeast spire of Nantucket

“So we’re here again. Same bleak coastline, jagged rocks, black surf and all, empty sky stretching out over a thousand nameless skulls – ”

“Millions, actually. Please don’t shortchange me, I do take my work seriously and all,” Death interrupted.

“Millions, then. Hell, it’s probably billions, but who’s counting?” continued Postman undeterred.

“I am. My actuaries use the best and newest statistical methods. You fools think your representative samples can capture the germination of an idea or calculate the Zeitgeist to a reasonable degree of certainty, but in my line of work, we must have complete accuracy. None of this confidence interval garbage.”

“I’ll grant you that for the time being. Just out of curiosity, say, what’s, uh, the current tally? asked Postman.

“731,895,435, currently increasing at a rate of 712.3 per hour, and accelerating by 2.3% per 100 days, seasonally adjusted of course. Those, of course, represent the numbers just from your line of work, my friend, since the Sumerians, just for sake of organization. We have numbers for the preceding era as well.”

“Masterful.”

“Oh yes, we’ve got this business down. But let’s get to the point, Postman.”

“Yes, please. I see you’ve brought the chessboard again. Carved ivory and onyx, and are those diamonds you’ve used for the eyes?”

“Yes, the finest quality, of course.”

“Of course.” Postman paused, brushing a stray hair from his face. The wind howled and swirled in icy intervals. “But why the artifice? We all know the drill, and I must confess, I’m a terrible dancer.”

“Oh you do yourself a disservice. I was speaking with Greta the other day – you remember her? college girlfriend, had that terrible car accident after you two split, and anyway, she had nothing but rave reviews for your moonwalk. The times have changed, you know, and salsa is just as good as break dancing, as far as I’m concerned.”

“Hmm, yes, that was some time ago. What’s she uh, doing for you nowadays?”

“Well she always had a way with words – ”

“Very true.”

“—and we make every effort to accommodate the talent we receive. No point in wasting a gift when we need every disembodied soul we can use.”

“Efficiency, sir, I do admire it.”

“Well anyway, we’ve employed her as a speechwriter.”

“Oh that seems like a perfect fit. She was a fantastic columnist back in the day, you know, for the college paper. But uh, for whom exactly is she writing speeches? I can’t imagine there’s much in the way of politics… down there.”

“Quite right, but there certainly is plenty of politicking up here, and we do need to meet our quotas”

“Quotas? I’m afraid you’ve lost me.”

“Your move, Postman. Anyway, it’s quite simple really. Our operation – like yours – depends on a certain rate of growth, which requires steadily increasing returns to maintain our margin. Now I’m really more of a neutral overseer. I don’t deal with the division that Greta’s been assigned to. I prefer to keep my hands dry and clean, if you follow me. But anyway, there’s a segment of our operation whose responsibility is quite simply to ensure that we hit our target numbers. That’s all.”

“I still don’t quite follow. My firm’s growth is based on sales, procuring government contracts, bribing politicians and the like, but we’re still subject to the shareholders and still have to produce something,” Postman replied.

“Quite right. And – “ Death winked slyly at Postman – “We are after all in the same general industry. Greta’s division is responsible for ensuring that we hit our numbers. Think of her as a PR person. Certainly you employ those too.”

“Oh hundreds of them, lobbyists too.”

“Naturally. Greta’s one of our stars actually. She cut her teeth with that Milosevic fellow, did some fine work there, we were all quite impressed. Since then, she’s been staffed with the old fart from Zimbabwe – what was his name?”

“Mugabe.”

“Ah yes, Mugabe. He’s one of our top field reps. Now I, of course, don’t explicitly condone any of this, you see, but the most important thing is to make sure we hit your numbers. As a man of industry, you must understand.”

“Yes, it makes more sense now. So why have you brought me here? Check, by the way.”

“Mm, yes, but you left your knight exposed. Well, we’ve been in business a while here now, and I’m thinking of taking you on as a sort of personal assistant.”

“I’m listening.”

“Well it’s a good position. Excellent pay, the best benefits, plenty of deferred stock option – don’t you think for a second that the underworld has experienced a real estate bubble. You want a villa on the banks of the Cocytus? Not cheap, my friend. You need connections and a good pile of oboloi.”

“What are the responsibilities?”

“Given your expertise, I was thinking of using you as a chief liaison to the U.S. Defense Department. Your contacts would be invaluable.” Death paused for a moment, focusing intently on the chessboard. With a flourish of his blanched wrist, he deftly knocked Postman’s king off the board and to the ground. The piece and the board slowly ebbed to a pale mist and evaporated. “Checkmate!”

“It would seem so. Say, what about my wife and kids?”

“Oh they’re not going anywhere for a time – think of it as providing for their future. You’ll have a good –“ Death pulls out a weathered black notebook and flips nimbly through the yellowed pages “—a good twenty years before you have to worry about her, and the kids have much more time. And just think – you’ll be working closely with Greta and the P.R. department, and there’s no place like hell to strike up an old flame,” Death chuckles.

“Well said, well said! A scotch?”

“Please.”

Postman pulled a bottle of Laphroaig 18-year and two whiskey glasses out a brown leather satchel that had been resting behind his chair. He calmly poured out two doubles – neat – and handed one to Death. Taking long slow sips, Postman stared out across the grey sea. After a short time, Death stood up, reached out a bony hand, and asked, “So do we have a deal?”

“It certainly looks that way.”

“Brilliant. Welcome aboard. We’ll take my private plane.”

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~ by Benji on 26 March 2009.

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