A Cappuccino with Charon, a short story by Thaddeus Howze
Fantasy: Short Story
Title: A Cappuccino with Charon
Author: Thaddeus Howze
Word count: 1332 words
I was sitting in my favorite coffee shop, dodging my workplace, when I saw Him come in. I wasn’t quite sure what I was seeing at first, because, well, this is San Francisco, and you are liable to see almost anything here. He was wearing the equivalent of a long ragged cloak, stained with age and reeking of an unspeakable odor.
It was the scent of a recently opened grave, and while I had not been near one in a while, I had put a dead raccoon in my garbage can once and left it there for a week in the hot sun. Worst thing I have ever smelled. I was only too happy when the garbage man came. It was worse than that. No one else seemed to notice.
His cloak hid is face, but it was safe to assume I didn’t really want to look too deep in there, anyway. He was carrying a pole with a strange watermark on it and two runnels near the top. His hands were strong looking, like a weightlifter’s, with veins running through them. I could not see much else of him, but he was big, much bigger than I had imagined him to be.
See, I figured this had to be the Boatman of the River Styx.
“Cappuccino,” he said in a scary baritone.
“Four seventy-five, please.”
“Surely you jest?” was his response.
He reached into his pocket and put pennies on the counter. Lots of pennies.
“Sir, we can’t take those.”
“They’re still currency, aren’t they?”
“Sir, they’re pennies.”
“I get paid in pennies.”
“Excuse me, miss, I will take care of this.” I found myself reaching into my pocket and paying with a five. “Keep the change.” The crowd was getting kind of hostile, and I wasn’t sure what might happen if he got pissed off. He looked at her, reached across the counter with his large, ham-like hand, and touched her chin.
“Rebecca Montez, angry boyfriend, six years from now, lamp. Unfortunate.” She looked at him as if he were crazy, but did not move. Almost as if she were under a spell.
He turned to me and said, “Thank you, Daniel Simmons.”
“How do you know my name?” I already knew the answer.
“I know all of your names.” That voice was really starting to work me. The rhythm of the shop resumed and people went back to typing.
“What are they seeing? How is it only I can see you?”
“Uh, that’s you.”
“Let’s sit and talk, Daniel Simmons.”
“Okaaaaay.” Didn’t like where this was going.
I sat down at the table and tried to hide my face behind the screen of my laptop so I could resist the temptation to look into his cowl. He reached across the table and closed my laptop, gently.
“So, Charon, can I call you Charon? What brings you up for coffee? And why is it no one else can see you?”
“Mmmmm. Good cappuccino. Very nice.” The cup disappeared into his cowl and did not come back out. “People deny their mortality. Part of my gift, people simply refuse to see Death for what it is, a part of Life. No one can see me because to them, I am some unfortunate hobo having coffee with an overdressed preppy. That would be you. As to why I am here? I need a guide, and since you can see me, you are volunteered.”
“And I can see you because?”
“Embolism, three weeks from now.”
Sobering. What could I know about that he would need a guide for?
“I am looking to franchise my infernal service.”
“Earth is very busy these days, lots of dying, and humans keep making new ways to kill each other off. I can’t keep up. Look at this bicep.” He pulled back his sleeve and showed me this massive arm that would not have looked out of place on the Incredible Hulk. “Go on, touch it.”
“Um, no thanks.”
“I used to be scraps of bone and flesh; now I have biceps from pushing that thing.” He points outside the window.
For a moment I saw the flash of a large gondola-like boat, about the size of an eighteen wheeler. Off in the distance, I could see people, thousands of them, tens of thousands, standing patiently, wearing clothing from what looked like medieval times. When I looked harder, I could see dozens of different eras standing and waiting patiently for their turn to cross into the Afterlife. Then the street returned to its mundane appearance.
“Yes, I just cleared the backlog from the Black Plague last week. Do you know how long it takes to move seventy five million people by gondola? But I still have the Civil War, the Spanish Flu, World Wars I and II, Korea and every other little bush conflict modern governments feel justified in creating.” He was starting to sound a little hysterical and maybe pissed off.
“Uh, what about other death-oriented entities like yourself? Aren’t there others out there harvesting the dead?”
“Valkyries are still working, but they only want the valiant dead, so they swoop in and pluck one guy out of thousands, put him on their flying horse and they’re gone. I’ve tried shouting out, ‘Hey, you could grab a few more,’ but they keep mentioning something about Valhalla having a quality assurance clause, and then they’re gone.
When I complained to the Niflheim Residency Committee, they indicated they aren’t responsible for all of these people. They closed their doors when the last of the Vikings bought the farm. Something about Niflheim having a purity standard.”
“There are certainly other death agents, yes?”
“Heaven only takes devout Christians. Let’s just say that number isn’t going up. Same with the other sects. People don’t seem to have a desire for really rigid religious structures anymore, so most of those places are closing their doors, or waiting for a management decision from on high. Hell, well, it’s just overflowing. They even changed the sign. Used to say ‘Abandon hope all ye who enter here.’ Now it says, ‘Abandon hope all ye who thought to enter here. Entry denied due to overcrowding.’ So, I keep going, moving the Dead into their afterlife of Last Resort. But I am starting to fall behind, so I hoped someone here might have some idea how to franchise this operation.”
“So you’re hoping to find people willing to help you ferry the Dead, for a fee. What kind of benefits would you be offering? You need a good benefits package if you are trying to recruit these days.”
“I am not trying to enter into management. I do not want to take responsibility for their work. I want to hand off a section of the workload to other interested parties.”
“That’s the problem. Who’s going to be interested in buying into a business where your job is to move the Dead across the River Styx into the Afterlife of Last Resort? What do they get out of the deal?”
“As long as they work for the Company, they can avoid dying of anything, as long as they manage their company effectively. If I have to pick up their slack, I will carry them across the Threshold myself. I am not interested in who they hire, as long as they get the job done.”
“Effectively immortal, long term job security, open hours, free hand in hiring, no micromanaging. I think I am going to quit my job. Okay, what’s the cost to buy into this program?”
This guy has no money sense. How can you run a business on two pennies a soul? “Okay, first things first. We’re going to get you a suit and a bath. After that we are going to work together is to increase the cost of dying. What we need to do is get a cut of the funeral home business…””